More than four years after two independent expert panels urged the Bush administration and Congress to immediately overhaul the nation’s oceans policy, few of their recommendations have been implemented and the state of the oceans is deteriorating rapidly.
Overfishing, pollution and climate change are wreaking havoc with ocean ecosystems and driving species into extinction, leaving scientists and advocates fearful for the future absent dramatic action to change course and desperate for leadership from President-elect Barack Obama.
“We need a statement from the new administration that the United States is ready to bail out the oceans to protect marine biodiversity and related economic opportunity worldwide,” said Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist and senior vice president of the North American arm of Oceana.
Hirshfield is hoping for “concrete action” early in the Obama administration, such as an executive order calling for a new oceans policy stating the nation’s intent to manage the oceans for long-term sustainability, rather than short-term profits.
Such a statement must be followed up by aggressive and decisive actions by Congress to help reach this goal, he said.
“We need a change in attitude from our government – we need a new national policy that puts the long-term health of our oceans first,” said Hirshfield. “Achieving this goal soon will provide long-term economic benefits.”
The early signs from the president-elect provide cause for optimism, Hirshfield said, particularly the decision to put marine biologist Jane Lubchenco in charge of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
A vocal critic of overfishing, avowed conservationist and supporter of marine protected areas, Lubchenco also served on both the Pew Oceans Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy – the two panels that crafted hundreds of recommendations for a fundamental overhaul of U.S. oceans policy.
The choice of the Oregon State University professor is a “clear signal from the administration that they are going to put the long-term health of the oceans first,” Hirshfield told ENS. “They couldn’t have picked anyone better.”
While Lubchenco’s nomination has provided new hope for ocean advocates, that optimism is sobered by new and emerging evidence that the decline of the oceans is accelerating.
The latest statistics on fishing worldwide present a dour outlook, as industrial outfits have become devastatingly successful at plundering ocean species. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that more than 75 percent of the 600 fish species it monitors are fully exploited or depleted.
A new peer-reviewed study published this month suggests the fish in large marine ecosystems are being caught at rates that are at least double the level considered sustainable.
Fishing is decimating large iconic species such as tuna, swordfish, marlin and cod – some researchers estimate only 10 percent of all such large fish remain.
“We are fishing down the food chain,” said Jeremy Jackson, director of the Scripps Institution Oceanography’s Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation.
Furthermore, harmful fishing practices are ravaging sensitive species such as sea turtles, sharks and dolphins, while also destroying fragile underwater ecosystems.
The area of the sea floor ravaged by trawling “rivals all the forests ever cut down by humans in history,” Jackson said at a National Press Club press conference December 16.
Overfishing is clearly a global issue, Jackson said, but the United States needs to show leadership and get its house in order.