A group of top U.S. marine scientists today urged the incoming Obama administration and members of the U.S. Congress to implement a "bailout" for the oceans. "We've been borrowing against the future for far too long, and the oceans can't lend us any more. We must act responsibly and live within our means," said Dr. Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist and senior vice president, North America, Oceana. Just as our terrestrial economic bubble depended on lax oversight and wishful thinking, we have resisted managing the ocean for long term sustainability rather than short term profit, warned the scientists.
"The good news is this bailout can be affordable if we act fast," said Dr. Jeremy Jackson, director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation, Scripps Institution of Oceanography. "We need to limit rather than expand human activities such as fishing," added Jackson. To underscore his point, a new peer-reviewed study of overfishing, published December 10, 2008 by scientific journal PLoS ONE, found that the "total catch per capita from large marine ecosystems is at least twice the value estimated to ensure fishing at moderate sustainable levels" into the future. (Marta Coll et al. Ecosystem Overfishing in the Ocean. PLoS ONE 3(12): e3881. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0003881, found at www.plosone.org)
Although the facts about the accelerating decline of the oceans have become clear, the sheer scale of the oceans encourages a belief that they are infinitely resilient. In fact, we have damaged our oceans so badly that scientists have concluded that many marine species will collapse and even become extinct within the next few decades. However, if the U.S., in cooperation with other nations, acts immediately, we can prevent further extinctions and ecological disruptions. New studies and reports continue to underscore that the well-known threats are worsening faster than we thought.
The marine scientists identified the worst human threats to ocean life as destructive overfishing, climate change (including ocean acidification) and other forms of pollution.
The statistics for the long-term health of fisheries are grim. Global catches have been declining since the late 1980s. According to a recent World Bank study, an estimated $50 billion is lost globally each year - a sum equivalent to more than half the value of the global catch - due to poor fisheries governance and overexploitation. Subsidies provided to commercial fishing fleets, led by the governments of developed and developing nations alike, are driving these species into oblivion. According to U.S. data, the populations of nearly half the important fish species for which we have information are below healthy levels-and fishermen are still overfishing 24 percent of the important fish species for which we have data, despite the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which has required an end to overfishing since 1996. Populations of iconic species such as Atlantic cod and bluefin tuna are now a tiny fraction of their former abundance. "The economic pressures to keep on fishing have overwhelmed common sense," said Dr. Jackson. He adds that our failure to stop overfishing will encourage more resistant species such as jellyfish - the future rats and cockroaches of the oceans - to flourish and replace other species.
Climate Change and Ocean Acidification
A new report estimates that the extinction risk for corals has increased dramatically over the last few decades and unless the effects of climate change and other stressors are not checked, remaining reefs could vanish. Major swaths of the world's marine food webs will be unable to adapt fast enough to survive the rapid acidification of the ocean, caused by rising emissions of carbon dioxide. Left unchecked, these emissions will cause catastrophic extinctions within the next few decades. These changes will likely result in dramatic declines in shellfish and finfish populations. "Ocean acidification could eliminate tropical coral reefs and dramatically reduce shellfish populations worldwide within a few decades," said Dr. Jeffrey Short, Pacific science director, Oceana.
According to Clive Wilkinson, editor of the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network's Status of Coral Reefs of the World: 2008, which estimated that the world has already lost 19 percent of its original coral reefs since 1950, these trends "will have significant impacts on the lives of the people in developing countries who are dependent on reefs for food, for tourism and for protecting the land they live on."
The Arctic region is warming twice as fast as the rest of the Earth. An area of sea ice about a quarter the size of the United States has been lost since the 1950s, with consequences for both Arctic Ocean ecosystems and our climate.
The recent dramatic losses of Arctic sea ice threaten to break the planet's thermostat. If not reversed soon, the loss of sea ice may trigger an irreversible cataclysmic temperature increase that far exceeds the range of adaptation for current civilization. Stopping these losses must be a high priority for policymakers worldwide. The most immediately practical way to avoid the warming effects of greenhouse gases is to reduce emissions; and this is the only way to avoid the effects of acidification. "As Alaskans demonstrated during the Juneau power interruption last spring, the United States could probably reduce emissions by approximately 30 percent within months, through conservation without undue economic dislocation," said Dr. Short. "That would result in a measurable decline in the rate of carbon dioxide increase in the atmosphere within a year and set a powerful example for the rest of the world."
California state regulators are again leading the rest of the nation. Last week, the California Air Resources Board voted unanimously to adopt the U.S.'s first comprehensive plan for regulating warming greenhouse gases. (The New York Times, Felicity Barringer, 12/11/08)
In addition to greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change and ocean acidification, human activities on land have a pervasive effect on the ocean. Over-enrichment with nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus create dead zones and degrade ecosystems in other ways. According to a recent paper in the journal Science, dead zones-areas with inadequate amounts of dissolved oxygen for most ocean life -"have now been reported from more than 400 systems...and are probably a key stressor on marine ecosystems." (Robert Diaz and Rutger Rosenberg, Science, 8/15/08)
This rapidly growing problem is heightened by population growth, dietary changes, biofuel production and fossil fuel combustion. According to another recent Science paper, the dispersal of nitrogen from the land through the atmosphere is even enriching surface waters of the open ocean, allowing the ocean to absorb more carbon dioxide but also resulting in increased emissions of nitrous oxide, another greenhouse gas. (R. Duce et al., 5/16/08)
Efforts to reduce nutrient pollution in the United States have been only modestly successful, not only because of inadequate controls on emissions but also because degraded ecosystems resist recovery. Among examples of the most degraded areas are the Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico dead zone and the coastal waters of Europe.
Although scientists have observed progress in reducing toxic pollution, contaminants from human activities are distributed and persist over wide areas of the ocean, often resulting in subtle but significant effects on marine animals, even in remote polar regions.
"While various plans and goals are in place to reduce ocean pollution, concerted actions to implement them have fallen well short," said Dr. Donald F. Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. "Much as with climate change, time is running out because the longer the affected ecosystems remain in a degraded state, the harder it will be to recover them to a healthy condition."
Together, overfishing, pollution and climate change act synergistically to degrade ocean ecosystems much more than any one factor acting alone. The collective damage is especially apparent in the mass mortality of reef corals and the rise of dead zones in estuaries and coastal seas. Thus, achieving real progress will require addressing all problems simultaneously.
Restoring widespread health and productivity in ocean ecosystems can be achieved. But it will take leadership from the highest levels of government.
"We need a statement from the new Administration that the U.S. is ready to bail out the oceans to protect marine biodiversity and related economic opportunity worldwide. Policymakers at all levels of government should support managing the oceans to protect the long term health of ocean ecosystems. Achieving this goal soon will provide long-term economic benefits," said Dr. Hirshfield. This statement by the administration should be followed up by decisive actions that help achieve this goal and should be enshrined in law by the U.S. Congress
Toward that goal, U.S. leaders should do the following:
"Conservation is our only choice and we must act now," said veteran undersea photographer Brian Skerry.
Shifting to a new energy economy and capitalizing on wind and solar power rather than investing in offshore drilling will reduce the effects of climate change and create more green jobs. "If we enact these policy changes soon, we can restore the health of ocean ecosystems enough to allow us all to live off the interest from our investment, instead of wiping out our common bank account," said Dr. Hirshfield.