As millions of Americans pack up their beach towels and folding umbrellas, many assume that the ocean they leave behind will be waiting for them next season. We can no longer make such assumptions. The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy will soon deliver its report to the president. It follows on the heels of a study released earlier this year by the Pew Oceans Commission.
Both of these national commissions -- one public, the other private -- come to similar conclusions. America's oceans are in crisis.
Two-thirds of our estuaries and bays are polluted, and more than 1,000 of the nation's beaches are routinely closed for periods of time each year due to pollution advisories. Coastal development and sprawl are destroying wetlands and other habitat essential for fish and wildlife at an alarming rate, further degrading water quality. More than a third of the nation's assessed fisheries are either overfished or approaching that condition. And countless seabirds and endangered sea turtles are caught and drowned each year by fishing gear.
Both commissions provide numerous reasons why we should care about the fate of our coastal waters. First, they are critically important to the lives of many Americans. More than half of the U.S. population lives in coastal areas, and more than 180 million people visit the shore each year. Millions of Americans earn all or a portion of their livelihood from commercial and recreational fishing, tourism, recreation and other activities that take place on America's beaches, bays, estuaries and deeper ocean waters. Collectively, these and other ocean-related pursuits generate tens of billions of dollars each year for the nation's economy.
Residing within this vast area are countless species of fish, birds, turtles, marine mammals and other creatures that actually outnumber those species found on land. Many of these ocean dwellers are as yet unidentified and hold the potential to offer new medicines and other products of potential benefit to human society.
Beyond what they give us materially, the nation's oceans provide tremendous pleasure and a source of aesthetic, spiritual and creative inspiration to millions of Americans no matter where they live.
The consequences to the nation of not addressing the problems identified by the Pew and U.S. oceans commissions are profound. For many years, we have failed to act on information that signaled the increasing deterioration of our marine environment. We do so now at our own peril.
America is at a crossroads with respect to the way in which we manage our ocean resources. We can continue on the road we are on, and collectively witness the ongoing decline of one of the nation's most important natural resources, along with the jobs and other benefits it provides. Or we can take another path, one dictated by more careful stewardship and a willingness to make the hard choices in the short run that will benefit us all in the long. The latter course promises a bright future. The other will leave us little more than memories of the ocean we once had, but left behind.
This op-ed article was also published in the following newspapers: Times-Union (Albany)(Aug. 29, 2004), Charleston Post and Courier (Aug. 30, 2004), Tallahassee Democrat (Aug. 28, 2004) and San Diego Union-Tribune (Sept. 3, 2004).