Oceans & Coastal Resources:
A Briefing Book
Congressional Research Service Report 97-588 ENR
Redistributed as a service of the National Library for the Environment


Prepared by Alfred R. Greenwood

Senior Analyst in Natural Resources Policy
Environment and Natural Resources Policy Division.


Population Impact
Threats to Ocean and Coastal Resources
Petroleum and Mineral Developments
1992 Earth Summit and Follow-up

More than two-thirds of the Earth is covered by water, with oceans and inland seas accounting for almost 140 million square miles. The United States and its insular areas, such as Puerto Rico, Virgin Islands, American Samoa, Guam, have more than 13,000 miles of coastline, and the offshore U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone totals almost 3.4 million square miles.

The United States and the international community have important interests in ocean and coastal resources involving such issues as pollution of the resource base, food from the sea, energy and mineral development, marine transportation, and military applications. Equally important, an understanding of oceanic processes and air-sea exchange is vital to scientific estimates of the probability and of the timing and magnitude of global warming. A major concern is the possible impact of increasing population, development, and other human activity on the oceans and coastal environment, and feasible actions to better understand, define, and prevent unacceptable degradation.

Population Impact

In a joint statement on February 26, 1992, the U.S. National Academy of Sciences and Britain's Royal Society of London warned that actions are necessary to curb population growth and to modify human activities harming the environment to prevent "irreversible damage to the Earth's capacity to sustain life." The two academies further noted that "if current predictions of population growth prove accurate and patterns of human activity on the planet remain unchanged, science and technology may not be able to prevent irreversible degradation to the environment."

According to the Population Reference Bureau, Inc., world population is projected to double from 5.4 billion in 1991 to over 10 billion by the middle of the next century. World population increased from one to two billion from 1800 to 1930; but it took only 30 years to reach a population of three billion in 1960. Current population growth is estimated to increase by almost 100 million a year until the year 2020. In the United States, almost 50% of the population resides in coastal areas. From 1960 to 1990 the population of coastal areas increased from 80 to 110 million and is projected to reach 127 million by the year 2010. If these population trends continue, heavy demands will be placed on ocean and coastal resources, not only from population growth near the coasts, but also from the need for food from the sea to satisfy world protein requirements, and the production of energy and minerals from offshore deposits.

Threats to Ocean and Coastal Resources

Ocean resources are subject to deterioration from: sewage, chemical, and garbage disposal; runoff from agricultural and forested lands; exploitation of fishery resources; development of energy and mineral resources; and coastal infrastructure development.

In recent years, the United States has experienced a degradation of coastal water quality, a loss of wetlands, closure of beach and recreational areas, and pollution of fishery and shellfish resources that diminish the resource base, contaminate seafood, and endanger human health. It has been estimated that 70% of U.S. commercial and recreational fish and shellfish depend on estuaries and the coastal environment at some point in their life cycles. Toxic chemicals and sewage dumped into the Nation's coastal waters have contaminated harbors and waterways. A major source of pollution has been some 20,000 combined sewer overflows (CSOs), sewers that combine storm water and sanitary flows, which empty directly into rivers and coastal waters. Heavy rains and flooding in California in 1992 resulted in severe CSO overflows which forced the temporary closing of 70 miles of beach along the coast adjacent to Los Angeles.

Significant economic activity and growth has occurred as coastal residential, commercial, and recreational development has accelerated in recent decades. For example, approximately 50% of annual U.S. residential construction during the past two decades occurred in coastal areas. During the 1980s alone, 6.7 million housing units were constructed in coastal areas, with Florida and California accounting for 45% of this growth. Population growth and the attendant development of residential, industrial, commercial, and recreational facilities are likely to continue into the future and to continue to stress coastal ecosystems which are among the most productive on Earth.

This increasing concentration of development along the Nation's coasts entails a risk to life and property from major storms. For example, Hurricane Andrew, one of the most devastating natural disasters ever to strike the United States, roared across southern Florida and into the low lying coastal areas of Louisiana in August 1992, affecting the lives of more than 275,000 residents of these two states. Estimates of the enormous damage caused by the storm range from $25 to $30 billion. Hurricane Hugo, the 1989 storm that struck the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, and came ashore at Charleston, South Carolina, caused damage estimated at $6 billion, including approximately $2.8 billion of federal disaster assistance and $400 million of insurance payments from the National Flood Insurance Program. If some scientific estimates of global warming prove accurate, the attendant sea level rise would severely threaten most coastal communities. These predictions are likely to stimulate significant debate at the local, state, and federal level concerning the future development policies (and insurance rates) in the coastal zone.

