Most Recent Action  Action in 106th Congress Background  Recent Hearings 

Oceans Legislation (7-24-02)

Oceans cover approximately 71% of the Earth's surface and are the basis for many earth systems, including climate and weather.  The ocean also contains most of the Earth's biomass, with 80% of all known phyla found only in the oceans.  Yet, we know more about outer space than marine systems.  Many advances in research capabilities have been made that have led to enormous advances in our understanding of marine and coastal systems.  But deployments of new technology have not increased proportionally, leaving the United States far behind other nations--such as Japan, France, New Zealand, and even Ireland--in national ocean exploration and observation programs of our home waters.  Oceans have recently received congressional attention both for their preservation and scientific value.  Congress is beginning to consider creating a national ocean program that would be responsible for an historic research and exploration undertaking.

Most Recent Action
On June 27, 2002, the House Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans held an oversight hearing on the Coral Reef Conservation Act, Executive Order 13089, and the oceanic conditions contributing to coral decline. Witnesses who testified included both administrators and scientists from the Department of the Interior, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, The Ocean Conservancy, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, Kansas Geological Survey, and Florida Institute of Oceanography. (7/24/02)

On February 7, 2002, the House Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans marked up H.R. 3577, which reauthorizes the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972. H.R. 3577 reauthorizes Coastal Resources Improvement Grants with a ratio of federal to state contribution equal to 2 to 1.  Coastal Zone Management Funds and coastal services such as education and technical services are also reauthorized by the bill.  In addition, the bill would establish a National Estuarine Reserve System (NERS) that designates existing sanctuaries as national reserves.  The NERS would promote research, education and stewardship of the national reserves.  The Subcommittee amended and passed the bill by unanimous voice vote, forwarding the bill to the full committee for consideration.  (2/20/02)

On September 17, 2001, the president's Commission on Ocean Policy wrapped up the first of a series of meetings in Washington, D.C.  These meetings signify the first federal review of ocean policy since the Stratton Commission's comprehensive set of recommendations for a national ocean policy in 1969.  The new commission is chaired by former Secretary of Energy Admiral James D. Watkins, USN (Ret.), and faces a set of issues much more complex that those of the 1960's.  Some of the issues on the agenda are marine pollution, dwindling coral reefs, climate change, endangered marine life, and ever-increasing human coastal populations.  In addition, the Oceans Act of 2000 charged the commission with a list of responsibilities including assessing ocean-related facilities and technologies, recommending changes to U.S. ocean law, and reviewing duplicative federal ocean activities.  Environmental groups urged the commission to focus on the management and conservation of resources, and expressed their disappointment when there were no representatives from an environmental organization on the list of 16 panel members, which represent government, academic, and industry groups.  The new commission has not yet announced a mission statement or appointed an executive director.  (9/19/01)

The Ocean Conservancy (TOC), formerly the Center for Marine Conservation, has been pushing to add the category of "ocean wilderness" to the variety of designations that the US has for protecting marine resources.  The group's mission is to protect 5% of America's oceans as wilderness, using similar restrictions currently imposed on terrestrial national wilderness areas.  The latest addition of ocean area towards this goal is the Tortugas Ecological Reserve, an area about 151 square nautical miles west of the Florida Keys.  Under the current system, the Tortugas area is classified as a "no take" area.  Although TOC leaders say they do not have short-term plans to push the ocean wilderness designation to be legislated, a June 20, 2001, Greenwire article reported that they may deem it necessary in the future.  The Bush administration has expressed its support of the Clinton administration's executive order on marine protected areas.

On July 12, 2001, three House subcommittees met to hear testimony on increased ocean observation and the implementation of a federally sponsored ocean observing system.  Other goals of the hearing were to examine the need to coordinate coastal observing systems in different parts of the country, and to review the Report of the President's Panel on Ocean Exploration and its recommendations.  The three chairmen of the respective subcommittees, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) from the Environment, Technology, and Standards Subcommittee; Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) from the Research Subcommittee, and Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) from the Fisheries, Conservation, Wildlife, and Oceans Subcommittee, co-chaired the hearing.  The extensive and diverse panel included representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the US Navy, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Monterey Bay AquariumFull text of available opening statements and witness testimony is available at the House of Representatives website.


