The Joint Ocean Commission Initiative’s 2006 U.S. Ocean Policy Report Card has recently been released. In many American families, if little Johnny came home with this report, he’d be grounded. No video games for a month!
The bottom line:
National Ocean Governance Reform: C-
Regional and State Ocean Governance Reform: A-
International Leadership: D-
Research, Science, and Education: D+
Fisheries Management Reform: B+
New Funding for Ocean Policy and Programs: a big fat F
Perhaps you’re saying: “I live in Kansas (or some such place) — why should I care about the ocean?”
Glad you asked. For one thing, the US has the largest exclusive economic zone of any nation on earth, meaning that we have both a strong economic dependence on the ocean and a uniquely important responsibility to model sustainable ocean stewardship. This has implications for the economy, national security, and our status in the global community. Unfortunately, the USA is among the only nations on earth that has still not bought in to the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. This is despite strong bipartisan support in Congress, from the President, and from leaders of the Navy and Coast Guard. It has been stymied by a small but determined group (led by our old friend, the holdout climate skeptic Senator James Inhofe). According to Leon Panetta, former Chair of the Pew Oceans Commission, the USA’s continued failure to ratify the Law of the Sea will cost us big time as the Arctic Ocean, with its rich resources and stategic waterways, opens up and signatories to that treaty scramble to divvy it up.
If those arguments seem too ethereal and obscure, a more tangible reason for concern is that marine fisheries worldwide are declining, in large part due to relentless human fishing pressure. These fisheries provide high-quality protein and jobs to millions of Americans and to people worldwide. For example, Atlantic Bluefin Tuna, among the most lucrative fisheries in the world, is nearing commercial extinction as a result of fishing. Cod, formerly among the most abundant fishes on earth, was a major factor in the European colonization of North America but is now so rare that most wild capture fisheries have been closed and attempts are being made to farm it. Climate change threatens the Alaska Pollock fishery, the world’s largest and America’s most valuable fishery. Many other examples could be cited. To his credit, President Bush has called for an end to destructive fishing practices on the high seas, and Congress passed a new and improved version of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 2006 (hence the B+ for Fisheries Management Reform — High five, guys!). But there is plenty more to do, as the report card details.
Finally, of many reasons for the average landlubber to be concerned about the ocean, one of the most pressing is that it is creeping up on all of us. The long-awaited IPCC report on global climate change released last Friday (despite those ever vigilant saboteurs at ExxonMobil) noted that the rate of sea level rise, which averaged 1.8mm a year over the last 40 years, has accelerated to 3.1mm a year from 1993 – 2003, and that doesn’t even include the very sobering recent reports of unexpectedly rapid melting of Greenland’s glaciers. A few mm a year may not sound like much but it adds up, and the pace is increasing. For coastal residents like me (not to mention the 134 million people of Bangladesh, and various other densely populated, low-lying coastal regions worldwide), this is a troubling trend. See, for example, this rather creepy animation of Manhattan drowning under a modest hurricane storm surge under projected sea level rise.
A colleague of mine is fond of saying that every second breath you take comes from the ocean. This is because marine plants produce half of the atmosphere’s oxygen. That alone should be a sufficient rationale to invest in understanding and wise management of the ocean. Although it may be out of sight, the ocean should never be out of mind. Our lives literally depend on it.