REVIEW: Article

An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century

The Oceans Act of 2000 charged the United States (US) Commission on Ocean Policy with carrying out the first comprehensive review of ocean-related issues and laws in more than thirty years. The Commission* took up that charge, presenting over 200 recommendations throughout its report that will move the nation toward a more coordinated and comprehensive ocean policy.

On behalf of the Commission, I am pleased to present selected excerpts of our report, An Ocean Blueprint for the 21st Century.** In addition to an overview of the benefits and threats to our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes, I have chosen to highlight three important issues that pose particular challenges—conserving and restoring coastal habitat, protecting marine mammals and endangered marine species and preserving coral reefs and other coral communities—and to outline below our Commission’s key recommendations that provide the foundation for a comprehensive national ocean policy.

Although our work officially ended in December 2004, the Commission stands ready now and in the future to assist in the implementation of our recommendations and achievements of our vision—one in which our oceans and coasts are clean, safe, sustainably managed and preserved for the benefit and enjoyment of future generations.

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America’s oceans, coasts and Great Lakes provide tremendous value to our economy. Based on estimates in 2000, ocean-related activities directly contributed more than $117 billion to American prosperity and supported well over two million jobs. By including coastal activities, the numbers become even more impressive; more than $1 trillion, or one-tenth of the nation’s annual gross domestic product, is generated within the relatively narrow strip of land immediately adjacent to the coast that we call the nearshore zone. When the economies throughout coastal watershed counties are considered, the contribution swells to over $4.5 trillion, fully half of the nation’s gross domestic product, accounting for some 60 million jobs.

The United States uses the sea as a highway for transporting goods and people and as a source of energy and potentially lifesaving drugs. Annually, the nation’s ports handle more than $700 billion in merchandise, while the cruise industry and its passengers account for another $12 billion in spending. More than thirteen million jobs are connected to maritime trade. With offshore oil and gas operations expanding into ever deeper waters, annual production is now valued at $25-$40 billion, and yearly bonus bid and royalty payments contribute approximately five billion dollars to the US Treasury. Ocean exploration also has led to a growing and potentially multi-billion dollar industry in marine-based bioproducts and pharmaceuticals.

Fisheries are another important source of economic revenue and jobs and provide a critical supply of healthy protein. They also constitute an important cultural heritage for fishing communities. The commercial fishing industry’s total annual value exceeds $28 billion, with recreational saltwater fishing industry valued at around $20 billion, and the annual US retail trade in ornamental fish worth another three billion dollars.

Every year, hundreds of millions of people visit America’s coasts to enjoy the oceans, spending billions of dollars and directly supporting millions of jobs. Nationwide, retail expenditures on recreational boating alone exceeded $30 billion in 2002. In fact, tourism and recreation is one of the nation’s fastest-growing business sectors, enriching economies and supporting jobs in communities virtually everywhere along the shores of the United States and its territories. Over half of the US population lives in coastal watersheds, and more than 37 million people and 19 million homes have been added to coastal areas during the last three decades, driving up real estate values and requiring ever greater support services.

These concrete, quantifiable contributions are just one measure of the value of the nation’s oceans, coasts and Great Lakes. There are many even more important attributes that cannot be given a price tag, such as global climate control, life support, cultural heritage, and the aesthetic value of the ocean with its intrinsic power to relax, rejuvenate and inspire.

Trouble in Paradise

Unfortunately, our use and enjoyment of the ocean and its resources have come with costs, and we are only now discovering the full extent of the consequences of our actions. In 2001, 23 percent of the nation’s estuarine areas were considered impaired for swimming, fishing, or supporting marine species. In 2003, there were more than 18,000 days of closings and advisories at ocean and Great Lakes beaches, most due to the presence of bacteria associated with fecal contamination. Across the globe, marine toxins afflict more than 90,000 people annually and are responsible for an estimated 62 percent of all seafood-related illnesses. Harmful algal blooms appear to be occurring more frequently in our coastal waters and non-native species are increasingly invading marine ecosystems. Experts estimate that 25 to 30 percent of the world’s major fish stocks are overexploited, and many US fisheries are experiencing serious difficulties. Since the Pilgrims first arrived at Plymouth Rock, over half of our fresh and saltwater wetlands—more than 110 million acres—have been lost.

