Pew Report Finds U.S. Oceans in Crisis

By J.R. Pegg

June 4, 2003 (ENS) - The nation's oceans are in crisis from overfishing, pollution and development, and the government's patchwork of laws and bureaucracies are failing to protect them, according to an independent report released today.

The report from the Pew Oceans Commission calls for a new national commitment to the oceans and for dramatic efforts - including the creation of a single federal agency to set and oversee U.S. ocean policy - to reverse the decline of ocean wildlife and the collapse of ocean ecosystems, and to preserve the ecological, economic and social benefits the oceans provide.

"The American public needs to know that our oceans are in trouble," Leon Panetta, chair of the Pew Oceans Commission, told reporters at today's press conference. "As much as we love the oceans, and given how much we care about them, we must accept real signs of crisis out there."

"What we are trying to do today is encourage leadership before crisis overwhelms us," said Panetta, a former U.S. Congressman and White House chief of staff for President Bill Clinton.

If the nation does not act swiftly and boldly, Panetta says, "the precious cycle of life will be broken and in danger of collapse."

The 144 page report, entitled "America's Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change" took three years to develop and was funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, a $4 billion foundation created by the children of the founder of Sun Oil, now known as Sunoco. The commission's 18 bipartisan members were drawn from fields of marine science, commercial and recreational fishing, private industry, conservation, government and economics. reef

The U.S. has more square miles of oceans under its control than it does land. (Photo courtesy Oceana)
The report is the first of two major analyses of U.S. ocean policy due this year - the other, currently being finalized by the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, should be released this fall.

The Pew Oceans Commission's nationwide study of U.S. ocean policy found "overwhelming evidence that our oceans are in crisis and consensus that today's ocean management is failing," Panetta said.

The report notes that less than 25 percent of the nation's fish stocks under federal management are sustainably fished, Atlantic halibut are commercially extinct in U.S. waters, and scientists estimate that industrial fishing has depleted 90 percent of many large marine fish species.

Although the health of the oceans is clearly an international issue, Panetta says the U.S. has "an obligation to lead by example."

It has been three decades since the United States fully reviewed its oceans policies and in the interim a "hodgepodge" of ocean laws and programs have developed, mostly as individual responses to crisis. Now more than 140 federal laws pertain to the oceans and coasts, collectively involving six federal departments and dozens of federal agencies.

The commission says this has caused widespread mismanagement under a framework ill equipped to respond to new environmental, economic and policy challenges. As a result many species are overfished, coastal wetlands and estuaries that serve as nurseries are polluted and disappearing, commercial fishing interests are suffering, and invasive species are gaining a stronger foothold in many ecosystems.

The commissioners believe this could be remedied by the creation of a National Ocean Policy Act that embodies a "national commitment to protect, maintain and restore the living oceans" and the establishment of an independent oceans agency to streamline federal management.

The new oceans agency, as conceived by the commission, would include the Commerce Department's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and marine programs with the Interior and Agriculture Department as well as the Environmental Protection Agency and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

The commission says such an independent agency could coordinate a system of regional ecosystem councils to help shift the government away from managing individual species toward management that is ecosystem based.

The commission says this approach should place a priority on the long term health of marine life and marine ecosystems and central to the goal is the separation of conservation decisions from allocation decisions within the fishery management process. It recommends efforts continue to minimize bycatch, including gear restrictions if necessary. reef

New technologies can reduce the billions of pounds of annual bycatch, but endangered sea turtles and other species are still often at risk. (Photo courtesy Oceana)
Concerns that a new federal agency would bypass local involvement are misguided, added commission member Tony Knowles, a former Alaska governor who has also served on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

"The guiding principle of these recommendations is that national standards are appropriate and local solutions are vital," Knowles explained.

The commission believes these regional ecosystem councils should also help identify and develop a national network of marine preserves, in an effort to create a conservation effort rivaling what is seen on land.

The nation's ocean resources are vast - some 4.5 million square miles or 23 percent larger than the nation's land mass. But less than one percent of U.S. ocean waters are protected in marine reserves, Panetta said, whereas 4.6 percent of the nation's land is protected as wilderness.

"If we do not protect some of these places, shame on us," said commission member Roger Rufe, retired U.S. Coast Guard Vice Admiral and president of the Ocean Conservancy. "President Bush has the opportunity to be the Teddy Roosevelt for the oceans."

The commission says its report and recommendations aim to restore the sustainability of the U.S. fishing industry, which brought in some $28.6 billion into the U.S. economy in 2001. It recommends a permanent fishery conservation and management trust fund that would help communities and individuals adjust to reformed fishery management efforts.

Commission member Patten White, a commercial fisherman and CEO of the Maine Lobstermen's Association, urged his fellow fishermen to come together to make difficult choices in order to ensure the long term sustainability of their trade.

Fishing has changed dramatically in the past half century, White explained, but the improved techniques have not been accompanied by improved fisheries management.

"While our technology has greatly improved, more and more fishermen are struggling to survive," White said. "We need to fix it now."

