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Shortsighted on the seas

Runoff pollution and overfishing are chief reasons that Congress must enact regulations for protecting our oceans and coastal waters.

Published July 27, 2003

In Florida, lawmakers put off a tough cleanup standard for the Everglades. In Virginia, the state refused to support a program to save Chesapeake Bay's declining blue crab population. In the Pacific Northwest, officials chose dams over wild salmon threatened with extinction. While those shortsighted decisions appear to be unrelated, they all signal the confused and ineffective effort to protect our nation's oceans and coastal waters.

Contrary to the way we have treated the sea, it is not infinitely renewable. A comprehensive study by the Pew Oceans Commission released this summer reminds us that the threat to our nation's ocean realm is also a threat to our economy and way of life.

"We must no longer structure our thinking in terms of maximizing the short-term commercial benefit we derive from the oceans, but rather in terms of maximizing the health and persistence of ocean ecosystems," the commission reported, after a three-year study.

Called "America's Living Oceans," the study details the decline of oceans and estuaries under U.S. control, an area that is larger than our land mass.

The greatest immediate threat is from overfishing. "The principal problem is that we catch too many fish, and far too quickly, for nature to replace," the study stated. A recent, independent report based on decades of fish data confirmed the commission's findings. Commercial fishing has reduced the populations of large predatory fish, from cod to blue marlin, by 90 percent, and decimated species don't necessarily recover.

Coastal waters, the nursery for many ocean species, are particularly threatened by population growth and the pollution that comes with it. Nowhere is that more evident than in Florida. While the state's population increased 700 percent since 1940, the Everglades shrank by half and its wading birds declined by 90 percent. The world's third-largest coral reef system, off the Keys, is so stressed that three of four coral species are showing symptoms of disease.

Most of us living on the coast probably think of ourselves as protective of the environment. But two of the most harmful sources of runoff pollution (petroleum products and nutrients from fertilizer and waste) are linked to our lifestyle. "The same amount of oil released in the Exxon Valdez spill - 10.9-million gallons - washes off our coastal lands and into the surrounding waters every eight months," the study found. And scientists consider nutrients the primary pollution threat to marine organisms.

The stakes in our gamble that the ocean will heal itself are huge. Both commercial and recreational fishing contribute tens of billions of dollars to the national economy. Florida residents, especially, should understand the link between clean, productive oceans and our quality of life. Polluted, lifeless waters threaten our health, recreational opportunities and property values.

Yet government's response to the threat is scattered. More than 140 laws pertain to oceans and coasts, and dozens of agencies have some management responsibility.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act, which controls fishery management and conservation, serves the needs of the fishing industry before the public. Eight regional councils dominated by the industry oversee "both conservation (How much should be caught?) and allocation (Who gets to catch it?) decisions," the report stated. The result is "nearly insurmountable obstacles" to managing ocean resources.

Change will need direction from the top, said the Pew commission, a bipartisan group with experience in politics, science and the fishing industry. Congress should enact a National Ocean Policy Act that addresses the fragmented nature of current governance. Regional councils could remain to carry out national policy, but they should represent all of the stakeholders and not be dominated by those who extract wealth from the sea but put nothing back. In particular, conservation decisions should be based on the best science available and made independently of resource allocation decisions.

Yet policy will fail us if it is not backed by a national will to change. "We take our oceans for granted," said Leon Panetta, the commission's chairman. "We must view our oceans as a public trust, and handle them in a way that ensures that living marine resources are there for our children and for future generations."

The Pew Commission report is an important first step in a process that we cannot afford to let fail.

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