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Oceans Policy (10-12-06)

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Oceans cover about 71% of Earth's surface and are an integral part of many Earth systems, including climate and weather. The oceans also contain most of Earth's biomass, with 80% of all known phyla found only in the oceans. Yet, we know more about Mars than we know about marine systems. Advances in research capabilities have led to improved understanding of marine and coastal systems, however, many are concerned that new technology has not increased enough to keep pace with our exploration needs. In addition the United States may be falling behind other nations in ocean exploration and observation programs. Oceans have recently received congressional attention for their ecological preservation and scientific value.

Recent Action

On September 20, the House Committee on Science approved the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Organic Act (H.R. 5450) introduced by House Science Environment, Technology, and Standards Subcommittee Chairman Vernon Ehlers (R-MI). According to a Committee press release, this bill would clarify and codify the functions and responsibilities of NOAA for the first time in the agency's history. It would also increase congressional oversight of the agency.

The Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, made up of members of earlier ocean advisory committees, said that more than 20 measures have been proposed since 1971 in order to codify the agency, yet none have ever been carried out to completion. As a result, NOAA still operates under an Executive Order from 1970.

Although H.R. 5450 has advanced further in the House than previous bills, no comparable legislation has been passed in the Senate. Moreover, the legislation lacks a provision on oceans and fisheries, areas under the jurisdiction of the House Resources Committee. (10/12/06)

Previous Action

The House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee met on June 28 to markup ocean legislation relating to the U.S. Coast Guard and marine debris management. Originating in the Senate (S. 362) and sponsored by Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-HI), the bill passed the committee by a voice vote. "Whether the mission involves saving thousands of lives, responding to oil spills, keeping our ports and waterways open, or boarding a suspicious vessel, the men and women of the Coast Guard work tirelessly," said Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) in support of the bill. LoBiondo successfully sponsored an amendment to reduce funding from $75 million to $65 million from fiscal year 2006 to 2010.

The bill directs the Coast Guard to establish a system of tracking, disposing, and preventing the further release of marine debris. It encourages international and domestic cooperation among maritime industries, and to engage in education to inform industries of common practices which reduce marine debris. Maritime debris poses a hazard for oceanic ecosystems, especially materials such as plastics which may take hundreds of years to decompose. Debris can also damage ships and have a severe effect on tourism for coastal states.

The bill is ready for conference with the Senate. (7/06/06)

On June 14, 2006, the House Science Committee passed a bill to codify the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) into legislation. Commonly called the NOAA Organic Act, H.R. 5450 defines the agency's mission and management structure in U.S. law. "It would give this key science agency, which was created by Executive Order, a firm legal basis for its full range of activities and responsibilities," remarked Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY). Currently, NOAA management structure originates from the original Executive Order which established the administration.

The committee passed three amendments. Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL) sponsored an amendment requiring NOAA to report contracts and services purchased overseas, pursuant to the Buy American Act. Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO) sponsored an amendment seeking to control program costs by notifying congress of project delays and rising costs. The last amendment sponsored by Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-TX), requires NOAA to pass emergency weather information to other federal agencies.

Two science integrity related bills failed. Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.Y.) proposed an amendment to ensure that research is not tampered with and that scientific data is not censured. Ranking member Bart Gordon (D-TN) argued for the amendment, saying "If we can't get it done, I don't know when it can be." Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (D-N.Y.) opposed the measure, stating it will essentially kill the entire bill by sending it to the Government Reform Committee. The amendment failed 13-17 on a party line vote. The other amendment would prevent the White House from reviewing reports requested by Congress. This amendment failed 15-19.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Act (H.R.5450) has been referred to the House Resources committee. For further information, consult the Science Committee website. (6/21/2006)

On July 1, 2005, the full Senate passed S. 361, the Ocean and Coastal Observation System Act, which would direct the President, acting through the National Ocean Research Leadership Council, to establish a national program to provide continuous and comprehensive data on changes in ocean and coastal conditions. The bill was introduced earlier this year by Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) who modeled the program after the Gulf of Maine Ocean Observation System (GoMOOS). According to a press release from Senator Snowe's office, the idea behind this new national data system is to "augment and integrate a loosely-knit network of regional observation systems currently established in coastal zones across the country, giving all those who count on consistent and complete ocean data access to real-time information." The bill authorizes $150 million for each of fiscal years 2006 through 2010, with at least 50% of the appropriate funds directed to regional associations certified by NOAA that are responsible for the system's implementation. In the House, hearings have been held but no action has been taken on H.R. 1489, an unrelated but similar plan to establish an ocean and coastal observing system.

