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Bush Fishes for Healthy Oceans

He didn't exactly throw his line very far, but President Bush did put a hook out last week that might help him catch an important legacy for his second term: Creating a comprehensive US plan to save and protect the oceans.

In setting up a Committee on Oceans Policy in the White House, Mr. Bush added an important chair at his cabinet table. The new body, headed by James Connaughton, chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, is charged with managing a long list of action items, from protecting coral reefs off Florida to better management of fisheries to coordinating research on oceans.

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The move is only a start, though, to what should be more aggressive action to rescue oceans from pollution and overfishing. Many coastal areas are now "dead zones" and many fisheries are at historic lows, with 90 percent of big-fish stocks gone.

Especially vulnerable are coral reefs, the nurseries for much sea life. A new report by the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network finds 20 percent of the world's reefs "have been effectively destroyed and show no immediate prospect of recovery."

Bush's baby steps in setting policy for the oceans are aimed mainly at pushing the dozens of federal agencies dealing with oceans (as well as coasts and the Great Lakes) to start swimming in the same direction.

What the president did not do - yet - was adopt many of the best recommendations made this year by the independent Pew Oceans Commission and the federal Commission on Ocean Policy. Perhaps he's waiting until his new term to start doing for oceans what Richard Nixon did for the nation's dirty skies.

Part of the resistance to an oceans policy is that it's widely assumed that something so vast - 70 percent of the earth's surface - can heal itself. And so many interests are exploiting the seas, from cruise liners to shrimpers, that Washington manages it with a Byzantine array of oversight bodies.

But the threats to the oceans demand strong remedies, such as giving the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) more clout. "If you're going to wait for a Sept. 11 to happen with regards to our oceans, the fact is it is happening," says the Pew Commission's Leon Panetta. Like intelligence-agency reform, Bush has a chance to mold government toward the task of saving the waters that nurture the planet.