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.

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.

Meanwhile, the National Research Council has estimated that every eight months US coastal waters collectively receive 11 million gallons of oil as runoff from urban areas - as much oil as the Exxon Valdez spilled into Alaskan waters in 1988.

Added to the list of danger signals are dwindling fish populations, although plans are under way to help them rebuild, according to Timothy Keeney, deputy assistant secretary of Commerce for oceans and atmosphere.

Globally, key species have plunged during the past 50 years. Species at the top of the food chain such as swordfish, tuna, marlin, and cod have declined by 90 percent since 1952, report Ransom Myers and Boris Worm, biologists at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia. The results of their study, an effort to estimate the impact of industrial-scale fishing worldwide since the early 1950s, were published last month in the journal Nature.

Populations of faster-maturing species grew to fill the gaps, but the scientists found that those increases often reversed themselves within a decade. Overall, the duo estimates that within 15 years of beginning to fish a particular species, commercial fisheries reduced the population by 80 percent.

For the US, which has been fighting its own battle against overfishing, "the good news is that over the past five years we've made some improvement," Mr. Keeney says, noting that of 86 overfished species, 70 are the subject of plans to rebuild stocks.

Still, he continues, the pressure on fisheries remains intense. "The technology has improved significantly during the last decade," he says. "Fishermen are better at finding fish, and we have too many vessels chasing too few fish."

The human pressures come on top of broader environmental pressures - changing water temperature, currents, water saltiness, and climate - that marine ecosystems face.

The late Mia Tegner, for example, spent her career at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., studying kelp forests and found that these biologically productive ecosystems could change dramatically with the rise and fall of El Niño conditions.

Such periodic stresses can become the last straw for marine environments already enduring more persistent stresses from human activities, researchers say.

Indeed, as both commissions have heard from scientists, members of the fishing industry, and other public groups, they have come to the conclusion that any new focus for ocean policy must hinge on managing ecosystems, not individual species.

The ecosystem approach has been applied to areas such as the Dry Tortugas ecological reserve, which was established two years ago to protect still pristine coral reefs off southern Florida. In the Northeast, the approach has been applied to the historic Georges Bank fishing grounds, a nearly 174,000-square mile area of shoals off Massachusetts' Cape Cod.

In 1994 and 1995, the National Marine Fisheries Services closed roughly 7,700 square miles of these rich fishing grounds to reduce the pressure on fish populations.

"We have the largest year-round closed areas of anywhere in the world," notes Steven Murawski, a marine scientist at the National Marine Fisheries Service Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Mass.

When the fisheries service closed off the area, he says, stocks for 24 species of ground fish, including cod, haddock, and redfish, had "bottomed out." Since then, researchers have seen increases in almost all species - with one surprise. Stocks of Atlantic scallops skyrocketed once fishing gear no longer tore up the ocean floor.

"This has been a grand experiment in assessing the efficacy of closed areas," Dr. Murawski says.

Managing whole ecosystems could set off a boisterous political debate, because such an approach would require a major overhaul of the regulatory mechanisms now in place.

Yet those mechanisms - more than 140 laws and overlapping agency jurisdictions - are nearly as tangled as a derelict China clipper's rigging in a nor'easter. Commissioners hope their efforts will help untangle the web.

"This is going to be a real challenge," says retired Coast Guard Vice Adm. Roger Rufe Jr., one of the commissioners on the Pew panel.

He notes that in 1983, President Ronald Reagan established ocean economic-exclusion zones that extended out 200 miles from US coastlines. With the stroke of a pen, Mr. Reagan more than doubled the amount of the planet under direct US jurisdiction by adding 4.5 million square miles of ocean terrain and marine ecosystems to its inventory.

"This is our greatest national resource, certainly the largest," Admiral Rufe says. "It's owned by all of us, and every American should have a say in how it's preserved and how it's protected."

Pew's ideas for a new US ocean policy

Some recommendations from the Pew Oceans Commission

Governing for sustainable seas:

• Enact a National Ocean Policy Act to protect, maintain, and restore the health, resilience, and productivity of our oceans.

• Establish regional ocean-ecosystem councils to devise and implement plans for governing regional resources.

• Establish a national system of fully protected marine reserves.

• Establish an independent national oceans agency.

Restoring fisheries:

• Shift the main goal of US ocean-fishing policy from catch limits to protecting ecosystems.

• Give authority for decisions on catch allocations and conservation - both currently made by regional fisheries councils - to two separate bodies.

• Regulate fishing gear that destroys marine habitats.

Preserving coasts:

• Develop a plan to reduce "non-point-source" pollution, such as fertilizer runoff, for entire river watersheds to reduce "dead zones" and harmful algal blooms in offshore areas.

• Identify and protect existing critical coastal ecosystems.

• Shift government programs and subsidies away from harmful forms of coastal development and toward activities that preserve or restore.

Cleaning coastal waters:

• Revise, strengthen, and expand pollution laws to cover non-point-source pollution.

• Address pollution sources such as animal-feed operations and cruise ships.

• Toughen controls on toxic pollution.

Sustainable fish-farming:

• Adopt a new national marine aquaculture policy based on conservation principles and standards.

• Set standards for ecologically sound fish-farming practices.

Science and education:

• Develop and implement a broad national ocean research and monitoring strategy.

• Broaden ocean education and awareness at all levels of society.

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