COMMENTARY: Stirring the Waters

A Blue Note on the State of the Oceans

Healthy seas and coasts are essential to the nation's economy, security, and stability.© Getty Images

With the global economy in free fall, industrial gasses altering our atmosphere, human population expanding and marine and terrestrial ecosystems unraveling, we’re at a historic juncture for the world, the nation and the world"s oceans.

One somewhat hopeful sign for America’s blue frontier is Secretary of Interior Ken Salazar’s decision to shelve last-minute Bush administration plans to open new offshore waters to oil and gas drilling, though a long-term moratorium on offshore drilling needs to be reinstated. Another positive sign is the expected appointment of Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration. The nomination and subsequent withdrawal of Republican Senator Judd Gregg to be Secretary of Commerce, like Bill Richardson before him, had much to do with politics but little with our public seas even though NOAA is the largest element within the Department of Commerce.

Still, I’d suggest to the next Secretary of Commerce—most likely former Governor of Washington, Gary Locke—and to our other national leaders, that we’re not likely to see an economic recovery or an effective climate strategy if we don’t pay attention to the role of the ocean.

Healthy seas and coasts are essential to the nation’s economy, security, and stability. About half of America’s GDP is generated in its 600 coastal counties (which are home to $4 trillion of insured property). And to some degree, everyone is at risk from the cascading marine ecological disasters of global overfishing (loss of food security), nutrient and plastic pollution (public health threats), coastal sprawl (increased risk of disaster), and climate change (big increased risk of disaster).

A recent study by NOAA scientists working with their colleagues in Europe found that industrial carbon dioxide build-up in the atmosphere is likely to result in sustained regional droughts and rising sea levels (and storm surges) for at least the next 1,000 years.

A United Nations convened panel of 155 scientists from 26 countries noted that acidification of the ocean represents an “imminent” threat to the survival of coral reefs, shellfish and the entire marine food web.

“Nobody really focused on it because we were all so worried about warming,” marine scientist Jeremy Jackson told The New York Times, “but it is very clear that acid is a major threat.”

Philippe Cousteau, grandson of Jacques, was one of the featured speakers at the Blue Vision Summit in Washington, D.C.©

If this wasn’t enough bad news, long-time offshore-oil-drilling opponent Richard Charter was nice enough to forward me a story about how 20 years after the Exxon Valdez oil spill, key Prince William Sound indicator species are declining, including orcas, whose unique endemic whale language may soon go extinct along with the last local orca families.

The best available science is predicting the worst imaginable scenarios and what’s most frustrating is that although we know what the solutions are, we just haven’t mobilized the political and popular will to implement them.

A Course Correction for the Politics of the Ocean

There were innovative courses of action discussed at the just-ended Blue Vision Summit March 7-10 in Washington, D.C., which featured everyone from environmental activist and writer Bill McKibben to Philippe Cousteau, grandson of Jacques, as well as other top national and international ocean experts. One topic of discussion was zoning or “marine spatial management,” which would incorporate a system of improved watersheds and estuaries, offshore shipping lanes and greener ports, wildlife migration corridors, clean energy, national defense and fishing areas, recreational and marine wilderness parks, and other benefits.

Also needed is Congressional passage of a U.S. Ocean Act at the level of the Clean Air Act or Clean Water Act of the last century, in order to ensure that this kind of tidal change is enshrined as the law of the land.

But first there’s the Law of the Sea to deal with. After 30 years of delay, part of the Summit Capitol Hill Day was used to encourage our Senators to finally ratify the Law of the Sea Treaty this year and reengage with the rest of the world in setting the basic rules for navigation, exploration, and conservation on the world ocean. The Treaty, endorsed by the full range of ocean interests from oil companies to Greenpeace, isn’t even low-lying fruit; it’s on the ground rotting, just waiting to be picked up. A more daunting political challenge for the Obama administration and Congress will be comprehensive management of the 3.4 million square nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone that stretches 200 miles out from U.S. shores.

Still, we’re hopeful that new approaches such as a federal Ocean Act or a White House ocean initiative, driven and monitored by a bottom-up seaweed (marine grassroots) constituency, might yet inspire broad public support to help restore our public waters and shores from sea to shining sea.

CONTACT: Blue Frontier Campaign

DAVID HELVARG is an author and environmental activist and the president of the Blue Frontier Campaign. This commentary first appeared on the Blue Frontier website.