Fish populations are in free fall; the food supply of millions of people around the world is in jeopardy.
Seabed-scouring trawlers and reckless overharvesting are devastating vast webs of ocean life, and the species we eat aren't the only ones to suffer. From majestic sea turtles to wondrous deepwater organisms with their startlingly unique arrays of DNA, the underwater realm is in peril.
In reaction to the rapid loss of marine biodiversity, an international team of scientists and economists led by the biologist Boris Worm at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, published a study in the November 3, 2006, issue of the journal Science in which they analyzed more than 50 years' worth of fisheries and ecological monitoring data. All told, the study examined
83 percent of the world catch during that time period to create a comprehensive picture of what the decline in marine biodiversity means for humans. By midcentury, the team concluded, many fish and shellfish species could collapse, their commercial catches reduced to a mere tenth of their historical highs. But the study also offered some promising news: It's not too late. The trend is reversible; ecosystems with the greatest biodiversity appear more able to heal themselves than those with fewer distinct species. With smarter, more forward-looking management, ocean life could rebound.
"This study helps answer one of the central questions in the field of ecology, which is: 'What is the role of biodiversity?' " says Lisa Suatoni, an evolutionary biologist and NRDC science fellow (see Fieldwork, page 46). "The answer, it seems, is that biodiversity translates into resilience."
Like a healthy immune system, diversity gives oceans the strength to recover from injury, whether caused by overfishing, pollution, or destruction of habitat by trawling. Enabling the seas to heal in this way requires adopting the very principles that NRDC's oceans program works to promote: Create protected marine areas similar to wildlife preserves on land, stop overfishing, and make management decisions that take into account all of the interconnected species within an ecosystem. Species near the top of the food chain -- the ones we eat, such as cod and swordfish -- could then flourish.
It is not only scientists who are realizing the wisdom of such an approach. Last fall, California proposed protections for a network of 29 marine areas covering more than 200 square miles of state waters, four times the area of San Francisco. The goal is to create safe havens where a wide range of marine life can coexist unfettered by human activity, thereby boosting biodiversity and replenishing depleted populations. NRDC scientists and policy experts played an instrumental role in gathering support for the state's Marine Life Protection Act, passed in 1999, which paved the way for the new designations; they are now helping to implement the law.
Other states are moving to rehabilitate their waters as well. New York, for example, has passed a law that will encourage the application of more enlightened, interdisciplinary management practices to protect marine species and habitats, from wetland nurseries to deepwater environments. NRDC worked with state agencies and legislators to pass the law and will continue to work with agency officials to promote its implementation.
On a national level, the recent reauthorization of the landmark Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act should prove a boon to oceans beyond coastal states' offshore boundaries. The law is named for Senator Ted Stevens, Republican of Alaska, who has proven a consistent supporter of the common-sense idea that the surest way to maintain profitable commercial fisheries, in his home state and elsewhere, is to prevent overfishing. The reauthorization bill, signed into law on January 12, strengthens the existing law, passed in 1976, by setting a firm deadline for ending overfishing and requiring the use of current scientific data in establishing quotas. Working closely with key Senate and House staff members, NRDC brought its legal, scientific, and economic expertise to the debate and played a leading role in the reauthorization process.
"This is about protecting some of our most magnificent places and safeguarding the well-being of millions of people who rely on them," says Karen Garrison, an NRDC oceans policy expert. "The underwater world is as precious, as wild and beautiful -- and as necessary -- as the wilderness of Yosemite. But we are playing catch-up in the oceans."