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As Oceans Fall Ill, Washington Bureaucrats Squabble

Les Blumenthal

The Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling vortex roughly twice the size of Texas filled with tiny bits of plastic and other debris.

WASHINGTON - Off the coast of Washington state, mysterious algae
mixed with sea foam have killed more than 8,000 seabirds, puzzling
scientists. A thousand miles off California, researchers have
discovered the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling vortex roughly
twice the size of Texas filled with tiny bits of plastic and other

Every summer a dead zone of oxygen-depleted water the size of
Massachusetts forms in the Gulf of Mexico; others have been found off
Oregon and in the Chesapeake Bay, Lake Erie and the Baltic and Black
seas. Some studies indicate that North Pole seawater could turn caustic
in 10 years, and that the Southern Ocean already may be saturated with
carbon dioxide.

recent bird kill off the coast of Washington state came without
warning, said Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration. "There will be more surprises than
that," she said.

The danger signals are everywhere, some related to climate change and greenhouse gases and others not:

  • Every
    eight months, 11 million gallons of oil run off the nation's roads and
    driveways into waters that eventually reach the sea, the Pew Oceans
    Commission said in 2003. That's the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez-size
    oil spill.
  • Since the beginning of the Industrial
    Revolution, the oceans have absorbed 525 billion tons of carbon
    dioxide. They're now absorbing about 22 million tons of carbon dioxide
    a day. As that happens, the oceans become more acidic, threatening the
    marine food chain. The acidity could eat away the shells of such
    animals as the petropod, a nearly microscopic snail with a calcium
    carbonate covering that's eaten by krill, salmon and whales.
  • More
    than 60 percent of the nation's coastal rivers and bays are moderately
    to severely degraded by nutrient runoff from products such as
    fertilizer, creating algae blooms that affect the kelp beds and grasses
    that are nurseries for many species of fish.

that doesn't tell the entire story, as competing uses for the sea
multiply. Traditional ones such as fishing and shipping are competing
with offshore aquaculture farms. On the energy front, it's no longer
just oil and gas drilling. There are plans for deepwater wind farms and
tidal and wave power-generating projects.

As the grim news
mounts, a storm is brewing in Washington, D.C., over who should oversee
oceans policies. A White House task force has recommended creating a
National Ocean Council that would develop and implement national ocean
policy and include the secretaries of state, defense, agriculture,
interior, health and human services, labor, commerce, transportation
and homeland security.

It also would include the director of the
White House Office of Management and Budget, the administrators of NASA
and the Environmental Protection Agency, the chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff, the director of national intelligence and the chairman
of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission. Plus the president's
advisers on national security, homeland security, domestic policy and
economic policy. The chair of the White House Council on Environmental
Quality and the director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy
would head the council.

However, NOAA, the nation's primary ocean
agency, which includes the National Ocean Service, the nation's premier
science agency for oceans and coasts; the National Marine Fisheries
Service, which manages living marine resources; the Office of Oceanic
and Atmospheric Research, which studies climate, weather and air
quality; and the National Weather Service - is missing from the task
force's list.

"I am mystified why NOAA has been exempted," said Maine Sen. Olympia Snowe, the top Republican on the subcommittee.

"It was a surprise," Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., said in an interview. "I didn't know it would be this sensitive."

chairs the oceans subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and
Transportation Committee. Her panel held a hearing on the issue last

"NOAA is the nation's primary ocean agency," NOAA administrator Lubchenco told the subcommittee. "Our name says it all."


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in 1970, NOAA does everything from issuing daily weather forecasts and
severe storm warnings to monitoring the climate and managing fisheries.
It includes a satellite office and a research arm. It operates two
geostational satellites that monitor the Earth and a fleet of research
ships that monitor the oceans.

Instead of being a freestanding
agency like NASA or the EPA, however, NOAA is part of the Commerce
Department. The commerce secretary would be a member of the National
Ocean Council, but Cantwell and Snowe said that wasn't good enough.

"It's not the same," Cantwell said, adding that the commerce secretary has far broader responsibilities than just oceans.

recommending the creation of a National Ocean Council, the White House
task force noted the web of federal, state, tribal, local and
international regulations and interests and found a need for
"high-level direction and guidance from a clearly designated and
identifiable authority."

The nation's oceans, coastline and Great
Lakes are regulated by 140 laws administered by 20 federal agencies, in
what's been called a "Swiss cheese" of overlapping authorities and
sometimes conflicting missions.

The task force made its proposal
for a National Ocean Council in an interim report released in
September. A final report is due early next year.

Whatever its
composition, one challenge for the council will be what's called
"marine spatial planning," ocean zoning, or the marine equivalent of
urban planning.

"It's going to be a difficult process," Nancy
Sutley, the chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality,
said during the Senate hearing. "We need to do it from the bottom up."

American tribes and groups such as those that represent sport fishermen
warned that plans have to be developed regionally because a
one-size-fits-all approach won't work.

A recent example of marine
spatial planning involved the Coast Guard, NOAA and other agencies
working to reroute shipping lanes near Cape Cod to minimize the chances
of vessels colliding with North Atlantic right whales, but even that
came with an unexpected twist.

"We were going to move the lanes
into a site where there was an application for an offshore LNG plant,"
said Adm. Thad Allen, the Coast Guard commandant, referring to
liquefied natural gas.

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