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Congress works on ocean-protection bills

Advocates say the five far-reaching measures also have provisions for studying and preserving coastal waters

As it grappled with the economy, the 111th Congress generated some promising news with a 73-21 Senate vote to approve five far-reaching bills to protect, monitor and explore the world’s oceans.

An endangered sea turtle cruises a coral reef in the Florida Keys.

The Omnibus Public Land Management Act of 2009 (S.22) contains five landmark ocean bills along with provisions designating more than 2 million acres in nine states as federally protected wilderness land.

“I think if these bills make it through the House and onto the president’s desk, they will be the most far-reaching bills for oceans that Congress has adopted in several decades,” says Nina Young, deputy director for external affairs for the Washington, D.C.-based Consortium for Ocean Leadership.

The legislation probably has the votes to pass in the House, which adopted each of the five bills separately in the 110th Congress, only to see them stall in the Senate. But with President Obama’s economic measures at the top of the congressional agenda, the House might have trouble getting to them again, Young says. But she is hopeful the oceans finally will get some attention.

“These bills are all a very good signal for all of us that [the new Congress] want to put science back into ocean management,” says Beth Lowell, federal policy director for Oceana, a Washington, D.C.-based ocean conservation organization. “They are all very important bills.”

The bills include:

• The Coastal and Ocean Observation System Act of 2009: “This is the bill that scientists have wanted for decades,” says Young. It would create an integrated system for collecting and collating coastal and ocean observations for the nation’s coasts, oceans and the Great Lakes; improve ocean and weather forecasting, as well as warnings of tsunamis, hurricanes, El Niño and other natural hazards; and provide forecast support to mariners, and homeland security and coastal and marine resource managers. The goal is to integrate this system with other nations’ systems and create a global ocean observation system.

• NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) Ocean Exploration and Undersea Research Program Act of 2009: This bill would establish a coordinated national ocean exploration and research program. “Five percent of the ocean has been explored,” Young says.

• Ocean and Coastal Mapping Integration Act: It would establish a coordinated and comprehensive federal ocean and coastal mapping program that would use the same benchmarks for ocean and terrestrial mapping. ”We’ve got better maps of the surface of the moon than we do some of our waterways,” Young says.

• Federal Ocean Acidification Research and Monitoring Act of 2009: This bill would provide resources for monitoring acid in the oceans, which in excessive amounts kills reefs and small shell-bearing organisms. This may be the most pressing need addressed by any of the bills, as more carbon dioxide dissolves in the oceans, causing them to become more acidic, Lowell says.

• Coastal and Estuarine Land Protection Act: It authorizes funding to protect threatened coastal and estuarine areas with significant recreational, ecological, historical, aesthetic or watershed protection values.

The Obama administration hadn’t weighed in on the ocean bills in early February, and marine biologist Jane Lubchenco, his choice for NOAA administrator, hadn’t yet taken the reins of that agency, the lead one for protecting oceans. “We don’t see this as being anything the new president would be opposed to,” Young says. “It is quite an amazing lands and oceans beginning for him.”

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.