WASHINGTON — When Norman Mineta became Commerce secretary last July, he was sure of one thing: He didn't want to be simply a caretaker, waiting six months until President Clinton left office.
Secretary Mineta, a former congressman who has been tapped as Bush's Transportation secretary, decided to use his short tenure to focus laser-like on one of the world's greatest challenges - protecting and understanding our oceans.
"Today, I think we know less about the oceans than [we] did about space in 1960," says Mineta, whose office oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
Ultimately, the oceans' potential importance to mankind may be even more significant than space. But despite their vastness, the oceans, including those bordering the United States, are threatened by pollution, overfishing, and weak management.
One of the most immediate crises involves the world's coral reefs - sometimes referred to as the "rainforests of the ocean."
As many as one-quarter of the creatures of the sea, including 4,000 species of fish, depend on tropical coral reefs, which occupy less than 0.2 percent of the ocean floors. Yet a combination of changing weather, pollution, and human exploitation has put those reefs under attack from the Straits of Florida to the Indian Ocean.
The secretary, racing the clock as Mr. Clinton's term ends, swung his support behind several breakthrough initiatives. His leading priorities include protecting the coral reefs of Florida, Hawaii, and the Gulf of Mexico.
Mineta calls for fostering an "ocean ethic" among Americans to guard the nearly 4 million square miles of coastal waters that surround the US and its possessions.
An expanding American economy and a rapidly rising US population have raised the pressure on US coastal resources.
Mineta points out that 80 percent of all ocean pollution comes from land. The problem is worsening as millions of new people are drawn to the coasts for jobs and recreation. By 2025, he says, as many as 3 out of every 4 Americans will live within 50 miles of the coastline.
In the Florida Keys, with 2 million visitors a year, growth has put stress on the magnificent coral reefs that run alongside the islands. Tests show that old-fashioned septic systems in widespread use in the Keys permit damaging nutrients from sewage to reach nearby reefs in as little as 12 hours.
Mineta has put his emphasis on several efforts to deal with such dangers to reef systems. They include:
Tortugas Ecological Reserve
This pristine area of coral reefs 70 miles from Key West acts as a seedbed for other endangered reefs from the Florida Keys to Fort Lauderdale. The Tortugas plan, which still needs final approval from the state, would create a "no take" reserve of about 200 square miles - the largest no-take zone in US waters.
The area's clear waters, spectacular reefs, and lush sea-grass meadows would be protected against virtually all human activity. The plan has won wide support, including an endorsement from Florida commercial fishermen, who see Tortugas as a rich breeding ground that, with protection, will increase fish stocks in other areas of the Keys.
Florida environmental officials say the plan could go into effect as early as July.
Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary
Last month, the International Maritime Organization, which governs worldwide shipping, approved the first-ever "no anchoring" zone for large ships. The zone will protect reefs within the Flower Garden Banks sanctuary, which lies about 120 miles offshore from Galveston, Texas.
There is substantial danger to delicate reefs from ships' anchors, which often weigh more than automobiles. Heavy anchor chains dragged back and forth across coral beds as ships shift position can also cause serious damage.
"An anchor can destroy in seconds thousands of years of coral reef growth," Mineta says.
Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Coral Reef Ecosystem Reserve
On Dec. 4, Clinton used an executive order to establish a new conservation area of some 131,000 square miles - three times the size of Pennsylvania.
Some fishermen complained about the scope of the order, which protects an area containing almost 70 percent of all US coral reefs.
The Clinton order limits commercial and sport fishing to current levels, and bans all removal of coral from the protected area. It also prohibits oil and gas drilling there.
While these steps encourage Mineta, he concedes that serious challenges remain.
Foremost may be "coral bleaching," a widespread problem that recently worsened. While bleaching is not fully understood, the outbreak may be related to swings in temperature and climate caused by El Nino and La Nina.
Clive Wilkinson, director of the Coral Reef Monitoring Network, says that until 1998, it was assumed that the worst threats to coral reefs were human. Up to that point, about 11 percent of the world's coral reefs had either been killed or were in decline.
Then in 1998, Wilkinson says, "the big whammy hit us." The El Nino/La Nina cycles brought with them widespread coral bleaching (or whitening) as water temperatures warmed.
The result was unprecedented damage to the world's corals. In nine months, an estimated 16 percent of all reefs were lost.
In December, the US and Australia agreed to launch a joint study of bleaching and the effects of global climate change on coral reefs.
US consumers, however, can undo even the best efforts of government to protect reefs.
The thriving market for coral used in jewelry, home aquariums, curios, and other products - as well as the sale of tropical fish from reefs - has accelerated destructive practices around the world.
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Publishing Society