Snowe introduced the bill primarily in response to concerns over hazard preparedness following the December 26, 2004 tsunami disaster, but documents from the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee also indicate that the bill reflects recommendations made by the National Commission on Ocean Policy. In addition to facilitating timely hazard alerts to coastal communities through the use of buoys, satellites, and other instrumentation, the bill seeks to facilitate the coordination of state and federal agencies with regional observing systems. It would also establish a research and development program "to study the relationship between ocean conditions and human activities, develop new observation technologies...and improve public education."

Bill sponsors hope that the bipartisan legislation will benefit not only hazard warning capabilities but also have a positive impact on port security, enhance studies of fisheries and other ocean resources under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and provide the Coast Guard with information needed to respond efficiently to search and rescue activities and other missions. (7/20/05)

On May 17, 2005, the House Science committee passed the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration "organic act," (H.R. 50), which defines NOAA's mission, formalizes the agency's major functions, and enhances its organizational structure. "Our bill will do more than merely found NOAA in law," said committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) during the mark-up. "It will raise the profile of science at NOAA and improve its management."

Regarding NOAA's mission, the bill states:

"The Mission of the Administration is to understand the systems of the Earth's oceans and atmosphere, [to] predict changes in the Earth's oceans and atmosphere and the effects of such changes on the land environment, to conserve and manage coastal, ocean, and Great Lakes ecosystems to meet national economic, social, and environmental needs, and to educate the public about these topics."

H.R. 50 mandates that NOAA's functions be organized over the next two years according to four directorates: the National Weather Service, research and education, operations and services, and resource management. However, the bill only codifies the functions pertaining to science and technology research, education, and weather prediction. To oversee these functions, the bill would add a deputy assistant secretary of science and technology. The bill leaves out some of the most critical agency functions for addressing ocean ecosystem health, such as fisheries assessment, coastal zone management, and ocean mapping and charting because resource management issues do not fall under the Science committee's jurisdiction.

The House Resources subcommittee on Oceans and Fisheries began its consideration of H.R. 50 in a hearing on May 19, 2005. At the hearing, Chairman Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD) said his subcommittee would work within the Science committee's bill to add its own provisions rather than forming separate legislation that would have to be resolved with H.R. 50 later by the House Rules committee. Although Gilchrest expressed an urgency to pass the legislation, he also called for patience with congress. Tackling NOAA's resource management responsibilities may prove more contentious than NOAA's science and research functions, as Congress and the Administration currently disagree on how specific or prescriptive these mandates should be. Click here to read about recent hearings on the NOAA organic act and ocean policy. (5/20/05)

On April 6, 2005, Representative Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD), Chairman of the House Resources Subcommittee on Fisheries and Oceans, introduced The Coastal Ocean Observation System Integration and Implementation Act of 2005 (H.R. 1489), which would authorize $130 million to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to implement a coordinated interagency observation system that would provide information and support for a National Integrated Ocean Observation system. Under the plan, funds would be phased in over four years, authorizing $25 million in 2005, $30 million in 2006, $35 million in 2007, and $40 million in 2008. Federal and non-federal data collection systems would work together to sustain technology and effective data distribution. It is unclear in the text of the bill how the National Integrated Ocean Observation System (IOOS) would relate to the Global Earth Observation System of Systems, or GEOSS. Click here for a review of legislative hearings on H.R. 1489. (4/22/05)