These recovery efforts must also address Issues of increasing coastal development and pollution, the commission says, if the U.S. is to effectively change its oceans policy.

Half the U.S. population lives along the coast, millions more visit each year and as a result "we are loving our coasts to death," said commission member Joseph Riley, the mayor of Charleston, South Carolina. coast

Coastal development is putting added strain on the very ecosystems people are so keen to visit and live within. (Photo courtesy National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)
The report recommends stricter development regulations in coastal areas and watersheds and calls upon Congress and state governments to work together to set aside habitat critical to coastal ecosystems.

The nation must take on nonpoint source pollution, the report details, such as runoff from urban sprawl and agriculture.

Pollution from "hundreds of miles inland is a great threat to coastal waters," says commission member and former U.S. astronaut Kathryn Sullivan, who added the current regulatory framework is ill equipped to tackle these pollution challenges.

The report cites a scientific estimate that some 10.9 million gallons of oil - the size of the Exxon Valdez oil spill - runs off roads and driveways every eight months and points to the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico caused by nutrient runoff into the Mississippi River. This area of water, which is degraded from lack of oxygen, is the size of Massachusetts.

The commission calls for national standards that set nutrient pollution limits, watershed based approaches to nonpoint source pollution abatement as well as stricter measures to reduce pollution for animal feeding operations and cruise ships.

The global demand for seafood continues to rise and the commission noted that sustainable aquaculture will be an important means to feed this demand in the future. The report focuses on marine aquaculture and urges a comprehensive regulatory framework be developed.

Citing concerns about pollution and biological risks to wild populations, the commission recommends that a moratorium on marine fin fish farms be put in place until such a framework is devised.

The science used to support future policy decisions is vital to a sustainable future for the nation's oceans and coastal areas, the commission says, and it urges the doubling of the federal ocean budget to $1.5 billion. Funding has stayed flat at about $755 million for the past fifteen years, explained commission member Charles Kennel, a figure that is less than four percent of the nation's total research budget.

"If there ever was a time to increase the investment in ocean research, that time is now," said Kennel, the director of the Scripps Institution for Oceanography. "We know more about the surfaces of Mars and Venus than we do about the floor of the ocean."

The policy recommendations in the report all "make complete economic sense," added Geoffrey Heal, a professor of economics and finance at Columbia University. The recommendations pass the cost/benefit test, Heal said, and are necessary to reverse an "unacceptable" situation. fishfarm

The report notes the increasing importance of fish farms, but recommends tight regulations to limit environmental impacts. (Photo courtesy B.C. Salmon Farmers Association)
The report released today has been much anticipated and comes in the wake of a five day international conference called "Defying Ocean's End" that sounded similar warnings about the crisis in the world's oceans.

Coordinated by Conservation International, the conference brought together some 100 marine experts from 20 countries to launch a new science based effort to reverse the decline in health of the world's oceans - 60 percent of which are in international waters, outside any country's jurisdiction.

There are some, however, who believe the Pew Oceans Commission has simply got it all wrong. Officials with the National Fisheries Institute (NFI), a nonprofit trade association that represents the fish and seafood industry, say the world's ocean fisheries are far from collapse.

NFI cites rebounds in the New England groundfish population and the North Atlantic swordfish stocks as well as the increased sustainability levels of Alaskan fisheries - where half the U.S. catch is landed.

The Pew report is a rationalization for policy recommendations to centralize fisheries management and science decisions in Washington, D.C., according to NFI, that would create more layers of unnecessary bureaucracy.

The "gloom and doom" claims of the report, says NFI President John Connelly, "simply ignore a mass of positive scientific and industry data to the contrary."

Some Democrats in Congress welcomed the report, but House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo, a California Republican, called the report a "$5.5 million picture book."

Pombo slammed the Pew Foundation as an "organization largely dedicated to funding radical environmental lawsuits" and said in a released statement that "criticism always sells, regardless of fact."

The Sustainable Fisheries Act, passed in 1996, is addressing the issues of sustainable fisheries management, Pombo says, and there is no need to reform the nation's ocean policy.

But many support Pew's findings, including famed ocean explorer Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. fishfarm

New marine protection areas could help threatened marine mammals, such as the sea otter. (Photo by Mike Boylan courtesy U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)
"We have abused the oceans in a major way and we now face a major crisis," Cousteau told ENS. "This report is a slap in the face and hopefully we will wake up. It can not be business as usual and we must have the courage to make difficult decisions."

The technology to catch fish outpaced our scientific understanding of ocean ecosystems, Cousteau explained, and these ecosystems - and many of the world's fishing communities - have suffered because of it.

"Many fishermen are the victims," Cousteau said. "I am on the side of the fishermen, I do not want them to lose their jobs."

The crisis in the oceans is a global issue, Cousteau said, and the entire world must take responsibility to turn the tide.

"It is not just the United States it is the planet as a whole," he said. "This effort is in the interest of every human being and it is important to remember that it is not too late."

"I am going to use and abuse the name I have inherited to push these recommendations," Cousteau said. "If we can reach the hearts of people we can move mountains."

For more information about the report, see the Pew Oceans Commission site.