Summary of Hearings on Ocean Policy (7/24/02)


House Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans
Oversight Hearing on the Coral Reef Conservation Act of 2000, Executive Order 13089, and the Oceanic Conditions Contributing to Coral Reef Decline

June 27, 2002

The Bottom Line
The significant decline of coral reef ecosystems in the past few decades has prompted concern for coral reef conservation. Two important events in 2000 were passage of the Coral Reef Conservation Act (CRCA) and President Clinton's Executive Order 13089. Major outcomes include the creation of the National Coral Reef Action Strategy, a conservation grant program, and the interagency U.S. Coral Reef Task Force. The success and shortfalls since the implementation of these two actions, as well as an update on the current climate change impacts on coral reefs, were the topics of discussion at a recent hearing. On June 27, 2002, the House Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife and Oceans, chaired by Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), heard from two panels of administrators and scientists. Overall, the panel members agreed that the CRCA and the E.O. positively impacted and strengthened US coral reef conservation efforts. Many also agreed, however, that more action is required in order to further the success, especially in light of the harmful effects of climate change. Thus, continued action, revitalizing current efforts, and more effective coordination between involved groups, were some of the main issues brought to the attention of the members.

Members Present
Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), Neil Abercrombie (D-HI)

Hearing Summary
In his opening statement, Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) elaborated on the current coral reef ecosystem dilemma by stating how anthropogenic impacts and the link between climate change with coral die-offs are major components to the unprecedented coral ecosystem declines. Voicing his support for coral reef conservation, Gilchrest stated, "it would be a national tragedy and a monumental mistake if we lost our nation's coral reefs--our rainforests of the ocean." He believed that the issue of coral reef decline should not be ignored by policy-makers, especially with the growing wealth of scientific evidence. He also emphasized the need to increase efforts and the sharing of knowledge to improve conservation efforts.

The first panel consisted of three administrators representing government agencies as well as a private organization. The first panelist to speak was Craig Manson, Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife and Parks of the Department of the Interior (DOI) and Co-chairman of the US Coral Reef Task Force. The focus of Manson's testimony was to describe the various programs and recent accomplishments related to coral reefs within the Task Force and the Department of the Interior's U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), National Park Service (NPS), US Geological Survey (USGS), Office of Insular Affairs (OIA), and the Minerals Management Service (MMS). He stated that the DOI has a responsibility as the nation's primary steward, and thus is, "committed to working toward more effective, coordinated responses to coral reef protection." He stated that coral reefs will become a higher priority as the DOI is increasing its efforts in response to E.O. 13089. Manson also stated the need for increased understanding on how the factors of coral reef degradation interact. He said that "compartmentalization and fragmentation of actions have led to less than full effectiveness." As co-chair of the Task Force, he also hopes DOI will lead in coordinating protection efforts with other federal and state agencies, and other nations.

The second panelist was Timothy Keeney, Deputy Assistant for Oceans and Atmosphere at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). His remarks focused on summarizing NOAA's efforts to implement the CRCA and E.O. 13089, and providing suggestions for the future. Major activities supported by NOAA in fiscal year 2002 in response to CRCA and the E.O. include coral reef mapping, monitoring and research, increasing the effectiveness of marine protection areas, reducing impacts of fishing, supporting fishery management plans, reducing pollution, response and restoration, and reducing global threats. He stated that continuation of progress will require: "continuing action, coordination, and evaluation by federal agencies, states, territorial governments, other nations, and non-governmental organizations," and the need to "focus on using all of the management tools at our disposal."

The third panelist was Jack A. Sobel, Senior Director for Ecosystem Protection for The Ocean Conservancy (TOC). Sobel's testimony stressed corals as "among our most biological valuable, fragile, and endangered ecosystems on Earth." He identified the CRCA and the E.O. as administrative and legislative tools for coral reef protection. In his overall evaluation of the CRCA and the E.O., he said each had positive and significant impacts on the coral reef ecosystem health, but have yet to reverse the decline. His recommendations included: the need for new authorities either under a "framework of regional marine protection or coral reef-specific directives," for the administration to recommit with strong congressional support to E.O. 13089 and CRCA, and for an increase in funding level.

