Bush creates panel on oceans’ health
WASHINGTON – President Bush created a White House panel to consider ways to better manage marine fish populations, regulate pollution and more thoroughly examine future threats to ocean life. But some environmentalists charged that Bush is moving too slowly and timidly to address what they called a serious environmental crisis off the coasts of the United States.
Responding to recommendations of a presidential commission that spent nearly three years investigating ways to restore the oceans to health, Bush on Friday issued an executive order to begin revising the nation’s policies through a Cabinet-level Committee on Ocean Policy.
The commission, which issued its final report three months ago, said the nation’s fisheries are in trouble and that the federal government must change how it manages the seas and must spend more on ocean research and conservation within the next five years.
The United States spends $8 billion on ocean-related activities each year. The new committee will begin reviewing government programs dealing with everything from protecting coral reefs off the Florida coast to managing fisheries, according to James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality.
Connaughton, who will head the committee, told reporters the president wants “strong management from the top” for the 4.5 million square miles of ocean under U.S. jurisdiction.
Connaughton said the White House will act immediately on 40 of the commission’s 200-plus recommendations, although most of these actions will not lead to noticeable changes in the nation’s oceans policies. The White House did not offer an opinion on some of the most sweeping proposed changes, including creating a $4 billion trust fund for new ocean initiatives.
The fund would require congressional approval and would be financed by diverting about 80 percent of the government’s oil and gas royalties.
Retired Adm. James Watkins, who chaired the commission, has warned that it would be a tough sell politically because lawmakers prefer tapping those funds for other programs.
The only new funding Connaughton announced was $2.7 million that will be requested in the fiscal 2006 budget for coral reef improvements in Florida and elsewhere. He said it is unclear how much the other 39 changes will cost.
“For the president and the administration to recognize there is a crisis in the oceans is an important step,” said Leon Panetta, the White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration, who has been a strong advocate for a new policy. “One can quarrel with the (details), but I have to look at this as a good first step.”
Some environmentalists said they are pleased the president has taken initiatives to address the ocean’s current plight, but others said the White House is not devoting enough money or attention to the problem.
Sarah Chasis, director of water and coastal programs at the Natural Resources Defense Council, said the new committee needs “clear policy direction” from the president and questioned why the administration is not doing more to reform fishery management councils.