For centuries, humanity has seen the sea as an infinite source of food, a boundless sink for pollutants, and a tireless sustainer of coastal habitats.
It isn’t. Scientists have mounting evidence of rapidly accelerating declines in once-abundant populations of cod, haddock, flounder, and scores of other fish species, as well as mollusks, crustaceans, birds, and plants. They are alarmed at the rapid rate of destruction of coral reefs, estuaries, and wetlands and the sinister expansion of vast “dead zones” of water where life has been choked away. More and more, the harm to marine biodiversity can be traced not to natural events but to inadequate policies.
The escalating loss of marine life is bad enough as an ecological problem. But it constitutes an economic crisis as well. Marine biodiversity is crucial to sustaining commercial fisheries, and in recent years several major U.S. fisheries have “collapsed”- experienced a population decline so sharp that fishing is no longer commercially viable. One study indicates that 300,000 jobs and $8 billion in annual revenues have been lost because of overly aggressive fishing practices alone. Agricultural and urban runoff, oil spills, dredging, trawling, and coastal development have caused further losses.
Why have lawmakers paid so little attention to the degradation of the sea? It is a case of out of sight, out of mind. Even though the “Year of the Ocean” just ended, the aspiration of creating better ocean governance has already fallen off of the national agenda. Add a general lack of interest among the media and annual moratoria against offshore oil drilling as a panacea for ocean pollution, and most policymakers assume there is little need for concern.
This myth is accompanied by another: that policymakers can do little to safeguard the sea. Actually, a variety of governmental agencies provide opportunities for action. State fish and game commissions typically have jurisdiction from shorelines to 3 miles offshore. The Commerce Department regulates commerce in and through waters from 3 to 12 miles offshore and has authority over resources from there to the 200-mile line that delineates this country’s exclusive economic zone.
At fault is the decades-old framework that the state and federal powers use to regulate the sea. It consists of fragmented, isolated policies that operate at confused cross-purposes. The United States must develop a new integrated framework-a comprehensive strategy-for protecting marine biodiversity. The framework should embrace all categories of ecosystems, species, human uses, and threats; link land and sea; and apply the “precautionary principle” of first seeking to prevent harm to the oceans rather than attempting to repair harm after it has been done. Once we have defined the framework, we can then enact specific initiatives that effectively solve problems.
Better science is also needed to craft the best policy framework, for our knowledge of the sea is still sparse. Nonetheless, we can identify the broad threats to the sea, which include overfishing, pollution from a wide variety of land-based sources, and the destruction of habitat. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, the thinking needed to correct the problems we now face must be different from that which has put us here in the first place.
Creating comprehensive policies that wisely conserve all the richness and bounty of the sea requires an informed understanding of biodiversity. Marine biodiversity describes the web of life that constitutes the sea. It includes three discrete levels: ecosystems and habitat diversity, species diversity, and genetic diversity (differences among and within populations). However, the swift growth in public popularity of the term biodiversity has been accompanied by the incorrect belief that conserving biodiversity means simply maintaining the number of species. This is wrong and misleading when translated into policy. This narrow vision focuses inordinate attention on saving specific endangered species and overlooks the serious depletion of a wide range of plants and animals that are critical to the food web, not to mention the loss of habitats critical to the reproduction, growth, and survival of numerous sea creatures.
Protecting marine biodiversity requires a different sort of thinking than has occurred so far. Common misperceptions about what is needed abound, such as a popular view that biodiversity policy ought to focus on the largest and best-known animals. But just as on land, biodiversity at sea is greatest among smaller organisms such as diatoms and crustacea, which are crucial to preserving ecosystem function.
A Guest Editorial