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Last Updated: Wednesday, 4 June, 2003, 15:50 GMT 16:50 UK
US 'has frontier mentality' on oceans
By Alex Kirby
BBC News Online environment correspondent

In a telling indictment of US marine policy, a group of influential Americans say their country has lacked the imagination to care properly for its oceans.

Californian beach at dusk   Pew Oceans Commission
Sunset on a Californian beach (Image: Pew Oceans Commission)
It has undertaken the first review of US ocean policy since 1969.

It paints a picture of ignorance, neglect and short-term attempts at policy-making.

And it presents a detailed plan for protecting the seas long into the future.

The group is the Pew Oceans Commission, 18 independent and bi-partisan scientists, government and business leaders and conservationists.

Still time

It is chaired by a former White House chief of staff, Leon Panetta, and its members include Governor George Pataki of New York and Dr Charles Kennel, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Exxon Valdez offloads oil   BBC
Every eight months, nearly 11 million gallons of oil run off our streets and driveways into our waters - the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez oil spill
Pew Oceans Commission
The commission's report, the fruit of a three-year study, is America's Living Oceans: Charting A Course For Sea Change.

Mr Panetta said: "For centuries, we have viewed the oceans as beyond our ability to harm and their bounty beyond our ability to deplete.

"We now know that this is not true... There is consensus that our oceans are in crisis. The good news is that it is not too late to act."

The report says Americans "have reached a crossroads" because of overfishing, coastal development, pollution, nutrient runoff, and the ability of alien species to establish themselves off US coasts.

No option but change

More than 175 alien invaders have now settled in San Francisco Bay, and almost a million farmed Atlantic salmon have escaped to the wild off the US west coast since 1988.

Drowned diamondback terrapins   NOAA
Drowned diamondback terrapins (Image: Noaa)
Other dangers the report identifies include climate change, with rising sea-levels damaging wetlands and mangrove forests, coral at risk of bleaching, and unpredictable changes in ocean and atmospheric circulation affecting fish stocks.

It says: "The root cause of this crisis is a failure of both perspective and governance.

"We have failed to conceive of the oceans as our largest public domain, to be managed holistically for the greater public good in perpetuity... We have come too slowly to recognise the interdependence of land and sea."

Believing "the status quo is unacceptable", the report sets out several priorities:

  • a unified national policy based on using marine resources sustainably
  • redirecting fisheries policy towards protecting ecosystems
  • managing coastal development to minimise habitat damage and loss of water quality
  • controlling pollution, especially nutrients.

The report calls for a national system of fully protected marine reserves, and for an independent national oceans agency. It wants funding for basic ocean science and research to be doubled.

Alaskan harbour   Deb Antonini/Pew Oceans Commission
The commissioners visit Alaska (Image: Deb Antonini/Pew Oceans Commission)
It says the principal US marine laws are "a hodgepodge of narrow laws", many introduced 30 years ago "on a crisis-by-crisis, sector-by-sector basis" focused on exploiting the oceans' resources.

It says: "We have continued to approach our oceans with a frontier mentality."

The commission paints a vivid picture of the plight of the seas surrounding the US. Of the fish populations that have been assessed, it says, 30% are overfished or are being depleted unsustainably.

The commissioners say: "Every eight months, nearly 11 million gallons of oil run off our streets and driveways into our waters - the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez oil spill."

They quote President Kennedy: "Knowledge of the oceans is more than a matter of curiosity. Our very survival may hinge upon it."

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