Acting Globally to Reclaim the Oceans' Bounty

By Rick Weiss
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 2, 2003; Page A07

Momentum is building in the United States and abroad for an overhaul in the global management of fisheries and other ocean resources. Marine scientists hope the movement, to be highlighted soon in three major reports calling for reforms, will lead to the first significant revisions in U.S. fisheries policy in nearly 40 years and inspire other nations to follow suit.

The problem is straightforward: Populations of fish and other marine creatures have suffered drastic reductions because of overfishing and environmental degradation. The latest analysis, reported last month by Canadian scientists, found that populations of virtually all the world's major marine fish species had fallen to 10 percent of their natural levels.

Fortunately, marine scientists say, years of research into ocean ecosystems and fisheries management have begun to pay off with practical knowledge about how to reverse current trends. Marine biologists and oceanographers have learned a tremendous amount about the life cycles and habits not only of fish, but also of the smaller marine forms and microscopic plankton upon which fish depend. If those scientific findings were translated into policies, experts say, fishermen could catch far more than they do today while causing less damage to marine ecosystems.

"What we're seeing is an emerging 'mutiny for the bounty,' " said Jane Lubchenco, a professor of zoology at Oregon State University in Corvallis. "It's an acknowledgment that we've lost the bounty and a willingness to try to do something about it."

Lubchenco is a member of the Pew Oceans Commission, a privately funded collection of scientists, commercial fishermen and others that has been studying the problem for almost three years and will release its final recommendations on Wednesday. A coalition of environmental groups will release its report tomorrow, and the congressionally chartered U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy is expected to finish its work later this year. Although their reports have not been released, the groups' collective advice has largely been foreshadowed in interim publications and presentations.

The problem in this country dates to 1969, when the presidentially appointed Stratton Commission released its report on how the United States could get the most out of its oceans -- a report that, in retrospect, answered that question perhaps too literally, Lubchenco said. It led to the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and, within that, the National Marine Fisheries Service, the cubicle of government most responsible for protecting U.S. oceans. But it located that agency squarely within the Department of Commerce, a reflection of the emphasis on exploitation and sales.

By contrast, experts say now, the oceans need a respite of at least several years of reduced catches.

"What's going on out there is the last buffalo hunt with regard to our fisheries," said Leon E. Panetta, chairman of the Pew Commission and former White House chief of staff in the Clinton administration.

"There are some success stories where depleted fisheries are being restored," said Panetta, who, as the son of a Monterey Bay fisherman, grew up watching the local sardine industry collapse from overfishing.

"But overall, we take a kind of boom-and-bust approach to our fisheries."

Examples abound. Fishermen working off Canada's Atlantic provinces did not reduce their catches enough as cod populations collapsed in the late 1990s. This year, the region had to be closed to fishing, putting tens of thousands of people out of work. Similarly, the entire Western U.S. continental shelf was put off limits to ground fishing last September when populations of rockfish, including Pacific red snapper, got reduced to the bare remnants of survival.

The United States could double its current catches if populations were first rebuilt, Panetta said, adding $1.3 billion to the economy and tens of thousands of jobs.

Several reports in recent years have also emphasized the need to upgrade fishing methods and gear. Bottom-scraping trawling nets have seriously scarred coral-rich areas and other sensitive environments at the bottom of the ocean. And there is a growing clamor for new policies (and better enforcement of existing policies) to reduce bycatch -- the tens of billions of pounds of marine life and sea birds that are unintentionally hooked or entangled every year and thrown back to sea injured or dead.

Shrimp trawls in the Gulf of Mexico alone capture an estimated 10 million to 20 million juvenile red snapper every year -- nearly three-quarters of all the recently born red snapper in the region -- hampering recovery of that struggling species and pitting shrimpers against local fishermen. Patagonian long-line fishing boats killed more than 250,000 seabirds in the three years ending in 1999, according to research cited in a recent Pew Commission report.

But recovery efforts will have to focus as much on the coastline as on the oceans, biologists agree. Every year, 20,000 acres of coastal wetlands and river outlets -- critical spawning grounds and nurseries for many of today's faltering ocean fish species -- are lost because of poorly planned coastal development. Those wetlands that remain are increasingly polluted with agricultural runoff and toxins, rendering them biologically less productive.

It is not just a problem of environments destroyed and species lost. Zebra mussels -- the marine counterpart to kudzu -- are only the most famous in an expanding menagerie of invasive species thriving today at great ecological expense in places they never would have found but for human introductions.

At least a half-dozen federal departments and dozens of agencies oversee these and related problems today, all in patchwork fashion under the authority of more than 140 laws. That is why many ocean policy experts have been saying for years that the nation needs an independent agency devoted to ocean health, free of the political missions and biases of any parent department.

Such an agency could take a holistic view of the ocean, focusing not on the health of individual fish populations but on the health of the ocean ecosystem. Its chief would be steward-in-chief of a saltwater wonderland far larger than the nation's terrestrial wilderness and as spectacular as any national park.

Many scientists and fishermen are also calling for the creation of a network of fully protected marine reserves in which entire underwater communities could stabilize and thrive. These would serve not only as pockets of preserved marine life but also as nurseries from which young could disperse and "reseed" depleted surroundings. Although the United States has 13 national marine sanctuaries today, their total area is less than 1 percent of the area set aside in North America as state and federal parks, and fishing is allowed in most of those areas.

Finally, conservationists note, consumers can help depleted species by buying only fish that are relatively abundant. Several organizations, including the Audubon Society and the Monterey Bay Aquarium (and its partner organization, the National Zoo), offer free, wallet-sized cards that detail the status of many kinds of fish.