Ocean Rescue Can We Head Off A Marine Cataclysm?

Camping Alongside the Pacific Ocean at Shi Shi Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington, US (© Roddy Scheer / DanitaDelimont.com)
Camping Alongside the Pacific Ocean at Shi Shi Beach, Olympic National Park, Washington. © Roddy Scheer

As I walked along the beach in northern Washington, scouting for garbage to put in the heavy-duty trash bag they had given me at the Olympic Coast clean-up orientation session a few hours earlier, I came upon a sad sight. A sea otter had somehow lost its way and ended up dead on Shi Shi Beach. With its life drained away, the otter’s matted fur seemed to have lost its luxuriant richness, appearing more a drab gray than the chestnut brown I would have expected from the world’s most prized fur.

Lacking a Ph.D. in marine biology, it was hard to tell what exactly killed the wayward sea otter. It might have been a predator, but I didn’t see any visible wounds. Maybe it succumbed to leptospirosis or one of any dozen other bacterial outbreaks slowly making their way up the coast from California’s marine mammal populations. Or perhaps one of the hundreds of tanker ships that pass through the area every week had discharged some oil into the water, contaminating an abalone or crab that the otter had enjoyed as an unwitting last meal. Or maybe it had starved while foraging far and wide for dwindling amounts of shellfish. I noted the dead otter’s location to report to the National Marine Sanctuary group that was overseeing the beach clean-up.

Then I got back to work. I had volunteered to help clean-up Shi Shi Beach, a pristine sea-stacked affair on the northwest corner of the continental United States, just a four-hour drive from downtown Seattle. While other beach clean-ups happening around the country on this Earth Day might have focused on empty beer cans and abandoned beach toys, my work at Shi Shi, three miles from the nearest road and only accessible via a muddy tromp through verdant old-growth forest, focused more on debris washed up onto the beach from the turbulent Pacific. A large piece of broken fishing net. A weathered shipping palette. An oil can. A mélange of odd-shaped plastic pieces. Each item in my assemblage represented one or another major threat to the world’s oceans. The otter was just the coup de grace.

“Houston, We Have a Problem”

A lot of people are worrying about the world’s oceans these days. In 2000, Congress passed the landmark Oceans Act, which called on the President to establish a commission of experts to assess threats to marine life and resources and develop recommendations for a new comprehensive ocean policy. While the legislation was passed in the final days of the Clinton administration, the onus fell on then-newly elected President George W. Bush to actually set up the commission and appoint its members. Bush chose retired Admiral and former Secretary of Energy James Watkins to head the group. Also chosen for the 16-member commission were Bill Ruckelshaus, the nation’s first Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) administrator, and Robert Ballard, the oceanographer whose discoveries have reshaped thinking about the ocean floor. Academics and high-level executives from various maritime industries rounded out the membership.

At around the same time, the Pew Charitable Trusts, a group of foundations committed to the environment and social welfare, convened its own commission of marine experts to conduct an independent assessment of the status of the world’s oceans. The membership of the Pew Oceans Commission was weighted toward environmentalists and scientists, but also included industry perspectives.

Given the different political and professional make-ups of the two commissions, it would not have been surprising if they came to vastly different conclusions. But both commissions agreed that the world’s marine environments are critically endangered due to pollution, development, resource extraction and myriad other human-induced problems, and stressed that stronger governance and innovative technological and policy solutions are needed urgently to help avert a global crisis.

Most significantly, both commission reports called on marine policy planners to manage resources from an ecosystem-based perspective, emphasizing sustainability over short-term economic gains. “The old bottom line was to manage the ocean for profit,” says marine biologist Boris Worm, who authored a 2003 study estimating that only 10 percent of large predatory fish are left in the ocean. “The new bottom line is to manage the ocean for survival.”

Former EPA Administrator Ruckelshaus says he’s not surprised that the findings from the two commissions were so similar. “The facts are there for everybody to see, and any commission that was straightforward and honest about it would have found the same thing,” he says. “Our recommendations were a little different, but not that much. The two commissions were both made up of people who have had a lot of experience in these areas and they are bound to come to close to the same conclusions.”

