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Future of America’s Oceans: Better or Worse?

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Ten years ago this month, the Pew Oceans Commission released a landmark assessment of the state of the U.S. marine environment, with recommendations for action to protect our seas. Pew had assembled a blue-ribbon panel of experts who developed the nation’s first broad look at the state of our oceans in more than 30 years.

So, what has been achieved and how are our oceans faring today?

“We now have a national policy that says, ‘Healthy oceans matter,’ ”

–Jane Lubchenco, former NOAA administrator

In 2003, the commission found that more than 60 percent of coastal rivers and bays in the United States were degraded by nutrient runoff from industrial farmland, suburban lawns, and urban sprawl. Crucial species such as mid-Atlantic summer flounder and Gulf of Mexico red snapper were subject to overfishing and severely depleted. Invasive species were establishing themselves in the nation’s coastal waters.

The commissioners urged federal agencies to improve management of the nation’s fisheries, establish a network of marine reserves in coastal waters, increase coastal restoration efforts, apply strong environmental standards for aquaculture, and better regulate the sources of pollution. Today, many of those recommendations have been or are being adopted in law or practice. That is significantly transforming the way we manage our marine environment.

The Pew Oceans Commission provided an opportunity for the United States to take stock of the health of our oceans. At that point, a patchwork of inadequate policies and practices at all levels of government had failed to address the serious problems of overfishing, pollution, habitat destruction, and unchecked coastal development that threatened these waters.

Perhaps the most important example of the commission’s success can be seen in the effort to end overfishing in federal waters. In 2003, many of the nation’s fish stocks were being exploited at unsustainable levels. The commission recommended the establishment of firm, annual catch limits based on science—not politics. This concept was incorporated in the 2006 reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary law governing management of our ocean’s fish, and implemented systematically.

Illegal Korean fishing vessel, Gabon.

That resulted in a milestone in June 2012 when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, announced it had established science-based annual catch limits for all 537 federally managed ocean fish populations. And 29 stocks are subject to overfishing, the lowest number since NOAA began reporting. We are slowly starting to reverse decades of overfishing through discipline, ingenuity, and sound management.

In another landmark achievement stemming directly from the commission’s recommendations, President George W. Bush moved to dramatically expand marine protected areas in U.S. waters. He designated the first of these new reserves, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in 2006 and then the Marianas Trench Marine National Monument in the Northern Mariana Islands before he left office in 2009. These actions have inspired efforts to establish large marine reserves around the world, efforts aided by Pew’s Global Ocean Legacy work. 

Red pencil urchin on a reef in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.

The commission also found that the nation needed to improve ocean governance to protect marine life. In 2010, President Barack Obama took steps to do just that. He issued an executive order establishing a national ocean policy that, for the first time, directed the federal government to use its authority under existing laws to protect and restore the health of marine ecosystems. This April, the administration released its final plan for implementing the national policy, providing tangible ways to improve the quality of the marine environment and the productive and sustainable use of ocean resources.

“We now have a national policy that says, ‘Healthy oceans matter,’ ” said Jane Lubchenco, former NOAA administrator and a member of the Pew Oceans Commission. “We will have our challenges, but citizens, ocean users, and policymakers are more aware of how healthy oceans benefit people. This builds momentum to drive solutions from the local level.”

Challenges remain for America’s oceans

Despite the strides made in the 10 years since the Pew Oceans Commission issued its report, many challenges remain. Coastal development continues, largely unchecked, and natural infrastructure such as wetlands and marshes continues to shrink. That exposes the nearly 60 percent of Americans who live along the coasts to the physical and economic damage caused by increasingly high-intensity storms such as Hurricane Katrina and Superstorm Sandy.

Many of our ocean ecosystems have been severely compromised by decades of overfishing, habitat-damaging fishing practices, the use of indiscriminate fishing gear that captures and kills vast amounts of non-targeted ocean wildlife, and limits on forage fish that are too high to ensure adequte food for the larger ecosystem. On top of that, major challenges that the commission could not see as clearly in 2003—including ocean acidification and rising ocean temperatures—further threaten some of our most valuable fisheries, such as cod in New England.

Our oceans today appear to be undergoing fundamental changes from many directions. Today and in the decade ahead, the United States needs to pursue a holistic, ecosystem-based approach to managing our fisheries to help build resilience in our oceans and respond to existing and future global threats such as the shift of fish toward the poles and deeper as ocean waters warm. This includes:  

  • Providing stronger legal authority to protect essential fish habitats and minimize nontarget catch.
  • Requiring forward-thinking plans to restore and maintain healthy and resilient ocean ecosystems. 
  • Safeguarding forage fish—such as menhaden and sardines, which help form the foundation of the ocean food web—from unsustainable exploitation.
  • Preventing the expansion of fishing into new areas and on species until adequate science and ecosystem protection measures are in place.

Incredible challenges lie ahead for preserving our marine environment and sustainably managing our ocean resources. But if we remain committed to sound science and long-term sustainability—the vision of the Pew Oceans Commission a decade ago—we can ensure that our oceans stay bountiful and beautiful for generations to come. 

Better or Worse?

 

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