San Diego

A top-level panel's demand for major reforms in US ocean management and research is getting the brush-off from the White House, say some of its members.

In a low-key announcement on 17 December, President George W. Bush said that he would set up an advisory committee to study the 212 recommendations of the Commission on Ocean Policy. These were published in September after a huge review of issues that ranged from fisheries conservation to coastal pollution.

But commission members are frustrated because Bush failed to promise substantial new funding. The commission's recommendations would have cost about $1.5 billion in the first year, ramping up to nearly $4 billion in annual spending after five years, according to its chairman, James Watkins, a former energy secretary.

“I'm a bit disappointed,” says Andrew Rosenberg, a commission member and a fisheries scientist at the University of New Hampshire, Durham. The administration's response, which it was legally required to issue, “is very much a fig leaf”, he says.

And Watkins himself says that the White House “fails to hit the nail on the head”. Current funding for managing coastal waters “is inadequate”, Watkins says, and the response does not specify by how much it should be increased. The oceans are “a precious resource”, he adds, “and we don't have much time.”

The commission was established by Congress in the final year of the Clinton administration in a bid to reinvigorate US ocean policy, but its members were chosen by the Bush administration. It took three years to research its findings, which are similar to, but milder than, those of a privately funded panel, the Pew Oceans Commission.

Environmental groups are even more critical of Bush's plan. “It's a big yawn; there is nothing there but a lot of hot air,” says Gerry Leape, marine programme director at the National Environmental Trust. “It is a real missed opportunity.”

But James Connaughton, a lawyer and chairman of the White House's Council on Environmental Quality, says that the administration will pursue a concrete response to the commission's recommendations. A list of research programmes worth supporting will be compiled by March 2005, he pledges.