An SOS for the Oceans

In Derek Hansen’s novel Sole Survivor, a band of plucky, environmentally minded New Zealanders triumph against a fleet of ruthless Japanese longline fishermen intent on strip-mining the seas. The book makes exciting reading, but in reality, those Japanese fishermen—and their counterparts in an international network that spans the globe—have the upper hand. Neither local law nor multinational treaty has done much to stop the wholesale, unsustainable harvesting of the seas. The collapse of fishery after fishery, creating vast underwater dead zones, is vivid proof of that.

Jerry Russell Illustration

The living oceans are becoming as vacant as a clear-cut forest. Consider the once-magnificent Florida Keys, as pure a symbol of nature’s bounty as anything on this planet. The Keys today, write Ellen Prager and Sylvia Earle in their book The Oceans, are a shadow of what they once were. Most of the mangroves have been removed or filled to create land for construction. Ships, tankers and pleasure craft criss-cross the waterways, injuring manatees, spilling oil and crashing into the now-endangered coral reefs (also attacked by disease and bleaching). Turtles sprout bulbous tumors from a pollution-induced virus. Crabs, scallops and sponges are no longer a common sight, and it is now illegal to harvest conch, once a vital symbol of the Keys.

But Prager and Earle also see in Florida "a region where people are trying to effect positive change." A determined effort by grassroots activists, educators, eco-conscious tour operators and state and local governments is beginning to at least slow down the destruction. David Helvarg’s cover story in this issue profiles some of these ocean activists, many of whom are working to save the seas one fish and one marine mammal at a time. "For me, the great thing was spending time with the men and women who are trying to preserve this water resource for all of us," says Helvarg. "I feel a connection with the people who are involved with the ocean and find their joy in it, because it’s where we all come from."

Unfortunately, the election of George W. Bush has made ocean protection—indeed, any environmental advance—much more difficult on the federal level. At press time, the Administration was beginning to pay for its fealty to corporate polluters with some prodigious declines in leading public opinion polls. Plainly, an Administration that wants to ignore global warming, increase arsenic levels in drinking water and runoff from mines, limit the public’s right to sue for endangered species protection and roll back energy-efficiency measures is out of step with the American people.

The Bush Administration’s early signals on meat safety—the subject of the second feature in this issue of E—are also not encouraging. Bush’s Agriculture Department was forced into an embarrassing reversal after it announced that it would no longer test school-lunch hot dogs and other bacteria-prone meat for Salmonella infection, suggesting schools rely on irradiation instead. Salmonella kills 600 people a year in the U.S., and school-age children are particularly vulnerable.

Jim Motavalli