The second panel consisted of four scientists. The first witness to speak was Dr. Anne Cohen, Research Associate at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. Her testimony focused on how coral reef ecosystems are being threatened by increased sea surface temperature (SST) due to increased greenhouse gas emissions. A major problem related to increasing SST Cohen identified was coral bleaching. Therefore, Cohen recommended "globally coordinat[ed] actions to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions to a level that avoids dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system."

Alan Strong, team leader and project manager of the NOAA Coral Reef Watch Program, stated that the observed increase in frequency of SST rise and coral bleaching are caused by climate change driven weather events. More research is needed to understand the links between bleaching, SST anomalies, and short term climate variations. He pointed out how NOAA environmental satellites, used to observe and monitor climate trends, provided important information on the health of the coral reefs. He hopes that NOAA will be able to continue their research efforts as well as enhance current abilities.

Dr. Robert Buddemeier, senior scientist of the Kansas Geological Survey at the University of Kansas, discussed the interplay between climate, the marine environment, and coral reef ecosystems, and how climate change is the major factor for the observed coral reef bleachings. He believed that current efforts of coral reef protection, monitoring, and research are not good enough, and also stressed the need for international cooperation as well as the need for increased funding.

The final panelist was Dr. John Ogden, Director of the Florida Institute of Oceanography and Professor of Biology at University of South Florida. Ogden also discussed how human activities are negatively impacting the coral reef ecosystems. His recommendations included the need for adequate funding for the National Action Plan, use of the E.O. on Marine Protected Areas, and creating educational programs informing the public about the coral reef dilemma.

During the question and answering session, Gilchrest stated that due to the urgency of the matter, government officials need to take the current knowledge along with a "certain amount of prudence" to take bold steps towards a deliberate national policy addressing coral reefs. He also stressed the need for an encompassing and comprehensive effort, especially between the various agencies involved. Gilchrest asked the witnesses if there are any coral reefs currently recovering from human impacts. Keeney responded that some of the reefs in the Florida Keys were recovering, mainly due to impact regulations. Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-HI) questioned whether coral harvesting impacted the health of the corals reefs. Keeney replied that harvesting is strictly regulated, but a larger issue was that the US is the largest importer of harvested corals. Rep. Abercrombie also questioned the coral mapping efforts outside the US, and Keeney responded that currently the USGS lacks the funds for international mapping efforts, but possesses the capability to do so.

See full text of written testimonies at House Resources Subcommittee website.

-EMK


Joint Oversight Hearing on Ocean Exploration, and the Development and Implementation of Coastal and Ocean Observing Systems
House Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Conservation, Wildlife, and Oceans; and House Science Subcommittees on Environment, Technology, and Standards, and Research
July 12, 2001

The Bottom Line
On July 12, 2001, three House subcommittees met to hear testimony on increased ocean observation and the implementation of a federally sponsored ocean observing system.  Other goals of the hearing were to examine the need to coordinate coastal observing systems in different parts of the country, and to review the Report of the President's Panel on Ocean Exploration and its recommendations.  The three chairmen of the respective subcommittees, Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) from the Environment, Technology, and Standards Subcommittee; Rep. Nick Smith (R-MI) from the Research Subcommittee, and Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) from the Fisheries, Conservation, Wildlife, and Oceans Subcommittee, co-chaired the hearing.  The extensive and diverse panel included representatives from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the National Science Foundation (NSF), the US Navy, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, and the Monterey Bay AquariumFull text of available opening statements and witness testimony is available at the House of Representatives website.

Hearing Summary
In their opening remarks, the chairmen provided evaluations of the current status of ocean observation and exploration, citing work by past Congresses such as the creation of the National Ocean Partnership Program.  They called for action and funding authorization for the long-needed observing system.  Ranking Member of the House Science Subcommittee on Research, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), emphasized the coordination of federal agencies as vital to the project.

