Vast, unfathomable, indomitable, apparently inexhaustible in its provision of sustenance. These are the qualities we freely associate with the sea, along with the stunning beauty and diversity of its animal life -- the sizes, shapes, colors, and weird, brilliant adaptations. Consider the jellyfish, the blowfish, the sea anemone, the whip coral.
But as we go to press, a flurry of scientific studies and reports urgently calls our attention to a different conception of the ocean: that of a resource as finite and vulnerable to human activity as our forests, air, rivers, and lakes. A recent study published in the journal Nature notes that commercial fishing has diminished the oceans' population of large predatory fish, including marlin and swordfish, by 90 percent in just 50 years. We have barely begun to understand the far-reaching consequences of their disappearance.
The fishing industry is only part of the picture, however. Every eight months, nearly 11 million gallons of oil travels from paved roadways and driveways into U.S. oceans. More than half of our population now lives in coastal regions, and while these numbers grow so does the impact on oceans and shorelines as a result of land development, waste disposal, traffic, and recreation.
The Pew Oceans Commission has just released a landmark report documenting these and numerous other threats to U.S. waters (which encompass 4.5 square million miles of ocean). The report also outlines potential solutions. These include a more uniform, coherent system of national governance, and new laws to regulate the ocean environment, similar to those we have successfully used to protect many of our endangered resources on land.
Much of this issue of OnEarth is dedicated to exploring our oceans from fresh and (we believe) revealing perspectives. In our cover story, Colin Woodard examines one place in particular -- the Gulf of Maine -- and the devastating consequences that overfishing has had on the region. Woodard discovered that a particular brand of ignorance exacerbated the problem: As scientists and politicians began to realize that the sea's resources had to be managed, they relied on short-sighted strategies that were, in turn, based on flawed science. That is changing. A new generation of scientists and technology has yielded a flood of data that offers a much clearer picture of the ways in which marine animals, climate, ocean conditions, and human activities influence one another. Scientists are now using this information to generate potential solutions -- for example, regulating access to different ocean regions on a rotating basis according to the specific health and needs of each marine "zone."
In a companion piece, Barry Estabrook casts his eye on the toothfish, more commonly known by its culinary moniker, Chilean Sea Bass. In a matter of only 20 years, the toothfish went from an obscure scientific oddity to a seafood superstar. Its populations, predictably, plummeted. Shoddy regulation has meant that just about the only thing standing between the toothfish and extinction is a public-awareness campaign that has shamed chefs and consumers alike into removing it from restaurant menus. The response has been gratifying -- demand has declined.
And so it goes: We lurch -- or swim -- from crisis to crisis, but in the end it seems, we awaken just in the nick of time from our stupor and begin to do what's right and necessary.