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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

The White House & the Sea

Air Date: Week of

Host Steve Curwood talks with James Connaughton, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, about the Bush administration’s position on the Law of the Sea.


CURWOOD: We turn now to James Connaughton, chair of the White House Council on Environmental Quality. Last month, President Bush appointed him to lead the White House Committee on Ocean Policy, and he joins us now from his office in Washington, D.C. Jim Connaughton, Welcome.

CONNAUGHTON: Hello! Real pleasure to be back on the program.

CURWOOD: Now, tell me, what will this new committee do?

CONNAUGHTON: The new committee is going to bring high-level cabinet attention to literally dozens, if not hundreds, of recommendations that we received from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy that President Bush appointed.

CURWOOD: Now, we’ve just heard about the U.N. Convention on the Law of the Sea, and how important many say it is to ocean conservation. What’s the White House position on this treaty?

CONNAUGHTON: We strongly support finally ratifying the treaty which has three important components. One is, it will enhance our national security. Two, it will enhance our ability to exercise sovereign rights over areas of the continental shelf that we currently do not have authority over. And three, there’s strong consensus it will greatly enhance ocean conservation.

CURWOOD: Now, if the president supports ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty, what’s the holdup here? Why can’t he persuade members of his own party in the Senate to bring it to a vote? In particular I’m thinking of the Majority Leader Bill Frist. Seems, some say, that he has it bottled up. What does the White House doing about this? To what extent are you folks pushing for a vote on the Law of the Sea Treaty in this coming session?

CONNAUGHTON: Well, many members of the president’s own party do support ratification of Law of the Sea. A number of members have raised some very legitimate and serious questions about the security aspects of ratification, especially in the post-9/11 world, as well as needed a greater understanding of the economic aspects of the treaty with relation to development and control over these outer continental shelf areas. And we’re going through the typical process, which takes some time, of the hearings – providing hearings, providing testimony, and working to address the questions that those members have raised.

CURWOOD: Indeed. But as far as you know the White House is satisfied with the Law of the Sea Treaty. There are no big issues about intelligence or sovereignty that have you folks at the White House having reservations about this, at this point.

CONNAUGHTON: That’s correct. We went through a substantial vetting process, though, that took more than a year, to make sure that everybody was satisfied with the renegotiated treaty. And so I think, you know, the Senate is now going through a similar process that we went through.

CURWOOD: Now, in Washington I suppose you could spend every day just reading the newspapers about the actions that you take, so you may or may not have seen an editorial discussing the reaction to the appointment of your committee. But the Washington Post recently said that they don’t believe that the White House has a sense of urgency about the oceans crisis, and that, quote, “until the White House acquires more of a sense of urgency, its response is likely to prove inadequate.” To what extent do you think that the oceans are in crisis?

CONNAUGHTON: I think that the oceans require a significantly stepped-up effort in terms of their long-term conservation. We have massive amounts of coastal development occurring, people are using and accessing the oceans more and more for their recreation, and we rely on the oceans in greater amounts as a vital source of food. With all of those pressures they have very significant, and in some cases potentially dire, impacts that we need to head off.

CURWOOD: And, in this case, the Washington Post editorial saying the White House doesn’t see the oceans as a crisis is wrong, from your perspective?

CONNAUGHTON: Yeah, I think they’ve got it completely wrong. Go take a look at the actions we’ve highlighted which merely represent the top level of what are, literally, hundreds of specific steps that we’re now going to take on a going forward basis.

CURWOOD: The biggest obstacle for you in the short term, this ratification of the Law of the Sea Treaty? What’s the biggest hurdle for you right now?

CONNAUGHTON: Well, I wouldn’t speak in hurdles. I think the big challenges that we’re going to take on with relish is further advancement of integrated ocean observation which is a high priority for us, especially in light of the recent tragic events in Asia. Overfishing is a very serious issue and a serious concern to the president as it affects our commercial fisheries and our recreational fishing and the long-term conservation of species. And we’ve identified then a whole series of additional actions. So, Law of the Sea is one of a set of actions that we’ve highlighted in the report we published in December that we’ll be going after very aggressively in the next 12 to 24 months.

CURWOOD: So, what’s your best guess here about what happens to the Law of the Sea Treaty this year? Come some point in this session the United States will join this international agreement?

CONNAUGHTON: We’re hopeful that that will be the outcome, especially because it will give us the additional certainty that our Department of Defense needs for transport along the sea lanes. It will also give us a chance to participate more effectively in the new bodies that are being set up to address who has rights over which areas of the continental shelf…you know, countries like Russia and Scandinavian countries and us all have some overlapping interests in those areas.

CURWOOD: I just want to ask you briefly about a couple of related topics. You’re very concerned about coral reefs. Early indications from the effects of the tsunami in Asia, in the Indian Ocean there, indicates there’s going to be long-term damage to the coral reefs. What does that mean for the people living and using the fishing resource there over the long term? And what could, should the United States be doing about it?

CONNAUGHTON: That will be an area of great study and scrutiny. The effects of natural disasters on coral reef systems obviously have been occurring since the dawn of man, and well before that since the geologic ages. And so, we now are going to have, I think, a greater ability to study the effects of that, and what it means for fisheries and the like, than we’ve ever had before. We know exceptionally little about the interactions of these systems. I think the effects of this disaster in Asia are going to bring even greater international interest and attention to knowing more about what is actually occurring.

CURWOOD: And, of course, what I’m getting at here is that with the tsunami, and with the function of coral reefs as nurseries for fish, that perhaps a whole generation of fish have now been lost that the people have been using to survive on.

CONNAUGHTON: In particular areas. I mean, some fisheries are reef dependent. Many are not. We have the advantage in this day and age of being able to provide food on a global basis. And it promotes, and again, creates a greater awareness of importance in back-up systems, and again, this issue of much stronger and more effective approaches to managing our fisheries so that in an event specific locations are affected we can assure an abundance of fish is a vital food source from other locations.

CURWOOD: Jim Connaughton is the chairman on Environmental Quality for the White House. Thank you so much for taking this time with me today.

CONNAUGHTON: Thank you, I look forward to coming back on the program.



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