Two and a half years ago I started to write stories about oceans, but I've never explored the beat the way a good journalist does: By being there. Except for a dozen or so ferry rides and fishing trips, virtually all of the stories I've written about the ocean have been discovered, reported and written from land. It's hard to get onto the water and, even when I have, most of the real action is going on under the surface. But in many respects, this difficulty has been a benefit in forcing me to look at ocean stories through the lens of economics, history, relationships and culture.
Beginning in the fall of 2000, when I began working at The Boston Globe as its environment reporter, I spent much of my reporting time in the forests, streams and mountains of New England and also writing about lead poisoning and other urban environmental health issues. But after 9/11, like many journalists, the topics of my coverage shifted to anthrax scares and aspects of terrorism. I didn't return to this beat until mid-2002 and, by then, the Atlantic Ocean off New England's coastline was re-emerging as a critical story for the Globe to cover.
Commercial fishing faced its biggest challenge ever due to a lawsuit by environmental groups, while salmon farms were blanketing Down East Maine and breathing new economic life into the poorest places in the state. Waters off New England were being bombarded with new energy proposals, ranging from the nation's first offshore wind farm (which would be located in Nantucket Sound) to several proposed sites for liquefied natural gas terminals. My editors asked me to dive into these complex issues. I went from writing perhaps one or two ocean stories every six months when I first started this beat to writing dozens of them. Forests and virtually everything else were pushed to the backburner, and ocean-related stories consumed some 70 percent of my time.
Oceanographers like to say that there is more known about the moon than the bottom of the sea. Yet virtually everyone agrees the world's oceans, once thought inexhaustible, are in imminent danger of being emptied of fish. The United Nations recently named overfishing as one of the 10 most important, but least written about, subjects. Only recently have environmental groups begun to pay attention to the oceans and, as they have, their focus is shifting public perception about how the oceans should be managed, what should be taken from them, and what countries' fishing boats should be allowed on which swaths of the sea.
Knowing little about the ocean or these issues, I blanketed universities and aquariums to ask about ongoing and interesting research, it was as if my inquiry had turned on a spigot: Research dollars were increasing for ocean studies and, as a consequence, related technologies and story ideas were everywhere. Here's a sampling of what I found:
* The United States was quietly trying to more accurately map the continental shelf off the nation's coast in hope of extending its seabed rights farther out from shore, an extension that could be worth billions of dollars.
* Sophisticated technology helped to locate one of New England's most famous shipwrecks 450 feet below the ocean surface.
* Recreational boat use was rising, and arguments about new marinas were escalating.
* Remote vehicles, many developed and based in New England, were catching up to scientists' ambitions to examine deep, cold-water corals and other treasures.
Within a few months, however, it was clear that New England fishing was the biggest story. For 200 years the region's economic engine revolved around the plentiful cod, so much so that a carved wooden cod still hangs in the Massachusetts Statehouse. But fishermen had taken too many of these fish, and stocks weren't being replenished fast enough despite a tightening--and confusing--array of regulation. Fishermen, who not long ago proudly came into port with hundreds of thousands of pounds of flounder and haddock, were now forced to hunt slime eels, an animal that snakes into dying fish to eat them from the inside out. …