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Ocean Ecosystems Collapsing, Study Finds
Natural Resources Defense Council
Revised, June 2, 2003

After decades of human abuse, the world's oceans are in a state of "silent" collapse. That's the chief conclusion of a report to Congress issued in June 2003 by the Pew Oceans Commission, a bipartisan, independent group created to chart a new course for the nation's oceans policy. After a multi-year assessment, the commission concluded that the loss of ocean life reaches far inland, threatening jobs, cultures, ecosystems and more.

The commission's report is the first such comprehensive look at all aspects of ocean health in 30 years. Over the course of its rigorous assessment, the commission issued seven reports on various subtopics. This final report, addressed to Congress, assesses the ocean's health from sea bottom to inland estuaries and makes a series of recommendations. At the heart of these recommendations is the need to refocus human activity in the oceans -- away from constant use and extraction of resources, and toward better stewardship, revitalization and recovery.

The commission concludes that human misuse of the seas is the heart of the problem:

"Marine life and vital coastal habitats are straining under the increasing pressure of our use. We have reached a crossroads where the cumulative effect of what we take from, and put into the ocean substantially reduces the ability of marine ecosystems to produce the economic and ecological goods and services that we desire and need. What we once considered inexhaustible and resilient is, in fact, finite and fragile."

The problems the report details are far-reaching:

  • Coastal development is destroying wetland areas and estuaries that provide critical habitat for valuable fish species. Beyond destroying ecologically sensitive areas, ever-increasing development has also created a network of paved surfaces that serve as "expressways for oil, grease, and toxic pollutants into coastal waters."
  • The runoff of nutrients from farm and yard fertilizers is causing harmful blooms of algae, resulting in the loss of seagrass and kelp beds, as well as coral reefs -- all of which provide critical shelter and important spawning grounds for fish and ocean wildlife.
  • Overfishing, destructive fishing practices and other threats to fish populations exact a heavy toll. Thirty percent of assessed populations are fished unsustainably, with an ever-growing number of species on their way to extinction as a result.
  • Invasive species are taking root in coastal waters, crowding out native species, damaging ecosystems, destroying the food chain, diluting gene pools, and more. Invasive species "hitchhike" in water taken on as ship ballast on ocean vessels, escape from fish farms, or are discarded from home aquariums.

In addition, climate change over the next century will "profoundly impact coastal and marine ecosystems." Expected problems include rising sea levels and an accompanying loss of coastal wetlands and other important waterways, and damage to habitat-rich coral reefs from increased temperatures.

A 'Frontier Mentality'

The report describes the crisis as the result of a failure of "both perspective and governance." U.S. ocean policy is a patchwork of laws, many written several decades ago as quick fixes for specific problems. What's missing is a unifying vision of ocean stewardship, the panel says.

Instead, national policy toward oceans is driven by a "frontier mentality," taking the general view that oceans are inexhaustible resources, so vast that human activity can barely make a dent. In fact, the evidence is just the opposite: decades of abuse are taking a measurable toll on the oceans, with predictable negative consequences for the communities, cultures, and economies dependent on them.

'A New Course'

The Pew Oceans Commission recommends in its report that management of marine life be brought into the 21st century by adopting a variety of necessary policies. First, the commission calls for the creation of a national ocean agency that consolidates existing federal agencies and directs them to develop policies to protect and restore ocean resources.

Also needed: better management of fisheries, to make sure that conservation decisions are made by scientists and that policies are geared toward protecting and restoring ecosystems.

The commission recommends the creation of marine reserves that would act as national parks of the sea, in which plants and animals are protected from certain harmful activities, thus allowing ocean ecosystems to recover and marine species to rebound.

And it calls for increased protection of wetlands, sounds and beaches from unwise development, by replacing federal programs that encourage habitat destruction with incentives for protection and restoration.

Chartered in 2000, with support from the Pew Charitable Trusts, the Pew Oceans Commission explored all aspects of ocean health, issuing a series of reports on marine fisheries, ecosystem management and conservation, the ecological effects of fishing, coastal sprawl, marine pollution, marine aquaculture, and introduced species. The commission is chaired by Leon Panetta, a former member of Congress who served as White House chief of staff during the Clinton administration. In Congress, Mr. Panetta sponsored several ocean-friendly pieces of legislation, including a bill to create the Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary and legislation to protect sensitive coastal and ocean areas from harmful offshore drilling activities.

The 18-member commission includes NRDC president John Adams; Eileen Claussen, president of the Pew Center of Global Climate Change; Tony Knowles, former governor of Alaska; George Pataki, governor of New York; and Dr. Kathryn Sullivan, chief executive officer of Columbus, Ohio's Center of Science and Industry, and a former astronaut who was the first American woman to walk in space.

NRDC's ocean initiative is making implementation of the commission's recommendations a top priority.

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