The Year Ahead in 2008: Making Ocean and Coastal Conservation a Priority

coral reefs

Image courtesy of NASA

Forgive me if I'm beginning to sound a little like a broken record. Admittedly, I tend to have a certain, shall we say, bias when it comes to stories dealing with the oceans; however - even if that weren't the case - I must say that I still would've been hard-pressed to find any one issue that inspired as much concern in me as did the oceans' health - or, more accurately, lack thereof - this past year. In a year in which global warming dominated much of the conversation, it was hard to miss all the stories describing the mass coral die-offs, increased acidification, proliferating dead zones and sea level rises.

While climate change certainly played a role in precipitating this crisis, most of the problems afflicting the world's oceans - overfishing, resource extraction, pollution - have been well documented for many years, if not decades. Much of the blame for this can, of course, be attributed to lax regulations; in the U.S., the first (and last) major wave of national legislation addressing ocean and coastal conservation was enacted in the 1970s, with the enactment of the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act (MPRSA) and Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA), amongst others.In recent years, we've seen coastal states taking the initiative in forming regional partnerships aimed at protecting and promoting their dwindling oceanic and coastal resources. California, Oregon and Washington formed the West Coast Governors' Agreement on Ocean Health in 2006 with the explicit goal of "launching a coordinated West Coast ocean and coastal collaboration to address critical ocean and coastal protection and management issues facing all three states." This type of partnership, predicated on the notion of regional ocean governance - in which local, state and federal authorities cooperate across issues and political boundaries to address ocean and coastal issues - will provide an ideal model for how to effectively coordinate conservation efforts at multiple levels of government.

Thankfully, the federal government has also begun to react more forcefully to the news of the oceans' deterioration, with the House of Representatives recently passing the Coral Reef Conservation Act; in the Senate, the bill is out of committee and is likely to be approved. Indeed, many influential scientists and writers, including Science's editor-in-chief, Donald Kennedy, have been pushing for 2008 to be made the International Year of the Reef (IYOR).

To be sure, corals have been amongst those species that have most suffered at the hands of climate change, both because of warming surface waters and - more significantly - because of increased acidification. Focusing on their preservation and regeneration alone is already no small feat; yet, because of all the other problems I see harming the oceans' other inhabitants and ecosystems, I can't help but think that a broader focus - protecting the oceans and coasts as a whole - would be more conducive to progress.

Kennedy's recommendations, whether for scientists studying the oceans or governments drafting new legislation, however, are spot-on:

"Scientists meanwhile have some good work to do. Data on monitoring and changes in status, along with modeling predictions of temperature and pH effects, should be brought to governments and the public . . . the United States could grab the front end of the problem by taking serious steps to mitigate carbon dioxide emissions: the root cause of global warming and the reef problem."

There is no single, easy solution for resolving the oceans' woes. Clearly, a first priority will be drastically reducing GHG emissions to slow the onset of acidification; a more comprehensive set of laws aimed at curbing overfishing, pollution and resource extraction (amongst other human activities) will need to be implemented in a way to ensure that local and regional authorities are sufficiently empowered to act. Adopting a cap-and-trade or carbon tax system to rein in surging levels of emissions will be necessary to allow businesses to factor in the cost of carbon into their operations. A higher level of public consciousness will also help by putting more pressure on legislators and businesses unlikely to respond of their own accord.

A Washington Post editorial published in early 2006 - though a bit dated now - still seems as relevant as ever:

"Tackling this meaningfully is going to require regulatory initiatives across a range of areas: pollution, runoff, development, environmentally harmful farming practices and others, requiring substantial sums. None of this is possible without sustained and vocal presidential leadership. Ecosystems are at a tipping point, verging on a collapse from which they won't recover. The stakes are as immense as the oceans, which will not wait for the White House to gear up to save them."

I'm hopeful that we may yet be able to avert the worst and, in so doing, ensure that our children and grandchildren enjoy what the oceans have to offer. As things stand, we will likely not see a meaningful change in national policy until the next president takes office, as both Kennedy and the editorial alluded to; that doesn't meant, however, that we should just sit on our hands and wait. Much remains to be done; why not start now?

Via ::Science: Year of the Reef (journal, subs. required)

Related Content on