From the first panel, Mr. Scott B. Gudes, Acting Undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere for NOAA, spoke about the importance of developing a national program of exploration and observation that would be able to evaluate the oceans as a whole and provide a context for the small-scale projects that NOAA pursues on a regular basis.  Gudes outlined three objective for the program: ocean exploration, coastal observing, and ocean observing.  The panels distinguished observation from exploration by clarifying that the goal of observation systems for both the coast and the oceans would be to detect, track, and predict changes as well as collect data within the context of research and scientific investigations.  Exploration has the much broader objective of general study that may in turn provoke new research projects.  Rita Colwell, Director of the National Science Foundation (NSF), next showed a deep ocean video destined for an IMAX movie that was the result of NSF work, emphasizing the many undiscovered features of the world's oceans.  One of the features seen in the video were black smokers recently found on the ocean floor.  Named for the soot-like appearance of the ejected material billowing out of the chimneys, the hydrothermal vents are home to bacteria that are able to live in the harsh conditions by metabolizing sulfur.

Two representatives from the US Navy were the next to speak.  Admiral Jay Cohen, Chief of the Office of Naval Research, spoke from a national security perspective, stating that the oceans are the last great frontier.  Although the Navy's research offices are continually collecting data, Cohen advocated the need for a national exploration and observation program to "discover new phenomena and illuminate the ocean's mysteries."  Retired Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, President of the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education, indicated that we are currently at a crossroad in the ocean sciences, and that the US has the opportunity to use the knowledge that the oceans hold to advance many areas of current study--including national security, energy research, and the fields of geology, biology, and chemistry.

The second panel of witnesses spoke to the committee about other aspects of the proposed national ocean observation and exploration program.  Dr. Marcia McNutt, President and CEO of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and also president of the American Geophysical Union, addressed specifics of a potential exploration program--such as where scientists should explore, who should be involved, how much the US should invest in the program, and when the program should begin.  In answer to the question of why the US should undertake such a program, McNutt simply replied that the ocean is essential to life on Earth, but 95% of it is unexplored.  Dr. Robert Ballard, President of the Institute for Exploration, based his advocacy for the program on examples of advancements that various types of exploration projects have brought about in the past.  Ballard mentioned past exploration projects, such as the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which have led to many of the great discoveries of our time.  Beyond exploration and utilization of the ocean's many resources, Ballard also advocated study for the purpose of preservation, much like the wilderness areas and national parks today.

Both Ballard and McNutt pointed out that a major tool necessary for a program of this nature and magnitude would be an ocean-going exploratory vessel equipped with all the latest scientific tools, such as submersible vehicles and navigation and telecommunications equipment.  Another important facet of such a program would be coordination of federal agencies, both between each other and with universities, industries, and research bodies in the private sector.

The third panel of witnesses also gave their rationale for a national ocean observing and exploration program.  Dr. Robert Weller, Director of the Cooperative Institute for Climate and Ocean Research at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, emphasized that the lack of central organization currently present in ocean research needs to be addressed in order to create a successful program.  Weller also discussed the critical role of oceans in the global climate system, an issue currently of great concern for both Congress and the public.  Dr. Frederick Grassle, Director of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences at Rutgers University, also pointed out that a national oceans program could improve weather forecasting, improve safety and efficiency of marine operations such as boating, fishing, and transportation, and improve both public awareness and scientific understanding of coastal and marine habitats.

Dr. Alfred Beeton, Senior Science Advisor at NOAA, also brought the Great Lakes into the discussion by stating that the inclusion of the Great Lakes into oceans legislation would benefit the nation and the region.  Much like the oceans, study of the Great Lakes has been short-term and sporadic, resulting in an incomplete understanding of the marine and coastal system as a whole.  The last speaker, Dr. Alexander Malahoff, Director of the Hawaii Undersea Research Laboratory at the University of Hawaii, emphasized that investment in an ocean program would benefit all sectors of society with interest and investment in the oceans.  Malahoff also asserted that the US could take this opportunity to place itself at the forefront of all maritime technology.

-CMO

Please send any comments or requests for information to the AGI Government Affairs Program at govt@agiweb.org.

Contributed by AGI/AIPG/AAPG Geoscience and Policy Interns: Caetie Ofiesh (Summer 2001), Catherine Macris (Fall 2001), Heather Golding (Spring 2002), and Evelyn Kim (Summer 2002).

Posted August 2, 2001;  Updated July 24, 2002


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