Indeed, environmental and ocean activists were optimistic that, in the face of such dire unanimity, the White House would be hard pressed to ignore calls for the reform of ocean policies. “The fact that they agreed that protecting marine ecosystems is essential for our national security and environment put us beyond denial,” says David Helvarg, founder of the Blue Frontier Campaign, a network of grassroots ocean activists.

ocean rescue
© Roddy Scheer

But despite its involvement in selecting the commissioners and shepherding them through the report creation process, the Bush administration seems to be ignoring most of the recommendations of its own U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy. Last December, the White House produced its Congressionally mandated response in the form of its U.S. Ocean Action Plan, in which it commited to work on some 40 of the 212 commission recommendations. The plan makes vague pledges to study the other issues more carefully over an undefined time period.

Weak Action

To environmentalists, the White House plan has few bright spots. Some are encouraged by the document’s commitment to the beleaguered United Nations Law of the Sea Treaty, the pledge to develop coral reef conservation strategies with affected states, and the federal blessing of market-based approaches to reduce strain on exploited fisheries—but each proposed action invites questions about both feasibility and motives. Furthermore, activists are incensed at the White House’s outright rejection of its own commission’s proposal to take $4 billion out of federal off-shore oil and gas revenues to fund an oceans trust fund. And many environmentalists consider the Bush plan to put the burden of cleaning up the oceans and reforming marine policy at the state and regional levels to be a colossal passing of the buck.

Even Admiral Watkins, who chaired the federal oceans commission, worries that the White House is “giving us a menu of all the wonderful things they are doing right now and saying they believe they can handle it within the current [government] structure and so forth.” Indeed, while both commissions called for a fundamental restructuring of ocean governance, the White House plan directly re-affirms existing structures.

To Watkins—who was the highest ranking naval officer in the U.S. before serving as Secretary of Energy under Bush Sr. and then as founding president of the Consortium for Oceanographic Research and Education—oceans reform is past due. He has criticized the current structure of ocean governance as being decided “one court case at a time.” Undoubtedly, his outspoken views on the need for more proactive oceans reform—not to mention his advocacy for U.S. signing of the Kyoto Protocol on global warming—do not make him a popular figure at the White House these days.

Ruckelshaus is not optimistic about oceans reform happening at the federal level anytime soon, barring some sort of front-page marine disaster. “The two times in my experience when these issues really moved up on the national political agenda is during that oil spill up in Alaska and the oil spill in Santa Barbara in the early 1970s,” says Ruckelshaus. “Those are the kind of crises none of us like to see, but they move issues up and down Presidential agendas. The public demands that something be done about them.”

Ruckelshaus regrets that “we have to wait for a crisis to do something about issues of this kind,” but is glad the nation has the work of the U.S. and Pew Commissions to draw upon. “In the past, when these things have happened, the work hasn’t been done, so somebody cobbles up a response to it as quickly as they can,” he says.

It’s clear that the Bush administration is at best oblivious to the need for marine policy reforms. So what’s a country with 140 million people crowded into 12,000 miles of coastline to do? Despite the gloomy outlook, a network of unlikely bedfellows has emerged with the shared goals of preserving marine biodiversity and protecting ocean habitat and water quality. Everyone from commercial fishermen to renegade governors to energized Congressmen agree that time is of the essence when it comes to marine conservation, and they are working from the bottom-up to implement reforms.

Managing the Resource

Down on the Gulf shores of Texas, Philip Lara is out scouring for shrimp, even though it’s a Saturday. For the 34-year-old Corpus Christi native, fishing is in the blood. As a little boy, he would spend every moment he could out on the water with family members in search of black drum, shrimp and other Gulf Coast specialties. While he took some time away from the water to attend college, and then dabbled in land-based businesses along the way, his heart and soul kept coming back to the water, and in 1994 he obtained a permit and bought El Compañero, a 34-foot shrimp trawler.

