Strip Mining the Oceans

Last week’s column was about rivers. This one’s about oceans. Carl Safina, author of Song for the Blue Ocean and Eye of the Albatross, sees the current ocean crisis this way: “For those who take seriously the overwhelming scientific evidence showing a precipitous decline in fish populations, the answers to ocean recovery lie in fishing slower than fish can breed, farming seafood in ecologically less-destructive ways, and giving consumers the information they need to vote with their conscience and their wallet. There is time. And, yes, there is hope.”

The Pew Oceans Commission concluded in its recent report, “Many ecologically and commercially crucial fish species, including groundfish and salmon populations along the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, face overfishing and numerous other threats. Thirty percent of the fish populations that have been assessed are overfished or are being fished unsustainably. An increasing number of these species are being driven toward extinction. Already depleted sea turtle, marine mammal, seabird and noncommercial fish populations are endangered by incidental capture in fishing gear. Destructive fishing practices are damaging vital habitat upon which fish and other living resources depend. Combined, these aspects of fishing are changing relationships among species in food webs and altering the functioning of marine ecosystems.”

In both cases, pretty dire stuff. Given our current crisis, the Ocean Conservancy called on President Bush to become “the Teddy Roosevelt of the oceans” by leading a national effort to improve the stewardships of our coasts and ocean ecosystems. Fat chance. But Bush certainly can’t plead ignorance, since his own administration released a report April 20 that, while more conservative than Pew’s clarion call, is still a plan for action.

The panel, whose 16 members were appointed by Bush, reached conclusions much like those of the Pew Commission. “Our oceans and coasts are in serious trouble,” said the commission’s chairperson, Admiral James D. Watkins. He added that our system for managing oceans is “a Byzantine patchwork” of overlapping state and federal agencies.

The Bush panel’s recommendations lacked the Pew Commission’s call for strong controls on bottom fishing (strip mining the seas) and creation of a network of “marine protected areas.” But it still had some teeth. As one prong of needed reforms, the Bush commission is urging that the U.S. join the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea.

Implementing the panel’s strategy would also require that Bush allocate $4 billion a year from offshore oil leases for a special trust fund. Further, and probably the more political recommendation, the fish management associations staffed with fishermen and fishing interests would be forced to follow scientific advice on closing down spent fisheries to allow stocks to recover.

The Bush administration has rarely acted to upset powerful commercial interests, especially when major campaign contributors are involved. There’s little indication it will act now, especially since powerful conservatives in Congress are objecting (especially to joining the Law of the Sea convention).

A key to how Bush might react is seen in the response of one of his environmental point men, House Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-CA), who has actual jurisdiction over ocean policy. The stridently anti-environmental Pombo (who took the “Natural” out of his committee’s title) blasts the Pew Commission’s findings as “politically driven” in a recent broadside. “There is no human in Pew’s ecosystem, which makes its report essentially useless for rational policy-making,” Pombo said. He takes exception to the idea of removing fishermen from regional fisheries councils, even though the basic idea of reining in these rubber stamps is also in Bush’s plan.

Ideologues like Pombo say that the Pew report is “Washington based,” while the Bush commission encourages “local stakeholder participation.” In other words, they want the foxes to guard the henhouse, a policy that has proven disastrous when applied to most conservation questions.

But the smart money indicates that Bush will ignore even the relatively mild recommendations of his own commission and leave factory fishing interests in charge. That’s his administration’s pattern.

Adapt We Must

In other environmental news, global warming naysayers have given up the idea that climate change isn’t real, and have now switched to a “what, me worry” policy that calls for “adaptation” to a warmer world. The George C. Marshall Institute recently hosted a conference entitled “Adaptation versus Climate Control” that concludes: “adaptation, not climate control, is the best way to promote human and environmental well being both here and in the future.” In other words, forget about controlling carbon dioxide emissions. It might compromise the “sacred” American way of life.

For a more sober view on global warming, see E’s new book, Feeling the Heat: Dispatches From the Frontlines of Climate Change (Routledge). The book concludes that global warming has already started, and offers ample documentary evidence.