Editorial: We're Killing Our Oceans; Seas Without Life

Publication: The Philadelphia Inquirer

09/12/2006 - Labor Day is gone. The Shore is quiet now. Most beachgoers have packed away chairs and umbrellas and turned their thoughts to school and football.But come Memorial Day, they'll be back, expecting the solace, nourishment or income they've always derived from the ocean. The question is: What will they find?

Increasingly, scientists say, beneath the dependable tides lie signs of serious trouble. Overfishing, destruction of wetlands, agricultural runoff, industrial pollution, and climate change are destroying the ocean ecosystem.

Each year, more evidence mounts that "what we once considered inexhaustible and resilient is, in fact, finite and fragile." That's what the Pew Oceans Commission concluded in 2003, seconded the following year by the government-funded U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy.

The news continues to be bad:

Large-scale agriculture and coastal development produce nitrogen- and phosphorus-rich runoff that contributes to "dead zones" as large as Massachusetts in places like the Gulf of Mexico. Devoid of oxygen, the zones kill fish and shellfish while promoting growth of harmful algae.

Thousands of pounds of plastic swept from container ships or washed down rivers and streams strangle seabirds and turtles.

The number of beach closings and health advisory days at ocean, bay and Great Lake beaches topped 20,000 in 2005 - the most since the environmental group National Resources Defense Council began tracking them 16 years ago. Too many beachgoers are swimming, and too many anglers are fishing in polluted water.

Global warming appears to be altering basic sea chemistry. Oceanographers predict that, if current carbon dioxide emission trends continue, water acidification will dangerously deteriorate the shells and skeletons of key marine species.

The most significant threat to the oceans' future, however, is decades of overfishing. Now armed with sonar, satellite maps and global positioning data, commercial fishing fleets can track species to remote locations. Fish have nowhere left to hide. As a result, the ocean's big fish - the top of the food chain - have declined by 90 percent over 50 years. Atlantic cod, halibut, swordfish and marlin are disappearing from dinner plates.

Unless better restrictions are enacted, most commercial fisheries will be depleted within 30 years, predicts Joshua S. Reichert, Pew Charitable Trusts environmental director. That will damage the whole ecosystem.

"You can fix all the other things, but if you fail to fix fisheries, you'll destroy all the life in the sea," he says.

Congress should strengthen the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary law governing fishing in U.S. waters, with science-based catch limits and sound environmental oversight. The Senate has a better bill; the House should jettison its weaker version.

Creating an oceanic monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in June, President Bush declared that Americans had a duty to be stewards of the lifegiving oceans. Ignoring that mission is at our own peril.

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