Stop the Assault on World Oceans

THERE was a lot of talk in the 1960s about feeding the hungry with food from the sea. But an environmental mess has made a mockery of that dream. In its place, says Nicholas Lenssen, a Worldwatch Institute analyst, ``is the reality of stagnating oceans; shrinking wetlands, coral reefs, and mangroves [where many sea creatures breed]; and falling fish catches that jeopardize a key source of protein for the world's poor.''

The sea's plight is so bad, in fact, that the recent seven-nation (G-7) economic summit took note. Its communiqu'e states:

``We condemn indiscriminate use of the oceans as dumping grounds for polluting waste.... To ensure the sustainable management of the marine environment, we recognize the importance of international cooperation in preserving it and conserving the living resources of the sea. We call for the relevant bodies of the United Nations to prepare a report on the state of the world's oceans.''

It's no accident that this concern surfaced at an economic summit. Sociologist Nathan Keyfitz of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis - a think tank for Eastern and Western bloc scientists at Laxenburg, Austria - has pointed out the environment-economy connection. He explains:

``Humans look after their material needs by means of an economy and that economy is embedded in an ecology.... The economy can only use such materials as are available in the ecosphere.''

The ocean is a major part of the ecology in which the world economy is embedded. If the sea suffers, so does the world economy.

Various kinds of pollution - including sewage and silt from deforested lands - have ruined coastal waters around the world. Mr. Lenssen notes that ``at any one time one-third of the United States shellfish beds are closed because of pollution.'' He adds that pollution also encourages ``a growing epidemic'' of blooms of toxic algae, such as so-called red tides.

Lenssen further points out that the global commercial fish catch rose from 21 million tons in 1950 to 84.5 million tons in 1987. Subsistence fishermen account for an additional 24 million tons a year. This is well over the 100 million tons a year that scientists at the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization consider the ocean's maximum sustainable annual yield. Already, 42 fish stocks are over-exploited or seriously depleted, Lenssen reports.

There are other serious assaults on the sea, including oil and plastics pollution.

On average, accidents spill 600,000 barrels of oil into the sea each year, but routine flushing of ships' tanks adds 21 million barrels, according to a 1985 study of the US National Academy of Sciences. Besides polluting coastal waters, oil poisons the thin top ocean layer that contains the microscopic plants and animals that are the base of marine food chains. Plastic containers and lost nets kill many thousands of seals, birds, and other creatures annually. Lenssen estimates that merchant ships dump half a million plastic containers overboard daily.

It is this kind of routine daily assault that most damages the ocean rather than the large disasters, Lenssen says. It is this routine assault that the G-7 summit nations want to curb.

Some steps are being taken. They include regional agreements to curb pollution. They also involve such global arrangements as the treaty to ban disposal of plastics from ships that has been ratified by 39 nations and now is in effect. But the time has come for the world to take comprehensive action to preserve the sea. The concern expressed by the G-7 summit shows an awakening to this need.

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