Today, with two shrimp boats and two fishing boats under his command, Lara spends less and less time on the water while he works to navigate his business through increasingly complex regulatory channels. “We’re hit extremely hard by times, means and measures—what time we can go, how we can go and where we can go,” he says.

Lara has been rallying fellow fishermen in his part of the Gulf to reform the way the fishery is managed by dividing up the “total allowable catch”—a scientifically derived quota that can be harvested without endangering reproduction and survival—into percentages awarded to or purchased by commercial fishermen and companies. Under such an “individual fishing quota” (IFQ) system, shares of the catch can be bought, sold or traded like shares on a stock exchange, making the concept the darling of conservatives who consider it a form of resource privatization. Fishermen like Lara like it because it allows them to harvest their share whenever and however they see fit. “We’re hoping to regain the freedom to fish where we need to and how we need to,” he says.

Lara also likes the IFQ concept because he believes it encourages sustainable fishing more than existing regulations. He has worked extensively with a triumvirate of organizations—the Property and Environment Research Center, Environmental Defense and the libertarian Reason Foundation—in the preparation of alternative management scenarios to help keep fishing boats in the Gulf and elsewhere working productively. “Self interest dictates conservation when fishermen control fisheries,” he says, displaying a long-term approach not always seen in ocean harvesters.

ocean rescue
© Roddy Scheer

“Unfortunately, many fishermen are resistant to change, and won’t consider IFQs until their fisheries are in crisis,” Lara adds. But with the shrimp fishery already in danger, he is optimistic that more and more of his cohorts will see that taking individual responsibility for their resource could stave off the elimination of their livelihood and way of life.

On Alabama’s Gulf Coast, David Walker, owner and operator of a 65-foot snapper fishing boat, decries the derby system that regulates his business activities. The result of controlling the red snapper catch by allowing only 10 fishing days out of each month is, according to Walker, “a binge mentality among fishermen that can’t be good for the reproductive capacities of the target fish.” This derby system also encourages wasteful fishing practices, as tons of snapper are thrown out as by-catch (unwanted and discarded, usually dead, fish and marine life) on the other 20 days of the month. Additionally, the intense pressure to haul in enough fish during the derby windows means fishermen must venture out even in bad weather, sometimes endangering their lives. Further, they might not even find buyers for their catches if the market is flooded.

Walker agrees with Lara that IFQs make sense, and they reportedly have the support of 80 percent of the other snapper fishermen on Alabama’s Gulf Coast. “IFQs can extend the season to year-round and therefore eliminate the problems of the current derby system,” says Walker from underneath his grizzled beard and weathered Budweiser baseball cap.

Given the embrace of IFQs in the U.S. plan, it seems that the White House has been listening to the likes of Lara and Walker. Indeed, the White House has promised to work directly with the nation’s eight regional fishery management councils to implement IFQ systems throughout all American waters.

But many individual fishermen, not to mention a growing cadre of environmentalists, are skeptical of the Bush push for the widespread application of IFQ systems. A 2003 report by Ecotrust, an environmental think tank based in Portland, Oregon, considers IFQs to be a catch-22 for fishermen and their communities, creating as many economic, social and ecological problems as they solve. Ecotrust studied the implementation of and fallout from what was considered to be a progressive IFQ-based management system in Canada’s West Coast geoduck, halibut, sablefish, groundfish trawl and shellfish fisheries.

Ecotrust researchers found that the high cost of purchasing a quota in British Columbia’s fisheries excluded grassroots entrepreneurs who didn’t have big bucks or who might be just starting out. “A fisherman now needs to be a millionaire to enter into most fisheries,” report the study authors.

Ecotrust also learned that the system’s economic selection hit small fishing communities hardest. After the IFQ system was fully in place, half of the commercial fishing licenses sold in rural coastal communities with populations of less than 10,000—the quintessential fishing ports of British Columbia—vanished as individual fishermen could not make the necessary payments, sending some of these small towns into economic tailspins. “Those communities most dependent on fishing are being squeezed out of BC’s fisheries,” says the report.

