Troubled Waters

E Magazine is based in a coastal town on Long Island Sound, where our summers are regularly interrupted by beach closings—the result of sewage discharge, the oxygen starvation known as hypoxia, and other ills. Even without reading the increasingly dire national headlines, we know there’s something very wrong out there. But what we can see from here is only a tiny corner of a really big problem.

Jerry Russell Illustration

Despite our dependence on oceans as a vital food source, as a transportation highway, and as a center of recreation, we’re causing constant and intensifying damage to the marine environment. The oceans take continuous hits from such man-made sources as erosion of the Earth’s ozone layer, resulting in global warming and rising tides; pollution and leaks from ship traffic; oil drilling and transportation; hugely destructive “factory” fishing (which more than quadrupled its catch between 1960 and 1989); the runoff of nutrients from land sources; and the destruction of coastal habitat.

Through the kind of beachside development that’s taken over our Connecticut coast, we’ve sacrificed over half of our coastal wetlands in the U.S., and we’re losing 31 square miles more-about one and a half Manhattans-every year. Our beaches are also being sacrificed-in 1993, they were closed or posted as unsafe more than 2,400 times because of sewage contamination.

This year marks “The International Year of the Ocean,” but we shouldn’t see it only as a celebration. It’s also an opportunity to focus attention on a crisis that we’ve too long ignored. Like the oceans themselves, the problems are vast, but certainly not yet beyond repair. As the late Jacques Cousteau pointed out to us last year, “The sea is vastly overfished and polluted, mismanaged on the coastlines, but it’s not dead and it won’t die.”

For the oceans, we’ve relied on crisis management. In 1992, for instance, Canada was finally forced to close its once-rich Newfoundland cod and halibut fishery because of dramatically declining catches. Some 40,000 jobs were lost, a tiny fraction of what we’ll see if factory fishing continues at the present rate.

Fixing the oceans will require global cooperation. The truth of that is made plain by the situation on the island of Bonaire, which treats its entire coastline as a protected marine park. Yet for all its efforts, Bonaire coral is still experiencing disturbing outbreaks of “white pox,” the probable result of the water pollution that affects the whole region.

International treaties are a good step, but as this issue’s cover story makes plain, enforcement of their various provisions has been woefully inadequate. Despite global agreement on a whaling moratorium, for example, some countries defy it with impunity, and runaway poaching continues. As with the showy but unmet Rio agreement that was supposed to put a cap on greenhouse gas emissions, domestic political considerations sometimes outweigh global cooperation.

As the problems mount, and start to have serious economic consequences around the world, maybe we’ll be ready to work together at last. Let’s begin in The International Year of the Ocean.

—Jim Motavalli