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Ocean Is on the Line

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 -

have shown:

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.

New Zealand, Australia, the Philippines and several other countries have

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.

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