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Oceans Legislation (10-18-04)

Oceans cover approximately 71% of the Earth's surface and are an integral part of many earth systems, including climate and weather. The oceans also contain 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 many are concerned that deployments of new technology have not increased proportionally and will leave the United States far behind other nations in ocean exploration and observation programs. Oceans have recently received congressional attention both for their ecological preservation and scientific value.

Most Recent Action

The White House Council on Environmental Quality Interagency Ocean Policy Group (IOPG) is welcoming folks from across the country to submit comments on the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy Final Report. Comments must be submitted prior to November 1, 2004. Because the IOPG has access to the public comments submitted to the Commission on its Preliminary Report, which was released on April 20, 2004, the IOPG is seeking specific comments on the changes introduced in the Final Report. Information on how to submit comments is provided at

James Connaughton, the Chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, is the designated leader in preparing an Administration response to the Commission's report. Information on the Administration's actions in response to the report can be found at (10/18/04)

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation held a markup hearing on July 22nd, which included S. 2280, the National Ocean Exploration Program Act and S. 2488, the Marine Debris Research and Reduction Act. These bills were unanimously adopted on a voice vote with a block of bills at the beginning of the markup. S. 2280, introduced by Senator Stevens (R-AK), seeks to establish an ocean exploration program within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), who would be charged with coordinating federal and nongovernment cooperation. The bill would authorize $45 million annually FY05 through FY10 and $55 million annually FY11 through FY16. Senator Inouye (D-HI) introduced S. 2488, which would help reduce and prevent marine debris through a program jointly operated by NOAA and the Coast Guard. $10 million would be authorized for the Commerce Department (where NOAA is located) for FY05 and the Coast Guard would be authorized at $5 million for FY05.

Senator Holling's (D-SC) bill, S. 2647, which would create an organic act for NOAA, was pulled from the agenda two days before the markup to allow more time for comment. The markup up was initially believed to be the last one of the year, but Senator Hollings may have another opportunity to bring the bill before the Committee as members were unable to vote on all of the bills on the agenda. The Committee was forced to adjourn after two hours due to Senator Wyden (D-OR), who invoked Senate rule XXVI(5)(a) that prohibits committees from meeting after the Senate has been in session for two hours. The use of this rule in the Committee was unprecedented and unrelated to the oceans bills. Senator Wyden objected to the nomination of Deborah Majoras as chair of the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and Commerce Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) was forced to end the markup after Wyden invoked the two-hour rule.

The House Oceans Caucus also introduced their comprehensive oceans legislation, H.R. 4900, titled "Oceans-21". It was originally sponsored by Rep. Farr (D-CA), but is not sponsored by the co-chair of the Oceans Caucus, Rep. Greenwood (R-PA). The Oceans-21 bill, similar to Holling's bill, contains an organic act for NOAA with an ecosystem-based management approach. Oceans-21 would keep NOAA in the Department of Commerce, but would request an executive branch report that would investigate creating a new department of natural resources. Additionally, Rep. Greenwood introduced H.R. 4897, a deep-sea coral protection bill that is a companion to S. 1953 by Senator Lautenberg (D-NJ). This bill would establish Coral Management Areas to protect deep-sea coral concentrations, prohibit destructive fishing gear use, and increase funding for the research and mapping of coral. Rep. Rahall (D-WV) authored H.R. 4706 that would seek to reform the regional fishery management councils that set fishing quotas, a subject not addressed in the Oceans-21 legislation. The bill would increase representation of conservation and scientific advisory groups on these councils, and is currently pending before the Resources Committee. (7/23/04)

Previous Actions

The Senate Foreign Relations Committee held a hearing at the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea on October 14th. Chaired by Senator Richard Lugar (R-IN), the Committee sought to continue the work that began so long ago to produce a comprehensive international framework governing the use of the world's oceans. In his opening statement, Chairman Lugar said, "The Law of the Sea Convenion has great potential to advance U.S. interests related to the navigation of the seas, the productive use of their resources, and the protection of the marine environment." (1/20/04)

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee has been busy with oceans legislation in the past few months, passing the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Reauthorization Act (S. 1401) in July and the Oceans and Human Health Act (S. 1218) in June. Sen. John McCain's (R-AZ) NOAA Reauthorization Act was passed after being amended by ranking Democrat, Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-SC) to increase the authorization by an additional $1.2 billion for the 2004 and 2005 fiscal years. The National Oceanic Service would receive $469 million more under the Hollings Amendment than it would under the underlying McCain bill. George W. Bush's administration does not support Hollings' increases but does support several other amendments to the bill that would authorize a NOAA marine lab in South Carolina, encourage coordination between the Commerce and Defense departments in tracking hurricanes and typhoons, and study the placement of radar facilities in the West.

