Tag Archives: Nancy Sutley

President Obama raises ocean issues to a high priority

President Obama is being praised for his decision to pull together all the ocean-related challenges this nation faces and for plotting a unified course of action.

On Friday, the president issued a memorandum calling for a task force to develop a national ocean policy along with a “framework” for action and a set of objectives. See the Memorandum for the Heads of Executive Departments and Agencies, along with a news story by reporter Doug Palmer of Reuters.

I was tempted to state cynically that actions speak louder than words, so we should curb our enthusiasm about what can be done to save the oceans. But then I talked to Bill Ruckelshaus, who co-chairs the Joint Ocean Commission, a national group dedicated to this topic.

Ruckelshaus seems to be thrilled with this latest development, following years of failed promises from the Bush administration.

“This is quite a significant event, really,” Bill told me. “It moves the oceans up on the presidential agenda, which means they will get more attention from Congress and from agencies in the administration. Presidencies are all about setting agendas, and this means more attention will be paid to the recommendations we made.”

I’ll tell you a little more about what my conversation with Mr. Ruckelshaus, but first I’ll review the history.

Five years ago, similar praise was accorded to President Bush after the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy — a presidentially appointed body — released it’s comprehensive examination of the major problems facing the oceans. The report included a list of potential solutions.

Adm. James D. Watkins, a retired Navy officer who chaired the commission, expressed enthusiasm for the reception he felt the report was getting from the Bush administration.

“President Bush’s response to the Commission’s Report and his signing of Executive Order establishing a Secretarial-level Committee on Ocean Policy … sets into motion the important process of developing and implementing a new national ocean policy,” Watkins declared.

Despite the positive reaction, I don’t believe a whole lot came about. (Review the last three “report cards.”) A separate report written by the Pew Oceans Commission received even less attention.

After the two commissions dissolved, some members — including Ruckelshaus — moved into a new organization called the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative, a nongovernmental group that maintained pressure for action through annual “report cards” relating the progress, or lack thereof, on ocean issues.

In April of this year, the joint commission issued an urgent new report called “Changing Oceans, Changing World: Ocean Priorities for the Obama Administration and Congress” (PDF 280 kb). I outlined that report in a Water Ways entry on April 7.

And so now we come to today, five months into the new administration, which seems to be trying to do everything at once. Can there really be much energy left for a discussion about the oceans?

Bill Ruckelshaus is undaunted. “I think holding back and doing things one at a time just doesn’t work,” he said. “You have to act while the energy is there.”

Ruckelshaus, the first administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency under President Nixon, now chairs the Leadership Council of the Puget Sound Partnership, where he is heading the effort to reverse the degradation of our inland waterways.

President Bush created the U.S. Commission on Oceans, which probably seemed like a good idea at the time. But pulling all the environmental agencies together and getting Congress to focus on budgets, regulations and international treaties just never came to pass.

Why is Obama’s action different?

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Politics comes under fire at International Whaling Commission

The International Whaling Commission continues to be pushed and pulled, both from within the organization and from outside. Sometimes I wonder how this organization manages to keep functioning. Following a special commission meeting last week, I thought it might be worth recounting a little history and taking a few comments.

The IWC originally was set up in 1946 to determine what species of whales should be commercially harvested and to establish quotas for long-term sustainability. Many countries, including the United States, have since taken the position that whales should be protected, not killed. Some countries, however, still view sustainable whale hunting as not much different from commercial fishing, and the U.S. supports aboriginal whaling in Alaska and elsewhere in the world.

A moratorium on commercial whaling, started in 1986, remains in effect pending scientific conclusions about stock abundance, reproductive rates and other issues related to population dynamics. Because Iceland, Norway and Russia lodged formal objections to the moratorium, they are not subject to its conditions.

Meanwhile, Japan conducts whaling under special research permits issued by the government. This is one of the most contentious issues in the IWC, and Japan’s fleet of whaling ships has killed several thousand minke whales and other species in the Antarctic. (This is where Sea Shepherd Conservation Society has confronted Japanese whalers on the high seas.)

Because the IWC is voluntary and acts on consensus, its authority is limited. Delegates sometimes find themselves walking on eggshells to keep the organization from falling apart, and sometimes delegates walk out in frustration.

Last week, during the intersessional meeting in Rome, the commission authorized continued work on a policy that could allow limited whaling in the eastern Pacific Ocean. The policy also would look for ways to reduce whaling in the Antarctic.

Anti-whaling groups are calling the deal overtly political and contrary to the scientific approach that has directed the IWC up until now.

“Science has been thrown to the whalers like Christians to the lions in ancient Rome,” said Patrick Ramage the International Fund for Animal Welfare. See the report by the Environmental News Service.

Several conservation groups have called for the firing of William Hogarth, the U.S. commissioner and current chairman of the commission. Hogarth has been walking a tightrope, carefully considering arguments between whaling and anti-whaling countries. It seems as if his goal is to keep the IWC together, even if it means concessions to the whaling countries. For some insight into the difficulties, read the “Report on the Small Working Group (SWG) on the Future of the International Whaling Commission” (PDF 228 kb) and Hogarth’s testimony (PDF 24 kb) before a U.S. House committee.

The Obama administration is not sitting on the sidelines on this issue. Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, issued a statement March 6 with these comments:

The United States continues to view the commercial whaling moratorium as a necessary conservation measure and believes that lethal scientific whaling is unnecessary in modern whale conservation management. The United States also continues to have significant concerns over the recent resumption of international trade of whale meat.

The issues before the IWC are so complicated that I cannot envision a true resolution. As such, I would not be surprised if some sort of solutions result from public pressure and economics rather than international politics.

So what do you think?