When I was a kid watching Jacques Cousteau on TV, I remember him talking about how one day we'd live under the sea, citizens of the ocean, tending and harvesting its endless bounty. Perhaps he never used the words "endless bounty," but that was the way we thought of our oceans 30 years ago. I can remember an idea of living seas so vast that their wealth could never be exhausted.
Bounty is never endless, of course. The oceans of the world were mortal all along. We couldn't see the damage we were doing beneath the veil of water stretching from horizon to horizon.
Maybe it would have been better if some of us had gone to live under the waves. Perhaps, from that perspective, we'd have realized sooner the damage being done.
This week the Pew Ocean Commission is scheduled to release its recommendations on federal ocean policy. The US Commission on Ocean Policy's recommendations to Congress will follow later this year.
These parallel efforts mark the first comprehensive look at ocean policy in 30 years. Thanks to the Exclusive Economic Zone created in 1983, the US controls ocean resources up to 200 miles off the coast. Including Pacific and Atlantic islands, the area of marine waters controlled by the US now rivals the area of its land.
A revolution in ocean policy is long overdue.
Humanity has let loose upon two-thirds of the earth's surface a killing machine so vast and efficient as to press dozens of once-robust populations to within a decimal point of nonexistence. All this in the span of just half a century. A recent report in the scientific journal Nature found that 90 percent of the large fish in the ocean are now gone. The Atlantic has lost cod, swordfish, bluefin tuna. In the Pacific, groundfish stocks have collapsed and may take generations to recover.
Yet even as we have harvested the ocean for our dinner plates, we have dumped toxic chemicals, sewage, metals, and even our garbage into the sea that fed us. Pollution runoff from land kills coral reefs and the most productive and diverse habitats of the sea. Agricultural runoff from factory farms creates "dead zones" in waters once teeming with life. The flesh of killer whales in Puget Sound is so laden with toxins that their carcasses have to be disposed of as hazardous waste.
In our desire to be closer to what we thought was endless and immortal, half the population of the US has migrated to the coasts. Doing so has overloaded sewer plants that foul coastal waters. Our endless paving creates storm-water runoff that can be deadly to fish. To build close to the waves, we have filled wetlands and tidal estuaries - destroying the natural mechanism that cleaned the water as it entered the sea.
In the next 15 years, 27 million more people are expected to move to coastal areas in the US. Each new home destroys habitat; each road and parking lot produces polluted runoff that finds its way to the ocean. Moreover, thanks to the proliferation of second homes and patterns of sprawl, development in coastal areas outpaces the increasing population.
Yet as James Watkins, head of the US Commission on Ocean Policy says, "oceans don't start at the coastline.
"There are 41 states and two Canadian provinces that cause the dead zone in the Gulf [of Mexico]," he says. "So everyone's in the ocean business."
Mr. Watkins' commission is expected to tell Congress that it needs to integrate protection for ocean-ecosystem health into inland decisionmaking. That could prove a tough sell. It will be hard for those of us on dry land to start thinking and acting like ocean citizens.
Historically, marine issues rarely receive focused, high-level government attention because "the ocean has no constituency," says J. Frederick Grassle, a professor of marine sciences at Rutgers University. Yet it is the ocean that regulates the climate, making this blue planet habitable for us. It is the ocean that drives the weather, creating fresh water for us to drink and irrigate our crops. A large part of the world's edible protein is derived from beneath the waves. Marine phytoplankton are not only the basis for the entire marine food chain, they also provide much of the oxygen we breathe.
Whether we realize it or not, we are, or at least should be, the ocean's constituents.
We must be much more vigilant. We must look out over the waves and see our future reflected in ocean health. It's time we started acting like ocean citizens.
• Ed Hunt is the editor in chief of the Tidepool.org news service.