There goes the neighborhood
America's treatment of its oceans is under scrutiny as groups propose ways to renew overtaxed waters.
Barry Costa-Pierce recalls growing up in the 1950s and '60s "on the other side of the tracks" in southeastern Massachusetts, where rivers ran red with textile-mill waste and emptied into an ocean so seemingly boundless it could easily absorb whatever humans dumped into it.Skip to next paragraph
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The culprits were easy to spot. "Then, you could point your finger at the 'bad' industries" for fouling rivers and oceans, he says.
Today, US coastal waters are almost free from such easy-to-spot industrial abuse. Instead, their health is threatened by what Dr. Costa-Pierce, now a marine scientist at the University of Rhode Island, dubs the "death of a million cuts."
Overfishing, pollution from more-diffuse sources, and coastal development near breeding grounds for marine life have led several commissions recently to look hard at how America treats the oceans - and to offer ideas for improving its stewardship.
Think of them as urban-renewal proposals for Neptune's neighborhood. If Congress and the White House enact them, they would result in the most sweeping overhaul of US oceans policy in more than 30 years.
Wednesday in Washington, D.C., the nonprofit Pew Oceans Commission released a long-awaited assessment of the state of the nation's ocean resources and a blueprint for solving the problems it sees. This fall, the congressionally chartered Commission on Ocean Policy is expected to release its own findings and recommendations. Meanwhile, several major international environmental groups - including the Nature Conservancy and the Ocean Conservancy - ended a meeting this week in Los Cabos, Mexico, and have unveiled yet another agenda for the globe's oceans.
The scrutiny comes at a time of growing concern over what Costa-Pierce, who heads the Rhode Island Sea Grant Program, calls "America's coastline crisis," driven in large part by the flood of people to coastal regions.
Worldwide, the quest to live on the coast is "the greatest human migration of all time," he asserts. In the US, Pew's commissioners cite estimates showing that more than half the US population currently lives in counties along the nation's sea coasts. By 2015, another 25 million people are expected to make their homes in these areas.
The growth comes at a time of shifting views about the oceans, according to Adm. James Watkins, chairman of the 16-member federal Commission on Ocean Policy.
"We cannot expect the oceans to forever absorb some of the ills of mankind, such as pollution and urban runoff," he says. The ocean "has limits, and I think we're learning that. We've also learned that the oceans don't start at the coastline."
To illustrate the point, he and others cite the "dead zone" in the Gulf of Mexico, a patch of ocean the size of Massachusetts that builds each spring and summer. The Mississippi River flushes nutrient-laden runoff from the farming heartland into the Gulf, where it triggers vast algae blooms. When the algae die, decomposition deprives the water of dissolved oxygen, suffocating any sea creature too slow to beat the zone's spread.
"Dead zone" is a misnomer, since some marine biologists have found that small organisms well-adapted to the low-oxygen environment flourish. But few would argue that the Gulf ecosystem escapes unchanged; the zone essentially is dead to commercially valuable species.
While "dead zones" can occur naturally, researchers have identified 38 dead zones linked to human activities, largely along the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.