mark hertsgaard

Independent Journalist & Author

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Mutiny for the Bounty

Humans can’t live under water, so we tend to overlook the fact that
most life on this planet exists not on land but in the oceans. “Oceans
cover 71 percent of the earth’s surface area but contain 97 percent of
its livable habitat,” says David Helvarg, author of Blue Frontier:
Dispatches From America’s Ocean Wilderness
.

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Oceans provide approximately 70 percent of the oxygen that humans breathe
(like plants, oceans absorb carbon dioxide and release oxygen) and most of
the water we drink (evaporation from oceans forms the clouds whose
rain and snow fill rivers and aquifers). In evolutionary terms, adds
Helvarg, humans come from the ocean—our earliest forebears crawled
out of the sea eons before our immediate ancestors, the apes, began
walking on two legs—which may explain why people are so drawn to it.

Half the world’s population lives within fifty miles of a coastline;
going to the beach is the number-one outdoor recreational activity for
Americans.

Homo sapiens could not survive without oceans, but you wouldn’t know
it from how we have been treating them. Climate change was the big
environmental story of 2006, but the alarming state of the oceans was
not far behind.

Topping the list was a study published in Science that
projected that edible sea life will completely disappear by 2048 if
current trends of overfishing and pollution continue. “Our children
will see a world without seafood if we don’t change things,” commented
Boris Worm, lead author of the study, which found three years ago that
29 percent of fish and shellfish populations had collapsed.

A separate
report by the United Nations Environmental Program announced there are
at least 200 oxygen-starved “dead zones” in the world’s seas, caused
by excessive runoff of fertilizers, sewage and other land-based
pollution.

Further worrisome evidence came from the central Pacific
Ocean, where Greenpeace researchers took samples from a swarm of
floating plastic that stretched across an area the size of Texas.
Suspended in a stagnant vortex of currents, the plastic came primarily
from mainland consumers in Asia and North America. The Los Angeles
River alone flushes enough trash each year to fill the Rose Bowl two
stories high, according to a superb exposé in the
Los Angeles Times.

Perhaps most ominous, human activity is altering the very chemical
composition and temperature of the oceans. Scientists blame increasing
emissions of carbon dioxide. The oceans absorb much of this CO2, which
is fortunate in one sense; otherwise, the atmosphere would be heating
up even faster than it already is. But the extra CO2 is making
seawater more acidic, which in turn threatens a cascade of disturbing
consequences, including the destruction of coral reefs and plankton,
tiny animals that are the foundation of the marine food chain.

Nevertheless, Jane Lubchenco, a professor at Oregon State University
who ranks among the most distinguished oceanographers in the world,
sees reasons for hope. “We’re seeing the early stages of a mutiny for
the bounty, if you will,” she says. “There is increasing awareness
that the historic bounty of oceans is quickly disappearing but also
that there’s still time to reverse the degradation.”

One sign of this incipient mutiny, says Lubchenco, is the similarity
of recommendations made by two recent US blue-ribbon commissions on
the oceans. The Pew Oceans Commission, on which Lubchenco served, was
tilted toward the advocacy side of the debate; the US Commission on
Ocean Policy, created by Congress, reflected establishment views.
(They have since merged to form a joint commission.) But both
diagnosed the state of the oceans as dire and recommended an overhaul
of American policy—putting science first, respecting environmental
limits and rationalizing government oversight.

Current policy is
schizophrenic, Lubchenco says: “Fisheries policy is handled by one
agency, coastal development by another, water quality by yet another,
habitat protection by still another, making it impossible to apply the
holistic approach needed to foster resilient, healthy ecosystems.”
Both commissions urged passage of a comprehensive law on oceans—”like
the Clean Air Act,” says Helvarg—that would create a single entity to
coordinate all federal policy on oceans and interact with state
governments. The cost of the recommended reforms is relatively small:
$3 billion to $4 billion a year—about what the United States spends
every two weeks fighting the Iraq War.

So far, Congress and the Bush Administration have done little in
response, earning a D+ on a Joint Ocean Commission Initiative report
card last February. Since then, critics say, only incremental progress
has been made, despite two high-profile initiatives: President Bush’s
creation of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National
Monument, a Montana-sized reserve of mainly open water, and Congress’s
reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which governs fisheries
policy.

Nancy Knowlton, director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and
Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, welcomed the
Hawaii reserve but noted that it was a relatively easy step to take:
The area is so remote that there is almost no commercial fishing
there. “What we really need is to declare 20 percent of the world’s
oceans no-take zones,” she says. “And we’re nowhere near that.” The
other priority, Knowlton says, is to “get serious about global
warming,” an imperative conspicuously omitted from both commissions’
policy recommendations.

Laura Cantral, a spokeswoman for the Joint Ocean Commission
Initiative, praised the reform of Magnuson-Stevens for “enhancing the
role of science” and “setting a clear deadline for ending
overfishing.” But environmentalists complain that the act’s rhetoric
is undermined by weak enforcement mechanisms. “We need to treat the
ocean as what it is—an interrelated web of living organisms, rather
than a seafood production factory,” says Michael Hirshfield, chief
scientist at the group Oceana.

The new Congress is more environmentally friendly. It seems likely to
pass the long-pending treaty on the Law of the Sea, which is favored
by everyone from environmentalists to the fishing industry to the
State Department but was blocked from a Senate vote by far-right
opponents. Congress will also have a chance to emulate the best ocean
policy in the nation, which, as usual in matters environmental, is
found in California. Barbara Boxer, chair of the Senate Environment
Committee, has promised to introduce a bill based on the California
Ocean Protection Act.

But it will take much more than sensible legislation in the United
States to restore the world’s ravaged ocean ecosystems. (US ocean
policy is actually more progressive than that of most other nations, a
refreshing change.) Dead zones cannot recover until agricultural
systems worldwide abandon massive dependence on chemical fertilizers.
The plastic vortex swirling in the central Pacific will keep growing
until the throwaway culture that has taken hold in rich and poor
countries alike is overturned. And no individual reforms will matter
much if global warming isn’t reversed very soon.

The oceans are too
vast and mighty for humans to kill, but we have proven ourselves quite
capable of poisoning, overfishing and heating them to a perilous
degree. The question is not whether oceans can survive what humans are
doing to them but whether humans can.

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About Mark

Independent journalist Mark Hertsgaard is the author of seven books that have been translated into sixteen languages, including Bravehearts: Whistle Blowing in the Age of Snowden; HOT: Living Through the Next Fifty Years on Earth; and A Day in the Life: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles. He has reported from twenty-five countries about politics, culture and the environment for leading outlets, including The Guardian, Der Spiegel, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, Time, Mother Jones, NPR, the BBC and The Nation, where is the environment correspondent. He lives in San Francisco.

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