First do no harm – oceans in the ER

The following is an article published in the LA Times by Larry Crowder, director of the Duke University Center for Marine Conservation at the Nicholas School of the Environment and Earth Sciences. His makes excellent points that we should do no harm to the ocean and that big changes – at the international level are needed to protect the oceans.

Hawaiian monk seal, Monachus schauinslandiAugust 6, 2006

Healthcare for the Oceans

There’s only one way to save the seas — a scaled up, big-picture effort.

MOST OF US surf, swim and fish without concern for the health of our oceans. But as the Los Angeles Times series “Altered Oceans” made clear, all of that is at risk. The oceans are now afflicted with chronic problems caused by human activities. Like our own bodies, the seas suffer when we put too much into them and expect too much out of them.

Pollution and overfishing have stressed oceans; they can no longer resist disease and degradation. Two national commissions and a global assessment have agreed that the seas are in serious trouble. What can be done?

First, we must recognize that most of the oceans’ problems are symptoms of an approach to governing the seas that no longer works. Currently, we manage one resource at a time, separately focusing on fishing or offshore oil drilling, without considering the effects of one activity on another. In the United States, 20 federal agencies implement more than 140 federal ocean laws. Managers in one agency often care for their issues and constituents without reference to conflicts with the actions of other agencies. For example, endangered Hawaiian monk seals are vigorously protected on the beach by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has failed to fully protect them in the water.

Leatherback sea turtle, Dermochelys coriaceaManagers also may fail because their authority doesn’t match the scale of the problem. Pacific leatherback and Loggerhead sea turtles are protected in U.S. waters, but they feed in other countries and in international waters where they receive little or no protection. The fertilizer and pesticides used by farmers in Iowa or Illinois end up in the Mississippi River and flow into the Gulf of Mexico, causing a “dead zone” and threatening fisheries in Louisiana. But downriver states have no say in farming practices upstream.

A lack of big-picture management also affects problems such as outbreaks of red tide, which can crop up too fast to allow various managers to respond. And problems also can develop too slowly to notice, such as the decline of large marine fishes by 90% over the last 50 years. Clearly we need to get the managers talking to each other.

Second, we need to diagnose and treat the whole system, not just its parts. Scientists call this ecosystem-based management. The ocean contains many different systems. It may look uniformly blue from the air, but it has coral reefs, kelp forests, seamounts, currents and fronts. Resources, like fish or oil, aren’t uniformly distributed, they are in particular places. Ocean “zoning,” which defines what uses and activities are appropriate in specific areas, is already underway in much of Europe and in China. It should be adopted in the U.S. and worldwide to reduce conflicts among human uses of the seas and to protect critical habitats and resources for the long haul.

This will only happen if citizens demand change. Policymakers and managers must hear from us that more of the same is not an option. And change is possible. The citizens of Australia insisted on protection for the Great Barrier Reef, which covers an area the size of the Pacific Coast from Seattle to San Diego. [In 2004], the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority completed its comprehensive marine zoning plan, which zoned various human activities in relation to the underlying habitat and distribution of resources. Nearly 30,000 citizens helped shape the plan, which provides high levels of protection in some areas and leaves others open to fishing and other intensive uses.

Finally, we need to follow Hippocrates’ admonition: First do no harm. Oceans are in the emergency room. Voters, managers and politicians must move quickly to support a more comprehensive approach to healthcare for the oceans. For the sake of the planet, and ourselves.

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