Hollings's Oceans and Human Health Act would create a national program to coordinate interagency research in such fields as biomedical research, climatology, genomics and ecology. The bill supports research on the interaction between human health and the marine environment, and contains a provision that would authorize $80 million for a new NOAA oceans and human health initiative. A committee would be formed of representatives from NOAA, the National Science Foundation, the National Institute for Environmental Health Services, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Defense Department. The committee would be expected to develop a 10-year plan detailing the research program's execution.

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee also passed Sen. Olympia Snowe's (R-ME) Ocean Observation and Coastal Systems Act (S. 1400) on the same day as the NOAA reauthorization bill. Snowe's bill would create a national monitoring and management system for marine data and a research program meant to enhance security at domestic seaports. The proposed system is based on the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observing System (GoMOOS), a network of 10 buoys that provide real-time oceanographic data to the public. Groups served by such a network include commercial mariners, coastal management planners, search and rescue teams, scientists, educators, and public health officials. The committee authorized $200 million for the program in fiscal year 2004.

The Pews Oceans Commission study released in June of 2003 calls for a National Ocean Policy Act and the creation of an independent agency to oversee such policy. Entitled "America's Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change," the report blames the state of the world's oceans on overfishing, overdevelopment in coastal areas and pollution runoff, which have been inadequately controlled under the US's "hodgepodge" of 140 different oceans management laws. The study requested national EPA standards for nutrient runoff pollution and stricter limits on pollution from animal feeding operations and cruise ships. The government was also encouraged to protect coastal habitats and promote "smart land use." (7-23-03)

On April 30, 2003, House Science Subcommittee on Environment, Technology, and Standards Chairman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI) introduced H.R. 1856 to reauthorize the Harmful Algal Bloom and Hypoxia Research Amendments Act of 1998. Harmful algal blooms, commonly called red tide, are caused by the rapid growth of toxic algae that are dangerous to aquatic and human life. Not all algal blooms, however, are produced by toxic algae. When the algae mats die, they can deplete the water of oxygen to levels that may suffocate or harm aquatic organisms. In a press release, Ehlers said: "We know that harmful algal blooms are a real threat to human health and the environment, but we have a lot to learn about what causes these blooms and what we can do to prevent them. This legislation will help us answer those questions." The bill was refered to the House Science Committee and the House Resources Committee. Related legislation in the Senate, S. 937, was introduced the day before by Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH) and refered to the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. (5/1/03)

On March 27, 2003, the House Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries, Conservation, Wildlife, and Oceans held a hearing on three related ocean bills -- H.R. 958 that authorizes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to acquire or lease a new vessel to conduct hydrographic services, H.R. 959 that authorizes NOAA's oceanographic programs, and H.R. 984 that reenacts and clarifies provisions of NOAA's reorganization plan. Vice Admiral Conrad Lautenbacher, Undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere at NOAA, and Dr. James Baker, President and Chief Executive Officer at the Academy of Natural Sciences (and former Undersecretary for Oceans and Atmosphere at NOAA during the Clinton Administration) both testified in favor of the bills with only a few minor reservations that they agreed could be worked out with the subcommittee. For additional information see AGI's Summary of Hearings on Ocean Policy. (3/31/03)

On April 20th the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy released its long-awaited report on the state of the world's oceans. The report recommends reorganizing the fragmented system of federal oversight by consolidating much of the ocean management authority within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which contains both the National Marine Fisheries Service and the National Ocean Service. The report contains over 200 recommendations for Congress and cabinet agencies. The commission recommends moving ocean management toward an "ecosystem-based" model that respects natural boundaries rather than political ones. According to Greenwire, Lee Crocket, Executive Director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, said, "This nonpartisan report… [that] should erase all doubt that science is conclusive - our oceans are at their breaking point."

One of the most important recommendations of the commission is for the president to create a National Ocean Council within the White House by executive order. This council would be overseen by an assistant to the president for ocean policy and would play a significant role in coordinating ocean policy efforts on federal, state and local levels. The report also recommends that NOAA be given the lead role in ocean and coastal management, although the Environmental Protection Agency and the Army Corps of Engineers would still have some oversight. In addition, the commission recommends that NOAA be the lead agency for overseeing marine aquaculture and that a new office of sustainable aquaculture be established within NOAA. According to Greenwire, the commission report states that "While new scientific understanding has taught us that natural systems are complex and interconnected, our decision making and management systems have not been updated to address that complexity and interconnectedness."

