In anticipation of a national summit on oceans this week, the California Coastal Commission voted unanimously Tuesday to urge President Clinton to initiate a sweeping set of reforms to protect U.S. marine resources.
Beginning Thursday, national leaders will convene in Monterey to fashion an ocean stewardship policy for the 21st century to address issues ranging from depleted fisheries to port expansion and national security. Clinton plans to speak at the conference Friday, and Vice President Al Gore is scheduled to chair it Thursday.
The Coastal Commission joined more than 120 environmental and scientific groups that have already signed the "Agenda for the Oceans," which was drafted by the Center for Marine Conservation and dispatched to the White House.
The 10-point agenda recommends that the president revitalize the nation's depleted fisheries, clean ocean waters of runoff and other pollution, expand marine sanctuaries, increase scientific exploration of the sea and save coral reefs.
Because the United Nations declared 1998 the Year of the Oceans, environmental activists say the conference offers Clinton an opportunity to provide global leadership in addressing problems that have been building for years.
In their missive to Clinton, the environmentalists said the oceans' situation "cries out for presidential leadership."
"The oceans are in deep trouble and need a major rescue effort," said Warner Chabot of the marine center, a nonprofit environmental organization headquartered in the nation's capital. "The only question for the president is whether this rescue effort will be a battleship or a leaky rowboat."
If Clinton makes only vague promises, there will be vocal complaints from "a lot of disappointed people," said Chabot, who works at the center's San Francisco office. "The ocean's too important to be polite."
White House officials said Tuesday that Clinton and Gore plan to announce new ocean initiatives while in Monterey, but no details have been revealed.
Its goals vague and its approach all-encompassing, the National Ocean Conference, hosted by the Navy and the U.S. Commerce Department, is designed to address commercial and military topics as well as environmental problems.
"For the first time in 30 years you'll have the president and vice president and four Cabinet secretaries and 500 ocean leaders figuring out what's wrong with the ocean and what we should do about it," Chabot said.
More than 1 billion tons of cargo move through U.S. seaports every year, and the volume continues to swell. Also, more than half of the nation's population lives near the coasts.
Environmentalists and marine scientists worry that such heavy use of the ocean is leading to exploitation, pollution and offshore accidents that could be irreparably harming fish, marine mammals, wetlands and other cherished resources.
In its resolution, the Coastal Commission called oceans "critical to the well-being of all life on the planet" and said "human activities have degraded the quality and productivity of ocean ecosystems and diminished abundance of marine life."
The commission, largely comprising appointees of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson, urged the Clinton administration to create "environmentally sustainable economic use policies" for the ocean that take into account recreation and ecology as well as national security and commerce.
Among the supporters of the 10-point agenda are national groups representing commercial and recreational fishermen--a labor force that accounts for more than 1.3 million U.S. jobs. In the agenda, the environmentalists estimate that one-third of U.S. fisheries are overfished, causing an economic loss of $25 billion a year.
One major recommendation in the agenda is that Congress and the president redraft the Clean Water Act to ensure cleanup of urban and farm runoff. Congress has debated changes in the law for the last several years but has not reauthorized it since 1987.
The agenda also urges the Clinton administration to craft regulations to control overfishing and to enact a law aiming to repair--and eliminate threats to--U.S. coral reefs by 2010.
The groups also are asking Clinton to launch a scientific effort to explore and inventory marine life and habitats, giving national priority to 12 specially designated marine sanctuaries, including Monterey Bay. The goals are to increase funding for such research by 25% and map essential habitat for marine species by 2002.
Meeting in Santa Barbara, the Coastal Commission adopted the resolution with little discussion. The powerful commission went through an abrupt transformation two years ago, at a time when it was dominated by new conservative Republican appointees who tried to oust the agency's longtime chief executive. But when Democrats recaptured control of the Assembly, they made several appointments that returned the commission to its more traditional stance.
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'Agenda for the Oceans' (Southland Edition, A27)
More than 120 environmental groups and the California Coastal Commission have urged President Clinton to take 10 steps to protect the ocean. Within each of these 10 general areas, the groups have outlined specific actions and deadlines.
1. Fashion a U.S. ocean policy for the 21st century
2. Revitalize America's marine fisheries
3. Clean America's ocean waters
4. Invest in the future of America's oceans
5. Strengthen and expand marine protected areas
6. Save America's coral reefs
7. Lead international efforts to protect the oceans
8. Protect endangered marine wildlife
9. Explore America's marine wildlife and ocean waters
10. Promote ocean stewardship and education