An Occasional Ramble By The Sea
April 20, 2004
By David Helvarg
The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy (COP), after many delays, finally came out with its draft report today and it’s a doozy at over 400 pages with almost 200 recommendations for change. I went to the Commission briefings at the National Press Club and later on the Hill (in the Senate Dirkson building). Lots of media interest with lots of TV cameras and reporters thick as ticks. Unfortunately of the three non-cable broadcast networks only ABC News did a full story on the findings. Still cable, print and radio coverage looks to be pretty extensive. I attribute this to good PR by the commission, ocean advocates, proximity to Earth Day and the cease-fire in Falluja.
Like the independent Pew Oceans Commission report that came out last June, the US Commission recognizes that our coasts and oceans are in trouble, trouble caused by bad governance, overfishing for the global seafood market, coastal sprawl, pollution and fossil-fuel driven climate change (though it fails to propose any solutions for the later).
Given its very different make-up from the Pew Commission, which tended towards scientists, fishermen and environmentalists while this one was top-heavy with industry reps, academics and admirals, their conclusions were surprisingly similar. Both seem to have taken an honest, fair and dispassionate approach to their work. Having said that I’d have to add that many of the U.S. Commission’s recommendations read like Pew Lite.
They both agree on the need for Ecosystem management (recognizing that nature doesn’t recognize political boundries). They both call for a National Ocean Council within the White House. But where Pew also calls for an independent ocean agency, COP suggests strengthening the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), while keeping it within the trade-driven Department of Commerce. Where Pew suggests establishing Watershed based Regional Councils to carry out ecosystems management, COP suggests establishing voluntary programs on a trial basis. While Pew suggests establishing no-take Marine Protected Areas (like National Parks in the sea), that could also help restore depleted fisheries, COP takes a far more timid position calling for more study and definition.
Both Commissions call for reorganizing fisheries management to separate the science (“dead fish tend not to reproduce”) from the allocation (“who gets the last fish?”) The U.S. Commission doesn’t really challenge built-in conflict-of-interest however. The eight regional fisheries councils that set fishing policy in US waters are the only federal regulatory bodies exempted from conflict-of-interest law. The result is they’re dominated by the fishing industry. The original idea is that the fishermen had the expertise, which is true. They’re expert at killing fish. Now even many fishermen are suggesting it’s time for a more radical change.
For more on the federal commission Click Here For the Pew perspective try Center for Sea Change
Neither Pew nor COP confront the need for a rapid transition from fossil-fuels if we’re to deal with the climate threats of sea-level rise, warming seas, erosion, coral bleaching, intensified hurricanes, melting polar ice and possible regime change (massive shifts) in the Gulf Stream, Northern Pacific and elsewhere. In a new book, ‘Feeling the Heat’ I report on my meetings with coral scientists in Florida, Fiji and Australia (OK, I also got to take a few dives).
These scientists have concluded that even if we transition out of petroleum next week we’ve already put so much heat in the world’s oceans that we’re going to lose at least half the world’s tropical reefs in the next couple of decades. See Feeling the Heat
Speaking of the unspeakable, some (weirder than normal) scientists and oil companies have, since the 1980s, implied that maybe the oceans aren’t pulling their weight, only sequestering 2.5 billion tons of carbon a year and giving us only 70% of the oxygen we need to breath. Perhaps they could be forcefully encouraged to take in some of our excess carbon so we could keep driving our SUVs a few more generations. The idea is we would use “iron fertilization” to increase plankton blooms in the open sea (unfortunately we’ve already overfertilized our near-shore waters with sewage and ag-chemicals creating massive dead zones).
The plankton-rich open ocean “fertilization zones” would absorb more carbon from the atmosphere. As the plankton died it would become “marine snow” and sink into the deep oceans where the excess carbon would remain sequestered for hundreds of years.
Now scientists from Woods Hole, Moss Landing Marine Lab, the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and elsewhere have tested this theory. In 2002 they went on an expedition to the southern ocean around Antarctica. There, funded by the National Science Foundation and Department of Energy they conducted the Southern Ocean Iron Experiment (SOFeX) as reported in the April 16 issue of Science magazine.
At two separate sites about 10 square miles each they dumped over a metric ton of iron to stimulate fertilization. Ken Buesseler and other Woods Hole scientists concluded that adding iron to the ocean may not result in enhanced removal of CO2 from surface waters, but would require massive and redundant applications that might have unknown effects on other aspects of ocean ecology (the DUH! Factor I call this).
For more on this see the Woods Hole Website
Also author Deborah Cramer addresses this issue and others relating to the deep seas in last September’s Multinational Montior magazine that Blue Frontier helped produce.
Back to the Ocean Commission briefly. The hill briefing was impressive for its rare show of Bipartisan support for the oceans from Senators Hollings, Lugar, Stevens, Gregg and Dodd as well as member of the House Oceans Caucus (Saxton, Farr, Greenwood, Weldon, Allen). The House members provided less boilerplate and also seemed more determined to pass “BOB” (A “Big Oceans Bill”). We expect some or all of them will be at our Blue Vision Conference in July (Farr and Weldon have already said yes).
Meanwhile you can see my take on how the oceans might play in the very partisan presidential elections in November at Tompaine.com. So stay wet and wild and we’ll see you in July even if the only saltwater in DC is generated from the sweat of our brows as we mobilize the Seaweed Rebellion.
Best Wishes and Smooth Sailing