Funding this new venture will be an issue in this tight fiscal climate. The report recommends using revenues generated by outer continental shelf (OCS) oil and gas revenues by establishing an Ocean Policy Trust Fund, similar to the Highway Trust Fund. Federal revenue from OCS activities would be invested in grants to coastal states and states where OCS drilling takes place would receive a greater share of funds to help pay for environmental cleanup costs. The commission also recommends doubling the federal ocean and coastal research budget over the next five years. Funding would go from $650 million in 2004 to $1.3 billion in 2008. If all of the commissions recommendations were adopted, it would cost $1.3 billion the first year, $2.4 billion the second and $3.2 billion in the third. Commission chairman and retired Navy Admiral James Watkins told Greenwire "[That is] a very reasonable investment in view of the value generated by ocean and coastal industries."

Lastly, the commission recommends building an Integrated Ocean Observing System to monitor the oceans. The system would be a central part of the Earth Observation System, which is currently under development by the U.S. and nearly 50 other nations.

Public comments on the Ocean Commission's preliminary report are being accepted until May 21, 2004. The full report and instructions for submitting comments are available at: (4/26/04)

On April 22nd the Senate Commerce-Justice-State Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) budget, held a hearing to discuss the recently released U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy report. Senator Judd Gregg (R-NH), chairman of the Senate Commerce-Justice-State Appropriations Subcommittee, was extremely concerned about funding for these new recommendations. Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) was also uneasy about funding. He asked Commission Chairman and retired Navy Admiral James Watkins for a list of funding priorities emphasizing, "I'm very worried about the funding stream for this." Watkins replied that a good strategy would be for Congress or the president to establish the National Oceans Council and give it about $400 million. The council would then be required to submit a list of spending priorities to Congress before allocating any of the funds.

Senator Fritz Hollings (D-SC) voiced concerns over the proposal to rely on a National Oceans Council rather than recommending a new independent oceans agency. Senator Hollings fears that Cabinet secretaries and agency administrators would likely ignore the council due to higher priorities. Watkins responded that trying to create a new agency would consume too much time and overshadow the commissions numerous other recommendations. He added that the National Oceans Council structure would allow the White House to submit an integrated oceans budget to Congress that would link the oceans activities of the 14 federal agencies that currently deal with ocean policy. (4/26/04)

The National Governors Association has requested an additional 60 days after May 21st to review and respond to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy's report released in April. NGA spokeswoman Patti Dorr cites both the complexity of the document and the potentially dramatic impacts of the recommendations on certain states as reasons for the extension request. (5/19/04)

In the wake of preliminary recommendations made by the U.S. National Commission on Ocean Policy (NCOP) wherein the commission recommended expanding National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to become the lead agency in oceans management for the nation, Representative Jim Saxton (R-NJ) introduced H.R. 4368, the Weather and Oceans Resources Realignment Act, on May 13th. This bill would shift the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association from the Commerce Department to the Interior Department.

There have been several failed attempts during the last three decades to reshape NOAA. According to the first NOAA Administrator, Robert White, NOAA was originally slated to reside in the Interior Department, and not in the Commerce Department, but it has succeeded in spite of this fact. In making their recommendations, the NCOP acknowledged the "political complexity associated with any reorganization of the executive branch agencies." Regardless, the House Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries Conservation, Wildlife, and Oceans is likely to hold a hearing on the bill in June despite doubts that any final decisions regarding H.R. 4368 or the NCOP report will be made by the end of the legislative session this year. (5/26/04)

A report issued in April by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy recommended legislation be adopted that would clearly outline the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's (NOAA) responsibilities and emphasize an ecosystem-based management approach. In response, the Bush administration submitted a proposal last week to restructure the agency. Since 1970, the agency has been operating without a congressional mandate. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), Chairman of the House Environment, Technology, and Standards Subcommittee, has also prepared an organic act for NOAA, which is expected to be introduced sometime next week.

Both of the proposals plan to organize NOAA into thematic categories to ensure the agency is able to efficiently oversee the nation's ocean resources. These plans include a structure for NOAA that is similar to the one currently in place, with an undersecretary serving as the head and an assistant secretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere. The legislation proposed by Ehlers would also include a science coordinator to oversee 26 research subject areas and encourage better coordination among them. The proposal submitted by the administration is less specific than Ehlers' bill because they want to allow for future changes in the agency.

