Magazine article The American Prospect

Toward a Sea Ethic: Expanding Our Idea of Community Is a First Step to Restoring the Seas around Us

Magazine article The American Prospect

Toward a Sea Ethic: Expanding Our Idea of Community Is a First Step to Restoring the Seas around Us

Article excerpt

A couple of years ago I was participating as a writing coach in a Sea Education Association "seamester," sailing 1,000 miles from Hawaii to Palmyra Atoll, while students from Stanford University received lectures and closely supervised instruction and conducted independent projects on high-tech oceanography. These were smart kids, and the professors were superb. Five hundred miles from land, we got into a discussion on whether the ocean is a "wilderness." The consensus: Obviously it is; there was no sign of humanity, not another boat in sight. Everyone savored the thought: wilderness!

But, I reminded everyone, we haven't caught a single tuna or seen a marlin or a turtle. Wilderness? I don't think so. If the Midwest were covered with water, you wouldn't see that the buffalo were gone, either. There is no ocean wilderness. The whole ocean feels our effects, through fishing, pollution, dying reefs, altered pH, immortal plastics, oxygen-asphyxiated dead-zones, warming water, and melting ice.

The students were bummed, as they would put it. I'd spoiled the special aura. Most chose simply to cling to the wilderness idea. After all, they didn't see any cars or shopping malls, just our beautiful sailing laboratory, our home afloat, our own wind-driven island with all the life support that was keeping us healthy and happy and moving forward.

Exactly, I told them. Now, realize this sailboat is also a metaphor for our whole planet. Why do we take such good care of these decks, all the equipment and gear? Why do we keep an eye on our food supply? Because we realize we're utterly dependent on this ship. Same with the whole ocean and the whole world.

People can more easily see, and better sense, what's happening on land. We do see that the buffalo have been banished, that the passenger pigeon--once the most abundant bird in North America--is a memory.

Even scientists who should have known better long assumed that the ocean's creatures were immune to extinction. It's true that the ocean's size, and the fact that people can't live in it or pave its surface, has slowed extinctions. But even the vastness is illusory. First, the ocean isn't just a big bathtub. It's a mosaic of different habitats. Within those habitats, different creatures inhabit different fractions of each piece of the mosaic. (As Nancy Knowlton informs us, tropical coral reefs occupy an area smaller than Texas, and yet they house about one-quarter of all the species of the sea.) This makes many marine species vulnerable to depletion, including some of the ocean's larger animals. Even recovering populations of large whales remain at low numbers compared to earlier times. Many fishes of real, ongoing commercial value have declined, on average, about 90 percent worldwide compared to 1950 levels.

Very few fisheries have actually turned the corner toward recovery. They are mainly in the U.S. where the Sustainable Fisheries Act of 1996 established quantitative triggers for deeming fish depleted, and mandated that formal plans must be created for allowing depleted species to recover within 10 years. Implementation of this excellent law has been spotty and subject to some unfortunate legal interpretations. But overall it makes the U.S., though far from perfect, arguably the best of a bad lot. "That's because the record of the other countries is so abysmally low," says University of British Columbias Daniel Pauly. Many depleted ocean creatures--from Pacific leatherback turtles (sought for eggs and meat, or killed accidentally in fishing gear) to white abalones to west Atlantic bluefin tuna--may soon end up in the "extinct" column unless we reverse current trends.

The question of extinction aside, the depletion devastates human interests. In the long term, depletion will harm businesses such as fishing and tourism. As Colin Woodard tells us, in the Pacific Northwest, shrinking salmon populations have cost 72,000 jobs and more than half a billion dollars. …

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