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US gets a failing grade on ocean care

February 6, 2006 By Jacqueline Ruttimann This article courtesy of Nature News.

Non-governmental commission delivers damning report card.

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A non-governmental commission has taken a look at the state of the oceans around the United States and come up with a disappointing conclusion. A little more than a year after recommendations were issued on how to save the nation's waters, the commission has issued the country a D+ on their efforts.

"The ocean continues to be in crisis," says Leon Panetta, co-chairman of the initiative. "This crisis will overwhelm us in the future." Panetta says he personally saw how the extinction of overfished sardines in his home-town of Monterey badly affected the area.

The Joint Ocean Commission Initiative brings together two recently disbanded organisations: the Pew Oceans Commission, a charitable organisation that reported to the government on ocean health until 2003; and the US Commission on Ocean Policy, which submitted a whopping 212 recommendations on all aspects of ocean policy to the government in September 2004, calling for immediate action. In December, the government responded with what the latter comission called a "promising" US Ocean Action Plan.

But, the joint comission now says, any attempts to combat the problems such as pollution and overfishing have so far proven disappointing.

Going, gone

Some 95% of all the large fish are extinct, and two-thirds of coastal waters continue to be degraded by nutrient pollution, Panetta said at a press briefing in Washington on 4 February.

"We've got to bring it home to the American public that the oceans are not just a place to go to for recreation. They affect our health, nutrition, research and economy," said Panetta.

The group of ten scientists and former legislators graded the nation's efforts in seven areas (see Sink or swim).

Aside from a top effort in developing the US Ocean Action Plan in the first place, which received an A-, the only good grades were given to the efforts of individual states to develop their own coastal programmes (at a B-) and an attempt to renew a landmark fishery conservation and management act, which has made progress in the Senate but not in the House (for an average grade of C+).

Flunking out

The commission particularly noted two failing areas: the United States remains the only developed nation not to sign on to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. And ocean research gets less than 4% of the science and research budget, he says. "If we can spend billions to search for life in space, we can spend a few billion trying to protect life on Earth," says Panetta.

A government official contacted by was defensive about their successes so far, and promised to do better in the future.

"The commission has given us high marks for the work we've done," said White House spokesperson Michele St. Martin. "The current marks reflect a work in progress and we're confident that as projects are completed, we'll earn higher marks."

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