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 debris.
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.
A 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.
Even 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."
Cantwell chairs the oceans subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee. Her panel held a hearing on the issue last week.
"NOAA is the nation's primary ocean agency," NOAA administrator Lubchenco told the subcommittee. "Our name says it all."
Created 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.
In 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."
Native 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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