Coastal waters are one of the nation’s greatest assets, yet they are being bombarded with pollutants from a variety of sources. While progress has been made in reducing point sources of pollution, nonpoint source pollution has increased and is the primary cause of nutrient enrichment, hypoxia, harmful algal blooms, toxic contamination and other problems that plague coastal waters. Nonpoint source pollution occurs when rainfall and snowmelt wash pollutants such as fertilizers, pesticides, bacteria, viruses, pet waste, sediments, oil, chemicals and litter into our rivers and coastal waters. Other pollutants, such as mercury and some organic chemicals, can be carried vast distances through the atmosphere before settling into ocean waters.

Our failure to properly manage the human activities that affect the nation’s oceans, coasts and Great Lakes is compromising their ecological integrity, diminishing our ability to fully realize their potential, costing us jobs and revenue, threatening human health, and putting our future at risk.

Congress clearly recognized both the promise of the oceans and the threats to them when it passed the Oceans Act of 2000, calling for the creation of a Commission on Ocean Policy to establish findings and develop recommendations for a coordinated and comprehensive national ocean policy. Pursuant to that Act, the President appointed sixteen Commission members drawn from diverse backgrounds, including individuals nominated by the leadership in the United States Senate and House of Representatives.

The Commission held sixteen public meetings, around the country and conducted eighteen regional site visits, receiving testimony, both oral and written, from hundreds of people. Overall the Commission heard from some 447 witnesses, including over 275 invited presentations and an additional 172 comments from the public, resulting in nearly 1,900 pages of testimony.

The message from both experts and the public alike was clear: our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes are in trouble and major changes are urgently needed in the way we manage them. The Commission learned about new scientific findings that demonstrate the complexity and interconnectedness of natural systems. It also confirmed that our management approaches have not been updated to reflect this complexity, with responsibilities remaining dispersed among a confusing array of agencies at the federal, state and local levels. Managers, decision makers and the public cried out for improved and timely access to reliable data and solid scientific information that have been translated into useful results and products. Another steady theme heard around the country was the plea for additional federal support, citing decades of underinvestment in the study, exploration, protection and management of our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes. Finally, the point was made that we must enhance ocean-related education so that all citizens recognize the role of oceans, coasts and Great Lakes in their own lives and the impacts they themselves have on these environments.

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Specific Management Challenges

Several important issues pose particular challenges and three are highlighted below.

Conserving and Restoring Coastal Habitat

The diverse habitats that comprise the ocean and coastal environment provide tangible benefits such as filtering pollutants from runoff, buffering coastal communities against the effects of storms and providing a basis for booming recreation and tourism industries. These habitats also supply spawning grounds, nurseries, shelter and food for marine life, including a disproportionate number of endangered or commercially important species.

As more people come to the coast to live, work and visit, coastal habitats are increasingly stressed and damaged. Over the past several decades the nation has lost millions of acres of wetlands, seen the destruction of seagrass and kelp beds and faced a loss of significant mangrove forests. Cost-effective conservation and restoration programs should be expanded according to a national strategy that sets goals and priorities, enhances the effectiveness and coordination of individual efforts and periodically evaluates progress. Many habitat conservation and restoration projects have been successful, but continued progress will depend on sustained funding, improved government leadership and coordination, enhanced scientific research and monitoring, better education and outreach and solid stakeholder support.

Protecting Marine Mammals and Endangered Marine Species

The Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act are landmark laws that have protected marine mammals, sea turtles, seabirds and other populations at risk since their passage. However, both Acts need to be updated to support the move toward a more ecosystem-based approach.

As in so many other areas of ocean policy, immediate clarification and coordination of federal agency policies is needed. The Commission recommends that Congress consolidate the jurisdiction for marine mammals within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and that the National Ocean Council improve coordination between NOAA and the US Fish and Wildlife Service in the implementation of the Endangered Species Act, particularly for anadromous species or where land-based activities have significant impacts on marine species. Congress also should amend the Marine Mammal Protection Act to require NOAA to specify categories of activities that are allowed without a permit, those that require a permit, and those that are strictly prohibited. The permitting process itself should be streamlined by using programmatic permitting where possible. The definition of harassment in the Marine Mammal Protection Act also should be revised to cover only activities that meaningfully disrupt behaviors that are significant to the survival and reproduction of marine mammals.

The Commission recommends an expanded research, technology and engineering program, coordinated through the National Ocean Council, to examine and mitigate the effects of human activities—including fishing, pollution and climate change—on marine mammals, seabirds, sea turtles and all other marine endangered species. In addition, Congress should expand federal funding for research into ocean acoustics and the potential impacts of noise on marine mammals and other species.

