Salty surf at his back, the nation's future before him, President Clinton went to the tiny Atlantic island of Assateague to announce a major initiative to protect the ocean.
While Mr. Clinton has recently spent much time and effort safeguarding the gorges of Arizona and buttes of Utah, this plan represents a significant expansion of his agenda into the complex world of ocean conservation.
Environmentalists have hailed it as a crucial step to try to hold the line against an expanding crisis. Fishermen counter that the move will make them the endangered species. And although the public may find Clinton's ocean agenda a bit more obtuse than his terrestrial campaign, it could have far greater implications.
"We have national parks and forests and wilderness areas and monuments on land to do the job," says Ellen Pikitch, director of marine programs at the Wildlife Conservation Society. "But in the ocean, it's a free for all."
The president's new directive:
*Creates a framework so that the administration can identify new marine sanctuaries and safeguard others.
*Orders the Interior and Commerce Departments to draft a plan by summer's end that will permanently protect coral reefs along a 1,200-mile stretch of uninhabited islands around Hawaii. Those reefs are home to sea turtles and Hawaiian monk seals found nowhere else on earth.
*Extends a moratorium on any new off-shore oil and gas leasing through 2012.
Growing worry over the condition of oceans goes back 11 years for the president's key adviser, George Frampton, who oversees the White House Council on Environmental Quality. He recalls going to Alaska in 1989 and seeing that the remote coastline was in a sad state even before oil from the Exxon Valdez soiled the shore.
"This was one of the most pristine places left in the world - at least we thought so," he says. "But everywhere we looked ... we found tar from previous oil spills and piles of wave-carried trash."
Mr. Frampton acknowledges that the Clinton administration is getting a late start on trying to rescue oceans. "We haven't done very much about ocean ecosystems for 50 years," he said. But "I consider it a frontier environmental issue of the future. It must be a huge priority for the rest of this administration and the one that follows, whoever that is."
The push to use oceans in innumerable utilitarian ways - a carryover from the frontier mentality of Manifest Destiny, of perceived inexhaustible resources - has passed its finite limit, conservationists say.
Coral reefs are dying, dozens of commercially harvested fish populations are collapsing, beaches are periodically closed because of water quality, and agriculture-related effluent continues to pour into the Gulf of Mexico from the Mississippi River delta, creating a "dead zone."
Saving these ecosystems requires a shift in attitude, environmentalists say. A critical test of the Clinton administration's resolve looms in the Dry Tortugas area of the Florida Keys, where the government is considering implementing a strict 200-square-mile no fishing sanctuary. "If enacted, it would be unprecedented in US waters," says Jack Sobel of the Center For Marine Conservation.
Like the New England seaboard, the Keys have been an area of aquatic concern. The stock of mature lobster is exhausted annually, mirroring a trend of overharvesting marine life nationwide, says Brad Sewell of the Natural Resources Defense Council, "To use the timber analogy, we are clear-cutting areas of our oceans year after year," he says. "Just as in logging communities of the Northwest, this issue is emotionally charged in fishing communities, which have their own cultural lore."
Changing ocean management will not be pleasant, Frampton says, but it is necessary. One important first step is to get US agencies to finally start talking instead of working at cross purposes. A prime example is what's happening with coral reefs.
While the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration warned about dying coral systems, the Environmental Protection Agency continues to issue discharge permits for ocean-bound effluent that kills coral.
The fact that the oceans represent a commons for every nation on earth only complicates matters. Each country has a different economic and cultural connection to the seas. For these reasons, it's important for the US to be a leader, Ms. Pikitch says.
But statistics relating to US waters are grim. Some 40 percent of the 200 fish stocks being studied off the US are considered overharvested compared with a global average of about 33 percent.
"This [initiative] is something that is long overdue," Pikitch says.
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society