Action on oceans at last?

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Dear EarthTalk: Oceans are in big trouble and I understand President Obama is creating a high level ocean council to address them. What are the major issues? — Steve Sullivan, Bothell, WA

Our oceans are indeed in a terrible state, thanks primarily to unrestrained commercial and industrial activity. Overfishing and pollution have decimated once abundant stocks of fish and other marine life, and the damaging practices continue to this day despite international agreements outlawing them.

Our appetite for seafood has pushed three-quarters of the world’s fisheries to or beyond the limits of sustainability, while nine out of 10 of the sea’s large fish like tuna and swordfish have disappeared. And while it is still unclear what toll global warming will have on oceans—coral reefs dying and powerful ocean currents shifting or shutting down are two scary scenarios—the outlook is grim at best.

While George W. Bush was no friend to the environment overall, his record on ocean protection is actually not too bad. After convening a commission of experts from various disciplines to report on the state of U.S. oceans, his administration took steps to protect 215 million acres of biologically rich deep sea ocean habitat in the Pacific near Hawaii and Guam. The newly protected areas are off limits to resource extraction and commercial fishing but open for shipping traffic, scientific research and minimal impact recreation—and should provide a boon for fish and other marine species trying to recover from decades of abuse. But while such protections are a huge step in the right direction, they represent less than a drop in the bucket as to what still needs to be done to help fish stocks and marine ecosystems recover.

In light of ongoing threats, President Obama last June set up a task force to craft a national ocean stewardship policy. Led by Nancy Sutley, chair of the White House’s Council on Environmental Quality, the task force is currently working to draft a framework for sustainable management of American coastal and ocean resources. Currently 20 different federal agencies oversee some 140 ocean protection laws; Obama has charged his task force with pulling together all the different authorities and laws to focus attention on addressing the most serious challenges facing the oceans and those who manage them.

Environmentalists have been quick to praise Obama for creating the task force—something called for by Bush’s oceans commission and other experts—but it is unclear how effective it can be given competing political priorities. Some members of Congress are pushing an omnibus ocean protection bill called Oceans-21, which aims to regulate fisheries, establish a network of protected areas, provide an oceans management framework to rescue coasts and off-shore areas, and help ocean life survive global warming.

Fortunately, Americans are not the only ones concerned about the world’s oceans. The United Nations launched its Oceans and Coastal Areas Network—later renamed UN Oceans—in 2003 to coordinate ocean and coastal efforts around the world. More recently, several island nations in the western Pacific and Indian oceans formed the Coral Triangle Initiative, adopting a 10-year plan of action to avert growing threats to coral reefs, fish, coastal mangrove buffers and other marine resources across the region. While the challenges may be greater than ever, at least now our oceans are getting some long-overdue attention; only time will tell if we took action in time to stave off a global collapse of marine ecosystems.


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