Charting the Oceans' Health A sea change to regret

Posted: April 23, 2004

Sunny days. Temperatures flirting with 80. It's beach time. Get out those umbrellas. The Shore is calling.

The rejuvenating power of the tide beckons 180 million people every year to play on our nation's beaches.

The oceans supply much more than fun. They are a vast natural resource, offering food, water, weather, even life-giving oxygen.

Coastlines provide a home to half the U.S. population and employ tens of thousands in fishing, recreation, and tourism. U.S. ports handle $700 billion in goods. The cruise industry and passengers account for $11 billion in spending. Commercial and recreational fishing is valued at $48 billion a year.

But as much as Americans love and need the oceans, they are slowly destroying them.

In the first in-depth look at the oceans in 35 years, two separate commissions - one independent, the other governmental - have concluded that our oceans are in deep trouble from overfishing and pollution. They call for better management, more research and widespread education to curb this dangerous tide.

Congress and the President should not ignore these reports. These commissions spent several years studying the science, traveling the country and interviewing the stakeholders. Although independent and bipartisan, the Pew Oceans Commission leans toward conservationists. The Bush-appointed U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy overrepresents industry. All views are here, and they concur: The oceans need help.

Consider these facts from the Pew report:

Every eight months, nearly 11 million gallons of oil run off our streets and driveways into our waters - the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

More than 60 percent of our coastal rivers and bays are degraded by nutrient runoff that eventually damages seagrass, kelp beds or coral reefs - the spawning grounds for fish. Each year pollution creates a dead zone the size of Massachusetts in the Gulf of Mexico.

Thirty percent of the fish populations that have been assessed are overfished. An increasing number are being driven toward extinction.

Invasive species are crowding out natives in coastal waters.

These trends can be reversed, if the United States changes its situational approach to managing the seas. Since the last significant government action on oceans - in 1969 - scientific understanding of the interconnectedness of land and oceans has progressed. Now, for example, scientists can trace the problems of Chesapeake Bay up the Susquehanna River to farm runoff in Pennsylvania. In today's world, environmental management must involve more than studying a declining species in isolation.

That takes money and cooperation. The U.S. Commission recommends creating an oceans trust fund from the royalties of offshore oil and gas drilling. That's a smart idea.

Let us not end our days with Burt Lancaster's lament in Atlantic City: "The Atlantic Ocean was something then. Yes, you should have seen the Atlantic Ocean in those days." There's still time to act. Congress and the President should heed this urgent call to respect our oceans.

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