Preserving Coral Reefs and Other Coral Communities

Coral communities are among the oldest and most diverse ecosystems on the planet, rivaling tropical rainforests in biodiversity and potential economic value. Unfortunately, like the rainforests, the world’s coral reefs are increasingly showing signs of serious decline, with pristine reefs becoming rare and up to one-third of the world’s reefs severely damaged according to some estimates.

A strengthened Coral Reef Task Force, under the oversight of the National Ocean Council, should promote immediate actions to reverse the impacts on tropical coral communities from pollution (with the Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, and the US Department of Agriculture, USDA, in the lead) and from fishing (with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, in the lead). NOAA should be assigned as the lead agency for assessing and protecting the nation’s relatively unexplored cold water coral communities, including dedicated research on their distribution and abundance and strategies to reduce major threats to their survival.

Congress should enact a Coral Protection and Management Act that provides direct authorities to protect and manage corals, and creates a framework for research and for cooperation with international efforts. This legislation should include: mapping, monitoring, and research programs to fill critical information gaps; liability provisions for damages to coral reefs, similar to those in the National Marine Sanctuaries Act; outreach activities to educate the public about coral conservation and reduce human impacts; and mechanisms for US involvement in bilateral, regional and international coral reef programs, particularly through the sharing of scientific, technical and management expertise.

In many places, harvesting methods continue to damage reefs and overexploit ornamental species. As the world’s largest importer of ornamental coral reef resources, the United States has a particular responsibility to help eliminate destructive harvesting practices and ensure the sustainable use of reef resources. The nation should develop standards for the importation of coral species to balance legitimate trade with protection of world’s coral reefs and to ensure that US citizens do not unknowingly promote unsustainable practices.

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Critical Actions Recommended by the US Commission on Ocean Policy

The following key recommendations provide the foundation for a comprehensive national ocean policy that will lead to significant improvements in ocean and coastal management.

Improved Governance

  • Establish a National Ocean Council in the Executive Office of the President, chaired by an Assistant to the President.
  • Create a non-federal President’s Council of Advisors on Ocean Policy.
  • Improve the federal agency structure by strengthening NOAA and consolidating federal agency programs according to a phased approach.
  • Develop a flexible, voluntary process for creating regional ocean councils, facilitated and supported by the National Ocean Council.
  • Create a coordinated management regime for activities in federal offshore waters.

Sound Science for Wise Decisions

  • Double the nation’s investment in ocean research, launch a new area of ocean exploration, and create the advanced technologies and modern infrastructure needed to support them.
  • Implement the national Integrated Ocean Observing System and a national monitoring network.

Education - A Foundation for the Future

  • Improve ocean-related education through coordinated and effective formal and informal efforts.

Specific Management Challenges

  • Strengthen coastal and watershed management and the links between them.
  • Set measurable goals for reducing water pollution, particularly from nonpoint sources, and strengthen incentives, technical assistance, enforcement and other management tools to achieve those goals.
  • Reform fisheries management by separating assessment and allocation, improving the Regional Fishery Management Council system, and exploring the use of dedicated access privileges.
  • Accede to the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea to remain fully engaged on the international level.


  • Establish an Ocean Policy Trust Fund, based on unallocated revenues from offshore oil and gas development and new offshore activities, that is dedicated to supporting improved ocean and coastal management at federal and state levels.

Call to Action

The opportunity is here and the time to act is now. A new national ocean policy can be implemented that balances ocean use with sustainability, is based on sound science and supported by excellent education and is overseen by a coordinated system of governance with strong leadership at the national and regional levels. It will take great political will, significant fiscal investment and strong public support, but in the long run all of America will benefit from these changes.

* Editor’s Note: The members of the Commission are: Admiral James D. Watkins, USN (Ret.), Chairman; Robert B. Ballard, Ph.D., Ted A. Beattie, Lillian Borrone, Dr. James M. Coleman, Ann D’Amato, Lawrence Dickerson, Vice Admiral Paul G. Gaffney II, USN (Ret.), Professor Marc J. Hershman, Paul L. Kelly, Christopher Koch, Dr. Frank Muller-Karger, Edward B. Rasmuson, Dr. Andrew A. Rosenberg, William D. Ruckelshaus and Dr. Paul A. Sandifer.

** Editor’s Note: The full report is available on the Commission’s Web site at

Issue Date


Chairman, United States Commission on Ocean Policy