Dear EarthTalk: Oceans are in big trouble and I understand President Obama is creating a high level ocean council to address them. What are the major issues?
—Steve Sullivan, Bothell, WA
Our oceans are indeed in a terrible state, thanks primarily to unrestrained commercial and industrial activity. Overfishing and pollution have decimated once abundant stocks of fish and other marine life, and the damaging practices continue to this day despite international agreements outlawing them.
Our appetite for seafood has pushed three-quarters of the world’s fisheries to or beyond the limits of sustainability, while nine out of 10 of the sea’s large fish like tuna and swordfish have disappeared. And while it is still unclear what toll global warming will have on oceans—coral reefs dying and powerful ocean currents shifting or shutting down are two scary scenarios—the outlook is grim at best.
While George W. Bush was no friend to the environment overall, his record on ocean protection is actually not too bad. After convening a commission of experts from various disciplines to report on the state of U.S. oceans, his administration took steps to protect 215 million acres of biologically rich deep sea ocean habitat in the Pacific near Hawaii and Guam. The newly protected areas are off limits to resource extraction and commercial fishing but open for shipping traffic, scientific research and minimal impact recreation—and should provide a boon for fish and other marine species trying to recover from decades of abuse. But while such protections are a huge step in the right direction, they represent less than a drop in the bucket as to what still needs to be done to help fish stocks and marine ecosystems recover.