Study: Oceans near U.S. in crisis

sborenstein [at] krwashington [dot] com

WASHINGTON - The oceans bordering the United States are overfished, polluted, infested with invasive species, dotted with ''dead zones'' and in a state of crisis, but they still can be saved, an independent commission reported Wednesday.

Bringing the oceans' ecosystems back from the edge of collapse -- one recent study found that 90 percent of the world's big fish have disappeared -- requires dramatic, controversial and expensive efforts to limit fishing, coastal development and runoff from cities and farms, according to the Pew Oceans Commission. Its report is the product of a three-year, $5.5 million study.

 2 Esdras 6:22 (ii) And suddenly shall the sown places appear unsown the full storehouses shall suddenly be found empty:
6:23 (iii) And the trumpet (6th or 7th - Rev. 9-10) shall give a sound, which when every man heareth, they shall be suddenly afraid.

''People look at the ocean and it looks blue and peaceful and as good as it always did, but you don't know what's going on beneath the waves,'' said commission member Charles Kennel, the director of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego. ``What is going on is a systematic decline of our marine ecosystem. It's a global crisis.''

The Pew report is the latest in a series of reports warning of worsening problems in the world's oceans. A separate commission, appointed by President Bush, will make its own recommendations next fall, but it already has concluded that ''there are substantial problems in the oceans,'' said presidential commission member Paul Sandifer, senior scientist at the federal Hollings Marine Lab in Charleston, S.C.

For heavily developed coastal states like Florida, the problems are particularly acute -- farm pollution, urban sewage, increasing commercial and recreational fishing pressure.

For decades, researchers have documented a sharp decline in coral off the Florida Keys, the largest living reef in North America.

Toxic algae blooms continue to erupt off Southwest Florida and in Florida Bay, killing seagrass and sponges and juvenile fish. A housing explosion has chewed up mangroves and marshes. A growing number of fish, including coastal species, pose health threats from high mercury.

While state restrictions and a gillnet ban has helped some popular species rebound, notably pompano and redfish, biologists and regulators consider dozens of other species overfished.

''The oceans were always seen to be vast and limitless. Now, we're seeing that's not the case,'' said David White, director of The Ocean Conservancy's regional office in St. Petersburg.

The Pew Commission -- a bipartisan group of scientists, politicians and philanthropists sponsored by an environmental charity -- stressed that it's not too late. ''It is possible to rescue much of the bounty that has been lost, but only if we focus society on protecting and restoring the ecosystem,'' commission member Jane Lubchenco, an Oregon State University marine biologist, told a news conference.

The Pew Commission called for:

? Setting aside far more no-fishing zones in U.S. waters.

? Imposing severe limits on the fishing technique of trawling, which scrapes the sea bottom.

? Strengthening land-pollution laws to regulate storm-water runoff from urban areas, fertilizer-tainted runoff from mass animal farms and cruise ship sewage dumping.

? Acquiring environmentally sensitive land on the coasts.

? Reforming the National Flood Insurance Program and other policies that promote coastal development.

Many commercial fishermen don't want new limits on where and how they catch seafood.

New Bedford, Mass., fisherman Robert Lane, president of the Trawlers Survival Fund, argued that fisheries are reviving. ''Things have bounced back,'' he said.

A top Bush fishery official agreed. ''From a fisheries standpoint, I don't think we're at a crisis point,'' Bill Hogarth, the director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said in an interview. ``We have made progress, but that doesn't mean we don't have things to do.''

Herald staff writer Curtis Morgan contributed to this report.


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