Oceans in Peril

If we're not careful, the world's oceans could end up being huge watery graves for formerly thriving marine life. The dumping of large amounts of pollutants from numerous sources, habitat degradation, the introduction of invasive species, and overfishing are taking a severe toll on the health of our oceans.

According to a report released by the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP) in March 2004, high levels of nutrients from agricultural runoff and airborne deposition of various pollutants have created 150 so-called dead zones in the world's oceans. The report outlines what scientists believe is an increase in the number of coastal areas experiencing significant decreases in oxygen levels. These areas, which are not able to support aquatic life such as fish and shell fish, range in size from a few square kilometers (km) to more than 70,000 square km.

"Human kind is engaged in a gigantic, global experiment as a result of the inefficient and often over-use of fertilizers, the discharge of untreated sewage and the ever rising emissions from vehicles and factories," Klaus Toepfer, director of UNEP, said in reference to the findings of the report.

One of the most well-publicized dead zones is the 6,000-square-mile area in the Gulf of Mexico at the mouth of the Mississippi River. During the summer, the area has little or no oxygen and severely impacts the fishing and shellfishing industries. Other dead zones have been observed off the coasts of China, Japan, South America, Australia, and New Zealand. The report, Global Outlook Year Book, is available at www.unep.org/geo/yearbook.

"Ultimately, as the oceans become increasingly barren, human nutrition suffers," Nancy Knowlton, the director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography's Center of Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, stated in a recent guest editorial in Environmental Health Perspectives. "Over two billion people worldwide depend on marine resources for a substantial portion of their dietary protein. We have already eaten about 90 percent of the big fish that live on the continental shelves and the open ocean, and in many coastal waters, densities have been reduced to a far greater extent. Although the affluent are for the moment buffered by global markets, developing countries with large impoverished coastal populations are already suffering from the nutritional impact of overfishing."

Echoing many of the UNEP report's findings, the draft report issued by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy on April 20, 2004, calls for "an ecosystem-based management approach" to reverse the decline of what the commission members called the word's greatest natural resource.

"The existing fragmented system for dealing with our oceans and coasts is not solving the problem," James Watkins, retired admiral and former energy secretary, who chaired the commission, said. "This report offers a blueprint for a coordinated, comprehensive ocean policy for the 21st century."

Specifically, the report's recommendations pertain to reducing water pollution, particularly from nonpoint sources, strengthening the link between coastal and watershed management, setting up a coordinated management regime for federal waters, and improving the management of fisheries in a way that boosts the role of science and separates the assessment of fisheries from allocation decisions.

According to the commission's report, the way to address this problem is through the creation of a National Ocean Council within the office of the U.S. president, which would be composed of top officials from federal agencies that share responsibility for ocean policy, as well as a nonfederal advisory committee appointed by the president. The report also calls for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to be strengthened "to allow it to execute its many ocean- and coastal-related responsibilities." The commission took comments through June 4, 2004. It then plans to make revisions prior to submitting the final report to the White House later this year. The draft report is available at www.oceancommission.gov.

Legislation is pending in both houses of the U.S. Congress that would enact some of the ocean commission's recommendations. Rep. James Saxton (R-N.J.) introduced H.R. 3627 in November 2003, but no hearings have taken place yet. In contrast, the Senate passed legislation (S. 1218) in March 2004 related to coordinating interagency ocean science programs and has referred the bill to the House for consideration. To learn more about these bills, check out the Library of Congress' Web site at thomas.loc.gov.

Implementation of this new comprehensive plan is the sea change that we need in order to halt the decline of our oceans. We must work quickly to preserve the seas around us that are now caught in a dangerous undertow caused by pollution and out-of-control plundering of our marine resources.


This editorial originally appeared in the September 2004 issue Environmental Protection, Vol. 15, No. 8.

This article originally appeared in the 09/01/2004 issue of Environmental Protection.

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