Since the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau titled his
1950s book and documentary film "The Silent World," the ocean has spoken up,
and it is complaining.
Like swells from distant storms suddenly surging upon a crowded beach,
waves of new ocean studies are reporting the depth of overfishing, failures of
ocean management, fish-farm contamination, invading species and new diseases,
coastal crowding and pollution, dying coral reefs - and what could be done to
ease such problems.
But despite the news flood, none of the political bodies seem to be moving
their beach blanket. They've applied more sun-block and rolled over. They've
heard the wake-up call and hit the snooze button.
The veritable tsunami of recent scientific studies - originating from
weighty ocean-science centers such as Duke, Stanford, British Columbia and
Dalhousie universities, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and elsewhere -
The numbers of large fishes we prefer to eat, such as tuna, cod, swordfish,
shark and grouper, have declined roughly 90 percent since 1950.
Consequently, fishing boats are scouring lower in the food chain, catching
even jellyfish for human consumption.
One quarter of all sea life caught is unwanted and discarded dead,
endangering sea turtles, albatrosses and certain fishes. Shrimp boats discard
10 pounds of unwanted marine life for each pound of shrimp.
Invading species transported by seafood farmers and, especially, in ships'
ballast water are spreading new problems and diseases to our waters.
More than half the world's 6 billion people live near coasts, creating
pollution from pesticides, sewage, factories and other sources.
Climate warming is stressing coral reefs and melting polar ice, increasing
coastal flooding, and threatening food supplies of penguins and polar bears.
Having spent a lifetime in intimate contact with the sea around us, I'm
sorry to say these findings ring true. But take heart: Some problems have been
solved. Turtle drownings have been reduced by putting escape doors in nets.
Seabirds can be protected with devices designed to scare them from industrial
fishing lines, or by fishing at night or setting nets deeper.
The United Nations successfully eliminated the 40-mile-long
"curtains-of-death" drift-nets in the 1990s. Some whales recovered enough to
support whale-watching ventures. Even certain fish are recovering due to
tougher regulations. This should inspire hope and a new ethic of ocean
stewardship, spurring more vigorous, widespread application of solutions.
But we have a long way to go. The capacity of fishing fleets - fishing
power - must be roughly halved. In a world facing still-increasing human
populations, this will be challenging. Alaska and several countries reduced
fishing power by setting allowable catches and then letting boats buy and sell
shares of the total.
This system enables some marginal operators to make money by selling out
their shares while other marginal operators increase profitability by buying
shares. For this to work economically, fish landings must be well capped and
enforced, thus maintaining fish populations. To benefit fishing communities,
share limits must safeguard smaller operators and prevent corporate
accumulation. Alaska's system does both.
We need new ocean governance. U.S. fishing falls under the National Oceanic
and Atmospheric Administration. There, buried deep in the Department of
Commerce, it plays Cinderella to favored siblings like the weather service,
space program and others.
As the independent Pew Oceans Commission recently affirmed, a separate
oceans agency is needed, focusing on stewardship of ocean wildlife rather than
exploitation. President George W. Bush has appointed a National Ocean
Commission; its findings are due this fall. They could chart a course toward
recovery of the fish and habitats relied on by coastal communities,
recreational ocean lovers and the seafood industry - and let the administration
claim one victory for the environment.
established ocean reserves, closed to fishing. Fish grow and breed more
successfully in reserves. But, as on land, we cannot rely solely on wildlife
refuges. Users must also receive guarantees that they stay in business. What is
needed is not just closed reserves, but ocean zoning.
Zoning would explicitly allow a range of activities in a range of
designated areas, while setting aside sensitive habitats and breeding grounds.
Zoning would accommodate commercial and recreational users, plus establish
strategic "no-take" reserves.
We need international cooperation. The frontier mentality must yield to a
high seas enclosed in law, acknowledging the public trust and our ethical
responsibilities to other creatures.
The United Nations must vigorously implement its recently enacted high-seas
fishing treaty and its "Plans of Action" for depleted sharks and seabirds. And
we need public concern. Consumers can play a large role in improving fishing
and ocean farming practices. Environmental organizations publish evaluations of
menu choices seafood lovers can enjoy with a clear conscience.
Answers to ocean recovery lie in fishing at a pace slower than fish can
breed, farming seafood less destructively and giving consumers information to
vote their conscience with their wallet. So, yes, there is hope.