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Experts raise red flag over oceans

Making waves like never before, scientists with conservation groups and government agencies this week issued appeals for mankind to save its oceans and the marine life that live there.
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Making waves like never before, conservationists this week issued appeals for mankind to save its oceans and the marine life that live there, from pollution, overfishing and too many people. The biggest waves came from a report — released Wednesday after three years in the making — that urges the United States to overhaul an ocean policy dating back to 1969 and reflecting what it calls a “frontier mentality.”

HAVING “FOCUSED on oceans as a frontier with vast resources ... we have failed to conceive of the oceans as our largest public domain, to be managed holistically for the greater public good,” the Pew Oceans Commission report concluded.

Financed by the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts, the commission billed its work as the most thorough review of U.S. ocean policy since 1969, when another commission laid out what was to become guiding principles. Key proposals include:

Double the federal ocean research budget. It’s been around $755 million a year over the last decade — less than four percent of the nation’s total science research budget.

Pass a National Ocean Policy Act that “embodies a national commitment to protect, maintain, and restore the living oceans.” Overfishing is a particular concern, underscored by a study last month estimating that industrial fishing fleets have removed as much as 90 percent of the giant tuna, swordfish, marlin and other big fish from the world’s oceans.

Create an independent oceans agency to streamline federal decisions as well as regional “ecosystem councils” made up of fishermen, scientists, citizens, and government officials. The latter would develop ocean management plans and create more marine reserves to protect fragile ocean habitats.

Set aside some coastal areas now eyed for housing and other development.

Restrict destructive fishing gear and eliminate the wasteful practice of discarding unintended catch.

Set tighter limits on runoff from farms, cars and factories. Caused miles inland, that runoff is the biggest cause of pollution in coastal waters.

Representing the conclusions of 18 scientists, fishermen and lawmakers, the Pew report urged a major overhaul in policymaking.

“A century ago, President Theodore Roosevelt instilled a conservation ethic for our land that resulted in such national treasures as ... Yosemite and the Grand Canyon,” said commission chairman Leon Panetta, a former California congressman and chief of staff during the Clinton administration who urged Congress and the Bush administration to do the same with U.S. coastal areas.

Panetta said among the things he learned is the fact that every eight months 11 million gallons of oil - the same amount spilled by the Exxon Valdez tanker in Alaska in 1989 - drains from land pollution into oceans.


The report follows on the heels of what organizers called the first-ever international conference where environmental groups, scientists, business executives and government officials drafted a policy agenda.

Like the Pew report, the Defying Ocean’s End conference urged nations to think of the ocean as a public trust, not an open frontier. Attendees also urged nations to:

Expand marine reserves. Less than one percent of ocean waters have this protection and its particularly needed around seamounts, or mountains that rise from the ocean floor, where there’s a heavy concentration of marine life.

Survey species. The conference called for an immediate, massive effort to more accurately assess which species are at risk. Scientists suspect thousands of species have yet to be discovered, let alone assessed for risks.

“The world’s ocean is the last living frontier on Earth. Its diversity and productivity exceed that of any on land, but has barely been explored,” conference chairman Graeme Kelleher said in a statement. “Prevention now is better than scrambling for a cure later.”

Famed marine scientist Sylvia Earle, a conference organizer who is with Conservation International, called the steps taken Tuesday “unprecedented and bold.”

An anonymous donor also put up $5 million, to be matched by $4 million from other donors, in order to turn the agenda into action.

“We couldn’t afford yet another meeting where we just sat around and created a wish list,” Earle said.


In the United States, the Bush administration has essentially stuck to the ocean policy of its predecessors.

But a special presidential commission is preparing a report to Congress this fall with a new approach on ocean issues.

The head of that panel, James Watkins, said its members are aware that policy needs to look at overall impacts, such as pollution from runoff miles inland.

he added, will recommend such an approach as well as policy that weighs impacts on all species and habitats within a ecosystem rather than making decisions fish by fish as if each species were independent.

“You can’t separate physics from chemistry, from biology, from geology. When you try to do that, you end up in the management mess we find today,” he said.

Watkins cited the case of the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico, where farm fertilizer and industrial runoff deposited by the Mississippi River depletes the ocean of oxygen needed for marine life.

“One of the major findings is going to be that the oceans don’t start at the coastline - there are 41 states and two Canadian provinces that cause the dead zone in the gulf,” he said. “So everyone’s in the ocean business.”

The Pew Oceans report is online at . The Pew Trusts is a $4 billion foundation created by the children of the founder of Sun Oil Co., now Sunoco Inc.

The Defying Ocean’s End conclusions are online at .

The Associated Press contributed to this report.