Gathering Rallies Support for Besieged Oceans

President Clinton will join 500 scientists to discuss ways of helping marine life.

The vast labyrinth of spiny coral reefs off the Florida Keys is shrinking. Spawning grounds off the coast of Maine are threatened by overfishing. Across the US, new runoff pollutants from farms and city streets are killing fish. And off Texas, they have left a 7,000-square-mile zone of oxygen-dead water.

The world's oceans are under siege by a host of problems - both old and new. And in recent years, little has been done to tackle them. But today, a gathering of 500 of America's top scientists and environmentalists in Monterey, Calif., hopes to begin to change that tide.

The largest national gathering on ocean issues in 30 years, the two-day National Ocean Conference is an effort to raise awareness of the challenges facing marine life and the environment. It's the major US contribution to the United Nations Year of the Ocean campaign. And with President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore scheduled to attend, it's an indicator of the growing importance being placed on the seas' health worldwide.

"Marine environmental issues have not received this kind of focused, high-level government attention, perhaps ever," says J. Frederick Grassle, director of the Institute of Marine and Coastal Sciences and professor of Marine Sciences at Rutgers University in New Jersey. "Part of the problem has always been that the ocean has no constituency. Whether or not it works, this conference is helping to create one."

The gathering, sponsored by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is a long-overdue discussion among key players from government, industry, academia, and environmental groups, observers say. No similar-size gathering has been attempted since the Stratton Commission in 1966, which laid the legal frameworks that have created environmental policy for 30 years. And much has changed since then.

"The whole landscape of problems has changed drastically in the past few years, yet we have not kept pace with the legislation and action to deal with it," says Tim Eichenberg, program counsel for the Center for Marine Conservation in Washington.

Indeed, experts note that the way people interact with nature has changed significantly during the past 30 years, creating the need to consider new approaches.

"As the American population has expanded into wetland and coastal areas, the magnitude of our impact has accelerated," says John Reynolds, chairman of the US Marine and Mammal Commission, and a professor at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Fla. "We all need to take stock of these impacts and consider how to lessen them in the future, before they become a bigger problem."

Whether or not the conference produces substantive policy, attendees say it will be a chance for those in specialized fields to rub shoulders with other top experts and discuss broad themes. But beyond the sharing of ideas, many of the same experts are withholding judgment until they see substantive actions announced.

"Is this just going to be another national press event with a pretty backdrop, or will what they do really help tackle the problems?" asks Mike Connor, vice president of programs for the New England Aquarium in Boston.

Still, he sees cause for optimism. "We think there is every reason this gathering can be turned into more action," he says.

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