The conservation record of privatizing fisheries through IFQs is inconclusive. Indeed,

by giving fishermen a set individual quota, IFQs end the derby-style “race for fish” as described by Gulf fisherman David Walker. However, according to Ecotrust, IFQs can also induce unsustainable harvesting, including quota busting, poaching, throwing back low-priced fish (“high-grading”) and misreporting catches.

So can IFQs be “fixed”? Paul Parker, executive director of the Cape Cod Hook Fishermens’ Association—and a commercial fisherman himself based out of Chatham, Massachusetts—is optimistic about Community Quota Entities. Small fishing communities can band together and purchase a group quota of the total allowable catch of any given fish species. The community can then dole out percentages of its overall catch share accordingly, so that local fishermen can keep working at the only jobs most have ever known. The idea is to harness the environmentally and economically sound aspects of IFQs while reining in their ability to shut out individual fishermen.

Parker says only recently has he started to think about groups of deep sea trawl boats, for instance, as fishing communities in their own right, even if they don’t share far-off harbors. He would like to see such groups push for their own group shares of the catch. After all, opening up the community quota concept to all commercial fishermen and fishing companies could aid in the implementation of conservation measures by motivating every boat out on the water to take the sustainability of their fishery into account for their own economic well-being and the long-term benefit of their community.

“A community quota has the potential to deliver many of the benefits that IFQs do and heal many of the social or economic downsides of some IFQ systems, as well as meet some of the biological and environmental objectives,” says Parker, who cites the community quota system already in place in Alaska’s halibut/sablefish fishery as an example of how it can be done right.

“It allows communities to make a permanent, or at least long-term connection between the fishing population and the fisheries resource,” Parker says. “That’s lacking in an IFQ system in which the permits can be mobile and will migrate to where it’s most cost-effective.”

But Parker is quick to point out that certain factors that make community quotas work for Alaska’s fisheries—which have a long-standing tradition of both local rule and federal pork barrel spending—may not apply elsewhere. Nevertheless, Parker remains optimistic that the concept will catch on in other parts of the country, and views the special permission granted by regional fisheries regulators to the hook-and-line fishermen his group represents as a positive step.

“For us, it’s an embryonic concept,” he says. “Our guys are allowed to catch 11 percent of the cod quota. But they only hold that right as a group, and that group has ties to this community.”

Some 3,000 miles away, the small-boat fishing village of Port Orford, Oregon is also looking to “capture community quota” for its fishermen, despite opposition from the trawlers that dominate not only West Coast seafood harvests but also the regulatory body overseeing the region’s fisheries. In late 2001, community native Leesa Cobb teamed with Laura Anderson of Environmental Defense to start the Port Orford Ocean Resources Team. The dynamic duo, along with help from hundreds of local fishermen and deck hands, are on a mission to get the Pacific Fishery Management Council (see sidebar) to turn over regulatory powers on the local fishery to community members with a vested interest in sustaining the catch, as well as their livelihoods and community values.

“Here on the West Coast, first we had the salmon disaster in the late 1980s and early 1990s, and then in our own fishing community here we had the collapse of the urchin industry, and now we’ve been through a groundfish disaster,” reports Cobb. “The way that management is working now isn’t working for us, as they’re just shoving us into one crisis after another. If we want to stay fishing, we need to figure out how we can fish sustainably here so we don’t have any more crises,” she says.

“Our vision is to create sustainable fisheries off Port Orford Beach by empowering fishermen with information and involving them in the management of the resources,” Cobb adds, pointing out that Oregon fishermen don’t have to look very far to see what can happen to working stiffs in economies dominated by dwindling natural resources. During the 1990s, the spotted owl controversy forced thousands of loggers out of their jobs in the Northwest, decimating hundreds of small timber towns.

Despite her perseverance, though, Cobb isn’t optimistic about the prospects for the wide adoption of community quota systems on the West Coast. Besides some Alaskan communities more than a thousand miles away, Port Orford’s fishermen are unique on the West Coast in pushing for any kind of a community quota whatsoever. Without broad support, Cobb worries, they stand little chance of convincing regulators to grant them privileged access to fish harvests off Port Orford reef. Nevertheless, the White House’s embrace of local rule generally and IFQs specifically gives the Port Orford fishermen (not to mention fans of community quota systems across the country), hope that they may be able to control their own destinies and save their communities.