The Bush administration's proposal also mandated that NOAA would be responsible for studies and observations related to the near-space environment. The Space Environment Center in Boulder, Colorado currently achieves this goal by monitoring space weather and solar storms, but has recently experienced cuts in funding due to some congressional appropriators who do not believe this endeavor fits NOAA's mission. However, in their FY '05 budget, the administration has requested $5.3 million be transferred from the Office of Atmospheric and Oceanic Research to the Space Environment Center to keep the it running and providing valuable data to the nation. The Science Subcommittee has said it will work to integrate the two proposals to find the best way to restructure NOAA. (6/18/04)

Both the House and Senate have recently been working on oceans legislation in response to April's U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy report that called for the creation of an organic act for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). On July 13th, Senator Hollings (D-SC) introduced two bills, S. 2647 and S. 2648, that are intended to reform ocean policy. S. 2647 specifically addresses structural reforms to NOAA's management, which would include an assistant administrator for ocean management operations and one for climate and atmosphere. They would be in charge of avoiding the duplication of resources, a common problem when numerous departments are involved in the same issue. Holling's bill focuses on interagency coordination, establishing a NOAA office of intergovernmental affairs. The organic act proposed in this bill would also establish a five-member Council on Ocean Stewardship within the Executive Office of the President to coordinate federal ocean and atmospheric budgets and create a panel of outside experts to advise the president on ocean and climate issues. This idea deviates from the creation of a National Ocean Council recommended by the Ocean Commission. This council would consist of Cabinet secretaries that would set national goals for governing the oceans. Hollings feared a group like this would largely be ignored by White House officials and add an unnecessary level of bureaucracy. S. 2647 also proposes moving NOAA out of the Commerce Department after a two-year transition period, when it would become an independent agency or department. Hollings argued that oceanic and atmospheric issues are important enough to warrant this request. The Ocean Commission did not include such a move in its recommendation because of the difficulty involved, but Hollings hopes the provision will be supported by the Committee.

The House has also introduced two bills addressing a NOAA organic act, H.R. 4546 and H.R. 4607. Both were introduced by Environment, Technology and Standards Subcommittee Chair Ehlers (R-MI).The two bills are similar to those proposed by the Senate, with H.R. 4546 focusing more on administrative and organizational issues and H.R. 4607 concentrating on broader mission goals for NOAA. The bills are expected to be condensed into one bill before going to a vote in the House.

Two other oceans bills are expected to be marked up by the Senate Commerce Committee next week. S. 2280, introduced by Senator Stevens (R-AK) deals with ocean exploration and S. 2488, introduced by Senator Inouye (D-HI) deals with marine debris. Senator Barbara Boxer (D-CA) may also introduce an ocean policy reform bill next week. Representative Farr (D-CA), along with other members of the House Oceans Caucus, has plans to unveil their "Big Oceans Bill" next week as well. His version of the bill does not include a transfer of NOAA and will form the National Ocean Council as recommended by the Ocean Commission. (7/16/04)


The Marine Resources and Engineering Development Act of 1966 was the first legislation to define a national ocean policy. The Act created a commission -- commonly referred to as the Stratton Commission after its chairman Dr. Julius Stratton -- that examined development, utilization, and preservation of the marine environment. In 1969, the Stratton Commission submitted a report to Congress entitled Our Nation and the Sea. Recommendations from the report led to the creation of the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and laid the foundation for the Coastal Zone Management Act, and Fishery Conservation and Management Act.

In 1998, the International Year of the Ocean, a number of changes in ocean use were recognized, including a rise in the nation's population living near coasts and increased development of ocean resources. These changes were accompanied by new scientific discoveries that were changing the nation's perception of oceans, namely that oceans and coasts are not boundless as previously believed, but have limits making them vulnerable to pollution and other human activities. In light of the increasing complex environmental threats and legal framework related to oceans, Congress passed the Oceans Act of 2000. The act established a new U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy to address stewardship of marine resources and pollution prevention; enhance and support marine commerce, transportation, and science; and develop and implement a comprehensive, long-range national policy to explore, protect, and use ocean and coastal resources. The Commission on Ocean Policy, comprised of 16 members, completed its information-gathering phase in October 2002 and is expected to submit its recommendations to Congress in 2003.

Sources: Council on Environmental Quality; Environment and Energy Daily, Hearing Testimony, Greenwire, House Science Committee Press Release, National Council for Science and the Environment, Thomas, U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.

Contributed by 2003 Spring Semester Intern Charna Meth; Emily R. Scott, AGI/AIPG Summer 2003 Intern; Bridget Martin, AGI/AIPG Summer 2004 Intern; Ashlee Dere, AGI/AIPG Summer 2004 Intern and Emily Lehr Wallace, AGI Government Affairs Program.

Background section includes material from AGI's Update on Oceans Legislation for the 107th Congress.

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on October 18, 2004