On March 15, 2005, the House Science subcommittee on Environment, Technology and Standards approved H.R. 50, known as the "NOAA Organic Act." If enacted, the bill would be the first ever congressional mandate to systemize the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration's structure and operations. This and other proposals were crafted in response to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy report, which found that NOAA lacked the research and federal oversight to effectively protect ocean ecosystems. The legislation proposes an agency reorganization around four primary goals: the National Weather Service, research and education, operations and services, and resource management. It would also establish a Deputy Assistant Secretary position for science and technology to oversee ocean research programs, and it would codify the NOAA Science Advisory Board, which advises the NOAA administrator on strategies for research, education and the application of science. (3/16/05)

On March 7, 2005, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved the passage of four bills to improve ocean research and education, including S. 50, the Tsunami Preparedness Act of 2005.

S. 50 was introduced by Senator Daniel Inouye (D-HI) in response to the tsunami disaster in December, 2004. It would authorize $35 million each year through 2012 for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to coordinate regional detection and warning systems for the basins bordering the US. NOAA is to integrate new observing equipment with global efforts and seismic information provided by the USGS. The committee also approved a manager's amendment to the bill that calls for a $5 million program to better prepare the nation's coastal communities for tsunami and other hazards. Review House and Senate hearings on Tsunami mitigation policy at

S. 362, also introduced by Inouye, would authorize $15 million each year to NOAA and the Coast Guard to map the sources and impacts of marine debris, enforce penalties for fishers and other ships who dump garbage and gear into the ocean, and provide grants for cooperative clean-up programs.

S. 39, sponsored by Committee Chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK), would establish an ocean exploration program. NOAA would recieve up to $45 million per year through 2010 and $55 million per year through 2017 to lead universities and other agencies in deep sea voyages, ship-wreck studies, scientific research, and public education programs.

S. 361, introduced by Olympia Snowe (R-ME), would call for "such sums as may be necessary" for improved ocean and coastal observation data systems to predict changes in the ocean environment. (3/14/05)


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. The Stratton Commission laid the foundation for the Coastal Zone Management Act, and Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Also in response to the Commission report, President Nixon created The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) by executive order in 1970, and placed it within the Department of Commerce. NOAA was formed as an amalgamation of some of the oldest federal science agencies responsible for atmospheric research and ocean resources; including the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey, formed in 1807, the Weather Bureau, formed in 1870, and the Bureau of Commercial Fisheries, formed in 1871. Unlike other federal science agencies, NOAA has never recieved a congressional mandate.

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 released its final report on April 20, 2004.

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.

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. 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. Revenues generated by outer continental shelf (OCS) oil and gas revenues would establish 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 so that they would receive a greater share of funds to help pay for environmental cleanup costs. Lastly, the commission recommends building an Integrated Ocean Observing System to monitor ocean health.

Just like the Oceans Commission Report, the Pew Oceans Commission study released in June 2003 called 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."

With impetus from the two landmark reports, lawmakers set their focus on oceans legislation including S.2280, a bill to establish a coordinated national ocean exploration program within NOAA, S.2488 a bill to establish a marine debris removal program, and S.2647, also known as the NOAA "Organic Act," to define NOAA's national mission for the first time. There has been talk of major restructuring of NOAA, which may be transferred to the Interior Department and given broader powers and a greater intergovernmental leadership role. S.2280 and S.2488 both passed unanimously on the Senate floor and sent to the House for consideration.

On the House side, the House Oceans Caucus also introduced their comprehensive oceans legislation. H.R. 4900, titled "Oceans-21"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 (R-PA) introduced H.R. 4897, a deep-sea coral protection bill that is a companion to S. 1953 by Senator Lautenberg (D-NJ). That 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. Eventhough the House failed to pass any of the oceans bills by the end of the 108th Congress, it will undoubtedly come up again in the 109th Congress.

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, House Resources Committee Press Release, U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.

Contributed by David R. Millar 2004 AGI/AIPG Fall Semester Intern, Katie Ackerly Government Affairs Staff, Tim Donahue 2006 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern, and Rachel Bleshman 2006 AGI/AAPG Fall Intern.

Background section includes material from AGI's Update on Oceans Legislation for the 108th Congress.

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

Last updated on October 12, 2006.

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