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Oceans in Peril:
'We Have to Change Course,' say Scientists

by Craig Welch
Seattle Times - February 12, 2004

The last major government report on the state of the oceans, in 1969, urged Congress to ramp up exploitation of the seas to harness untapped food and riches.

The first new federal study of oceans in 35 years will suggest we did so, with alarming efficiency.

Next month, a report from a panel appointed by President Bush is expected to paint a stark picture of oceans in trouble, and will call for sweeping new oversight measures to reverse decades of ecological decline in marine waters.

"We have major problems," said Andrew Rosenberg, dean of life sciences and agriculture at the University of New Hampshire, and a member of the president's U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, which has been working for three years on the report. "Whether you label it a crisis or not, we view the issues as very severe. We have to change course."

At least one-third of fish stocks measured by the National Marine Fisheries Service are considered "overfished," including several Pacific groundfish species that will take decades to rebound. The journal Nature reported last year that the estimated number of large ocean predators globally - tuna, marlin, sharks and halibut - has plummeted 90 percent in half a century. Nutrient-filled runoff has polluted at least 38 separate U.S. coastal waterways with enough algae that they're starved of life-giving oxygen - waters ranging from portions of nearby Hood Canal to a "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey.

Half the nation's population now lives near an ocean: Exploding shoreline development pollutes marine waters, and retaining walls designed to keep land from eroding into the sea prevent beaches from nourishing productive shorelines.

The president's 16-person panel ultimately plans to recommend the establishment of regional ocean councils coordinated by a national council run from the White House, which would govern an entire ecosystem, said Marc Hershman, director of the University of Washington School of Marine Affairs. Hershman also serves on the panel. The regional councils would coordinate oversight of a wide variety of activities, even land-based actions high up in a river system if they could affect marine life.

"We're recommending a fairly bold shift in the way we do ocean management across the country," Hershman said. "We're talking about an eco-region approach."

In advance of the report's release, Rosenberg, Hershman and others will join marine experts this week at the American Association for the Advancement of Science meeting in Seattle, where they'll highlight new discoveries and approaches to restore ocean health.

For the first time, members of the panel will speak alongside members of the nonprofit Pew Oceans Commission, which last summer completed a $5 million bipartisan study that outlined hundreds of problems with U.S. coastal waters.

The Pew group - which included former White House chief of staff Leon Panetta and other politicians from both major parties - recommended the creation of a new government agency to halt what it characterized as the potential for marine-ecosystem collapse.

Many in the commercial-fishing industry and Congress dismissed the findings, in part because Pew funds environmental groups and some scientists' research. That highlights an uneasy truth: Even with breathtaking advancements in our grasp of how seas are changing, understanding the scale of damage to marine ecosystems with any precision remains a politically charged, Herculean task. It's made more complex by improving fisheries management, and even some species that appear to be rebounding.

"If you read the popular science journals, you'd believe we're on the verge of an ecological catastrophe, and that's grossly overstated," said University of Washington professor Ray Hilborn, who serves as a science adviser to Bush's commission. "I call it 'the disaster litany.' "

Still, the presidential panel for which Hilborn works sees danger ahead, according to a brief report it sent to Congress in 2002, which read: "The oceans are in trouble. Our coasts are in trouble. Our marine resources are in trouble ... all, perhaps, in serious trouble." And members of both the Pew and presidential commissions insist the similarities in their findings will outweigh differences.

"There will be differences in nuances, but the fundamental picture is the same," Rosenberg said.

Seattle resident William Ruckelshaus, another commission member and former head of the Environmental Protection Agency under presidents Nixon and Reagan, is more blunt. "Facts are facts, and we're operating off the same set," he said. "Uncertain science is going to be with us for 100 years or more. It's time to take prudent steps to reduce damage while we wait for the science to improve."

As it is, new information on ocean health has been arriving at a lightning clip:

"Sea turtles, globally, are in trouble," Rosenberg said. "Albatross in the Pacific are in trouble. We have habitat problems. Deep-water species such as sharks are at risk from overfishing because there is no longer any refuge in any waters of the world where a vessel can't get to."

Commissioners say they believe the problems lie in fractured management, with more than 100 separate local, state and federal bodies dictating pieces of ocean policy.

In Oregon, for example, the state manages nursery areas for troubled rockfish near promontories, and controls sport harvesting. But a regional federal-fisheries council controls commercial fishing of the same species, and the two governments sometimes don't even talk to one another, Hershman said.

In addition, some governing structures seem designed to fail, commissioners said. Environmental groups for years have raised objections over what they say is the ineffectiveness of regional councils that oversee commercial fishing and have governed during the decline in many stocks. The environmentalists have largely been dismissed by members of Congress and federal agency officials who point out vast improvements in recent years.

But members of the Bush panel share many of their concerns.

"In a lot of global fisheries - Chilean sea bass and orange roughy - we don't have any regulatory regime," Ruckelshaus said. "But in the U.S., in some cases, we've had a regulatory regime and the stocks still aren't properly managed.

"If you need an example where plain inattention to man's impacts on a marine species' habitat has put something in jeopardy in a generation, look no further than salmon."

Even today, federal fisheries managers in Seattle are still trying to gauge with precision what's wrong with the 27 species of Northwest salmon now listed for protection under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Craig Welch, Seattle Times staff reporter
Oceans in Peril: 'We Have to Change Course,' say Scientists
Seattle Times, February 12, 2004

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