“My California pals talk about the barbeque effect,” David Helvarg of the Blue Frontier Campaign explains. “People started barbequing in California in the 1950s and 10 years later everyone across the country was doing it.” When it comes to ocean policy, California is also leading by example. “But regarding the oceans,” Helvarg laments, “we don’t have five or 10 years to do the right thing.”

Luckily the Schwarzenegger administration seems to feel the same way. Last fall, California’s celebrity Republican governor, who had previously testified before the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy pleading for stronger federal reforms, signed the California Ocean Protection Act into law. The legislation, which comes with $10 million in funding initially, created the high-level California Coastal Commission and calls for the state to develop a master plan for the entire length of its 1,100-mile coastline by 2011. Schwarzenegger hopes his state will implement as many of the U.S. Commission’s recommendations at the state level as possible, whether or not the federal government goes along for the ride.

But what power does California, not to mention other coastal states, actually have over ocean resources, which have traditionally been managed at the federal level? According to writer and fisheries consultant Mike Weber—who worked as special assistant to the director of the National Marine Fisheries Service in the early 1990s and now resides on the California coast—a lot: “The state has power regarding fisheries within its waters, and also it has a very large role in coastal development, including everything from land-side development to non-point source pollution to off-shore oil and gas extraction.”

And other states are also moving forward on marine policy. Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney is optimistic that the state legislature will pass his Ocean Resources and Conservation Act, submitted last March. The bill calls for zoning all state waters from three to nine

miles offshore. Meanwhile, environmentalists are holding out hope that similar proposals for the Gulf of Maine and Long Island Sound will catch on with the public and state politicians.

Might As Well Be an Ocean between Them

Meanwhile, an oceans reform movement is taking shape in Congress, perhaps motivated by the vacuum coming from the Bush administration. Congressman Sam Farr (D-CA) grew up around the ocean in the Monterey Bay area he now represents, and today is a leading voice for the reform of federal ocean policy from within the legislative branch. He is a founder and one of six co-chairs of the House Oceans Caucus, a bipartisan forum within the U.S. House of Representatives that works to develop ocean policy legislation. Currently 40 out of 435 members of Congress serve on the Oceans Caucus.

Late last session, Farr, along with Jim Greenwood and Curt Weldon of Pennsylvania (both R-PA) and Tom Allen (D-ME), introduced Oceans 21, a bipartisan bill aiming to codify into law some of the major recommendations of the U.S. and Pew Commissions. “You’ve got to look at all of these impacts based on what they do to the ocean,” says Farr.

Despite his energetic backing, even Farr doesn’t seem optimistic about the prospects for getting the bills passed anytime soon. “There are a lot of politics here,” Farr concedes. The Oceans Caucus is currently under the jurisdiction of the House Resources Committee, chaired by Richard Pombo (R-CA), who harbors a deep-seated aversion to environmental regulations. Any legislation related to marine conservation is likely to be squashed by Pombo before it can even get out of the committee. Even so, Farr is optimistic about the long-term prospects for reform.

Credit: Roddy Scheer

With evening descending, I wrapped up my work at Shi Shi Beach, marking and bagging all the debris I had collected for the Olympic Coast Clean-up. As I strap on my daypack, something moving out in the water caught my eye. It was a sea otter, not dead this time but living and breathing, frolicking just off-shore.

My despair made room for a little bit of optimism. Fifty-nine sea otters were reintroduced to the coast of Washington in 1969 after being extirpated by pelt hunters during the 19th century; the otters’ population has since soared to 500 today.

Can we rise to the challenge of cleaning up the world’s oceans and protecting marine biodiversity? The otter frolicking out in the waves, not more than 50 feet from me, was living proof that the efforts to restore at least one small part of the marine ecosystem were paying dividends.