Bummer beaches and other ocean woes

Ocean pollution seems so far away until a good summer vacation is ruined by a beach closure. The number of such closures only keeps rising in the US. These fouled beaches are the surest sign of a need for better action to protect the world's oceans.

In a just-released study, the National Resource Defense Council found 8 percent of American beaches had shore waters that violated health standards. This surf slime, however, is only the froth on deeper sea trends.

From rising toxins in whales to vanishing coral reefs to missing fish stocks, almost every corner of the watery globe has problems that need a change in the human use of oceans. Even if these waters seem like a vast sponge able to absorb whatever humans put into them, they have a way of throwing back the pollution or the damage done – most evident in the foul smell of an algae bloom off a beach with a "no swimming" sign on it.

This ecopayback arrives in many other ways. A rapid rise in the level of carbon dioxide entering the oceans has caused them to become more acidic, altering aquatic life forms, especially fish larvae. More marine mammals are beaching themselves. Mariners report an increase in the amount of trash floating in the seas, notably nonbiodegradable plastics. And all too often, invasive species are causing environmental harm.

No one really knows the tipping point for this ocean damage to become catastrophic and irreversible. That's why there is a growing sense of urgency in Washington and elsewhere to take a comprehensive look at all human interaction with the seas and improve the system of coastal and ocean governance.

In 2004, President Bush set up the Committee on Ocean Policy to provide better collaboration between the more than 20 federal agencies that administer more than 140 laws dealing with the oceans and that oversee the competing demands for using the oceans and keeping them clean.

That body has made limited progress, focusing mainly on helping the offshore coral, reducing pollution runoff into rivers, and improving navigation into ports in order to avoid environmental damage.

In addition, the president recently designated a string of islands northwest of Hawaii as a giant marine national monument, part of a strategy to protect ocean resources. Other areas off the West Coast are being protected for their critical fish habitats.

Better tracking of the oceans is badly needed to solve their problems. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is setting up an "integrated ocean observing system" as part of a global effort. NOAA has authority over dozens of ocean-related laws and Congress should consolidate those disparate powers by passing a comprehensive act for the agency. It should also not cut ocean research at a time when more information is needed. And Congress must provide more direction to coordinate federal and state policies toward the oceans.

Slowly, the oceans can be restored. One success story is the comeback of the Kemp's Ridley sea turtle because of efforts to protect its nesting beaches in Mexico. Some whale species have rebounded, too. Human beachgoers as well might someday find more, not fewer, beaches open for clean swimming.

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