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Clinton Pledges Ocean Protection

President Clinton is ordering new steps to stop the degradation of coral reefs in U.S. waters and is extending a ban on oil drilling off much of the West Coast, Florida and the Northeast.

Mr. Clinton was highlighting these moves in a speech Friday at the National Oceans Conference in Monterey, Calif., where he was expected to tout a variety of actions his administration is taking to protect marine habitat and to sharpen the focus of oceans research.

Marine conservation groups have been lobbying the White House to produce a comprehensive strategy for preserving and protecting the oceans. In proclaiming 1998 as the Year of the Ocean, Mr. Clinton said in January that decades of pollution were threatening ocean life.

Environmental activists are concerned that the fishing industry will destroy ocean habitats, and wipe out species of underwater wildlife. Some question why fishermen would want to deplete their own source of income.

"What happens to your own livelihood when there's nothing there to take anymore?" activist Ed Cooper asked CBS News Correspondent Bill Plante.

On Thursday, Mr. Clinton issued an executive order that directs federal agencies to avoid any actions that "degrade the condition" of coral reef ecosystems, and to use their existing authorities to protect and improve the condition of reef structures. He also established a federal task force to oversee the government's efforts to protect coral reef ecosystems.

Kicking off a long weekend that includes a commencement address at Portland State University on Saturday and fund-raising events in San Francisco and Portland, President Clinton was flying to oceanside Monterey Friday for the closing session of the oceans conference. His wife, Hillary, and Vice President Al Gore also were speaking on the conference's final day.

Before delivering his oceans speech, Mr. Clinton was taking a firsthand look at Monterey's colorful marine life by wandering through a tidal pool that sheltered starfish and other sea creatures.

Monterey Bay, the nation's largest marine sanctuary, is a national focus for marine research and education. Until its sardine fishery disappeared in the 1940s, Monterey had been a major fishing port. It is situated on the central California coast, 120 miles south of San Francisco.

The bay is home to sea lions, sea otters, and thick with kelp, which is harvested as a toothpaste and gelatin ingredient. Fishing is still allowed, despite efforts to stop it.

President Clinton's decision to extend a moratorium on oil drilling - first imposed by President Bush in June 1990 - had been expected, even though the current ban does not expire until 2000.

Conservations groups also are pushing for House passage of the Oceans Act, patterned after legislation passed during the Johnson administration that led to establishment of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and to laws protecting coasal waterways.

Despite the urgent tone of the conference, those involved are optimistic that the damage to the ocean environment can be reversed.

"I don't think this conference is an issue of too little, too late. We've done substantial damage to our marine environment and clearly we've got a lot of work to do," said conference member Roger McManus.