Petroleum and Mineral Developments

Against this background, there continues to be interest in the leasing and development of U.S. Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) oil and gas resources. Unless domestic energy production increases enough to keep up with energy demand, oil tanker traffic bringing foreign crude oil to the United States will continue to increase as will the potential for oil spills. In either case, there is public concern about possible environmental damages.

While not a signatory to the 1982 United Nations Convention on Law of the Sea, due to opposition to its deep seabed mining provisions, the United States took steps to align itself with some of its provisions by establishing a U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extending 200 miles from the Nation's coasts and also extending the U.S. territorial sea from 3 to 12 miles. Under authority provided in the Deep Seabed Hard Mineral Resources Act of 1980 (P.L.96-283), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has issued exploration licenses to four seabed mining consortia, although no commercial recovery has yet occurred. On July 29, 1994, the Clinton Administration signed an Agreement to the Convention following progress made in negotiations to accommodate seabed mining interests. On October 7, 1994, President Clinton transmitted the 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, together with the 1994 agreement modifying Part XI of the Convention, to the Senate for advice and consent to ratification. However, no action has been taken to date.

Many nations, including the United States, have been interested in Antarctica as a potential source of petroleum and other mineral resources. There has been disagreement about whether even regulated development should be permitted on this environmentally sensitive continent. The Protocol on Environmental Protection to the Antarctic Treaty would place a ban on the development of mineral resources in Antarctica in order to preserve its environmental quality. As of April 20, 1997, 24 of the 26 consultative parties necessary for adoption of the Protocol, including the United States, have deposited their instruments of ratification of the measure.

1992 Earth Summit and Follow-up

In 1992, the United Nations held the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro, popularly known as the Earth Summit, to address comprehensively global environmental problems and their connections to economic activity. One of the major areas of focus was the oceans and marine resources. In preparation for the 1992 Conference, the United States prepared an extensive report, The United States of America National Report, that included a a section on oceans that provides one of the most inclusive reviews of facts and figures about U.S. oceans issues and programs; appendix B to this report reproduces the full text of the oceans and coastal resources section of the U.S. report.

At the conclusion of the UNCED on June 14, 1992, an "action plan for the 21st century,t' called Agenda 21, was adopted. Chapter 17 focused on oceans issues and includes the protection of the oceans, all kinds of seas (including enclosed and semi-enclosed seas), and coastal areas and includes the protection, rational use, and development of their living resources. (See appendix A for full text of Agenda 21, Chapter 17.) The session concluded that new approaches to marine and coastal areas management and development at the national, subregional, regional, and global levels would be necessary over the next decade. Seven program areas were identified for international protection and sustainable development:

Two issues regarded by Earth Summit negotiators to require further international agreements were: (1) marine pollution--especially land-based sources of pollution; and (2) "straddling stock" fisheries, in which fish stocks migrate or travel between national and international waters. Both of these were the subject of subsequent negotiations, resulting in international agreements. A treaty under the Law of the Sea on Conservation and Management of Highly Migratory Fish Stocks was concluded in December 1995, after 2-1/2 years of negotiations, and signed by the United States. Also in 1995, the United States hosted an international conference that resulted in A Global Programme of Action for the Protection of the Marine Environment from Land-Based Activities, an agreement which is not legally binding.

The United Nations Commission on Sustainable Development (CSD) was established following the Earth Summit to meet annually and to track the implementation of Agenda 21. A 5-year review of all activities relating to the Earth Summit decisions is scheduled for the Spring of 1997, to be followed by a Special Session of the United Nations to review progress and obstacles in implementing Agenda 21.

The United States established the President's Council on Sustainable Development (PCSD) in 1993 to consider an appropriate strategy in the United States for implementation of Agenda 21. The Council released its report, Sustainable America: A New Consensus for Prosperity, Opportunity, and a Healthy Environment for the Future, in 1996. This report focused on U.S. actions, mainly within the borders of the United States; the only element directly addressing oceans issues was a section of the chapter on natural resources stewardship, where "Replenishing and Protecting Fisheries" is addressed from the standpoint of U.S. national policy. A follow-up report, Building on Consensus: A Progress Report on Sustainable America, was issued in January 1997.

Because of the competing uses of oceans and coastal resources and the potential for increased degradation of the resource base, Congress and the public are likely to give increasing attention to these and other issues affecting these resources.

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