Reviving Our Oceans
Changing the way we think about and manage our oceans can help avert a crisis.
Learn about the urgent need to protect the precious and mysterious underwater canyons and seamounts of the Atlantic Coast >>
photo: Tom YangStar metridium
photo: Tom YangLeopard shark
photo: Francesca KoeStar and giant star coral
photo: Tom YangScorpion fish
photo: Tom YangTitan triggerfish
photo: Tom YangWhite tip shark
The oceans are the planet's life support system. We depend on oceans to moderate our climate and filter pollution. We rely on the rich diversity of ocean life to supply us with food and medicines. Our oceans give us a place to play, to work, to rest and to discover. In recent years, however, two major independent commissions reported that our oceans are in serious trouble -- in a state, according to the Pew Oceans Commission, of "silent collapse," threatening jobs, cultures, coastal ecosystems and marine life.
Urgent Ocean Threats
Oceans are not, as once imagined, inexhaustible resources, so vast that human activity can barely make a dent. In fact, the evidence is just the opposite. Major threats to ocean health include the following:
- Overfishing and other destructive fishing practices that deplete our nation's ocean fish populations, reduce the diversity of underwater life and lower the resilience of marine systems.
- Nutrient pollution from farm and yard fertilizer runoff, sewage, and other land-based sources that contributes to harmful blooms of algae, which in turn lead to fish kills and swimmer illness, and ocean "dead zones"-- places devoid of marine life.
- Coastal development that destroys ecologically sensitive areas and critical habitat for valuable fish species, and also creates a network of paved surfaces that convey oil, grease, and toxic pollutants into coastal waters.
- Invasive species taking root in marine waters, crowding out native species, damaging ecosystems, destroying the food chain, diluting gene pools and more.
- Climate change, which will profoundly impact coastal and marine ecosystems through rising sea levels (and the accompanying loss of coastal wetlands and other important coastal habitat), damage to habitat-rich coral reefs from increased temperatures and threats to shell-forming creatures from ocean acidification, which could have impacts throughout the entire marine food chain.
- Haphazard management of our oceans, coasts and Great Lakes by more than 20 government agencies administering more than 140 federal laws -- and no single body to oversee the countless government actions that affect ocean health and productivity.
A Solution on the Horizon: A National Oceans Policy
In July 2010, President Obama established our country’s first-ever National Ocean Policy. Like a Clean Air Act for our air or a Clean Water Act for our water, we finally have a bedrock environmental policy for our oceans. This is a huge victory for everyone who treasures the wonder of the seas, who values ocean life, who flocks to the beach, who loves seafood, and who makes a living on or from the water. The policy created a National Ocean Council, calling for cooperation among more than 20 existing federal agencies to ensure that we have a coordinated effort to protect and restore ocean health.
One important improvement called for in the National Ocean Policy is that agencies, states, and tribes – together with full public and stakeholder involvement – develop coastal and marine spatial plans. Coastal and marine spatial planning is a common sense process that optimizes how we use our oceans by identifying areas in the sea that are appropriate for different types of industrial use and areas where ocean habitat and wildlife need protection. Comprehensive ocean planning will protect and restore our oceans so that we can continue to swim, fish, enjoy and use our oceans and coasts for generations to come.
More Solutions for Healthy Oceans
In addition to working with the National Ocean Council to implement this new policy, NRDC is working with organizations around the world to push for stronger controls on fishing in ocean waters beyond national jurisdiction -- on the high seas and in our states. Our vision for the continued health and vibrancy of our oceans includes:
- Ending Destructive Practices. We must end overfishing and maintain abundant and diverse ocean fish populations. We must reduce the nutrient pollution that creates dead zones in the ocean. And the United States should support international efforts to place a moratorium on unregulated bottom trawling on the high seas until an effective regime is in place to protect deep-sea corals and other vital ocean habitats.
- Creating Underwater Parks. We started creating parks and wilderness on land more than a century ago; it's time to do the same for the ocean. Studies show that marine protected areas have bigger fish, greater diversity of life and higher productivity than similar areas that are open to fishing. These benefits spread out to the surrounding areas, allowing fishermen and others to reap the rewards of these marine save havens. Establishing marine protected areas is one of the best ways we can ensure the ocean's ability to sustain and restore its extraordinary diversity of life.
- Prompting State Action. A number of states have been moving to protect their marine resources, which typically extend about 3 miles from shore. California, Massachusetts and New York, for example, have passed ocean protection laws that set out a state ocean conservation policy, and create overarching councils to help implement that policy and coordinate the ocean work done by various state agencies.
Healthy oceans are a vital natural resource. By taking strong action to implement the recommendations above, the president and Congress -- and legislatures of coastal states -- can help avert an ocean crisis.
last revised 10/4/2011
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Oceans on Switchboard
NRDC experts write about the growing risks to the health of our oceans on the NRDC blog.
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