Ocean Exploitation Surfaces as Crisis
"Ocean conservation is poised to become the next global warming issue," said Gerry Leape, who runs the marine conservation network for the National Environmental Trust. "The science is settled. The debate can move on from whether or not there is a crisis to what to do about it."
Scientists and policymakers point to a variety of ominous signs. Ninety percent of the world's large predator fish -- those at the top of the food chain -- have disappeared over the past 50 years, two Canadian scientists reported last year in a widely publicized study. At least a third of the fish stocks that the federal government monitors are overfished, officials say, and the status of hundreds of other species is unknown. The motor oil dropped on American streets ends up in the oceans at the rate of 10.9 million gallons every eight months -- the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill. And the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico -- an area the size of Connecticut where high nitrogen levels kill all marine life -- expanded again this summer.
"There is a consensus that our oceans are in crisis and that reforms are essential," a massive study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts concluded last year.
James L. Connaughton, who is President Bush's top environmental adviser as head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the seas sustain "our economy, our environment and our society."
"Restoration, wise use and conservation of the oceans has come to the forefront of environmental priorities, not just for the nation, but for the world," Connaughton said. "There's a massive bipartisan and regional consensus toward embarking on a new generation of progress."
For centuries, the various studies note, Americans have treated coastal waters as theirs for the taking, seeking bounty with little government oversight. Fishing boats trawled and trapped at will, oil companies built huge rigs to tap offshore resources, and cruise ships crisscrossed sensitive habitats so tourists could gawk at marine life.
"It cannot be viewed as the Wild West anymore," said retired Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "There need to be some sort of property rights. That sort of cultural change is very hard."