We're killing the oceans

By MIKE MILIARD  |  November 18, 2009

In the meantime, these issues are playing out in the midst of a severe recession, which has raised tensions in the fishing community. Earlier this summer, a lobsterman was charged with elevated aggravated assault after shooting a man in the neck following a territorial dispute on the remote Maine island of Matinicus. This past month, a couple hundred fishermen gathered in front of the National Marine Fisheries Service in Gloucester to protest a planned revision of regulatory rules; one worried angler held aloft an effigy of National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) head Jane Lubchenco lynching a fisherman.

Against this backdrop of environmental doomsaying and economic calamity, the Obama administration is trying to wade its way through not just tricky fisheries-management concerns, but every other issue affecting America's waters — offshore wind energy and oil exploration, tidal power, shipping lanes, coastal erosion, aquaculture — as it works to enact a comprehensive new ecosystem-based Ocean Policy Task Force.

On the international front, the hugely anticipated United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen next month— even as pessimistic officials seek to tamp down expectations of any binding treaty — will make ocean protection a key component of discussions. There's also the question of whether the United States will finally sign on to the long-standing United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, which would commit us to international standards for stewarding the ocean's natural resources.

But with so many other big issues competing for people's attention, where does the ocean rank on the political hierarchy? And is it too late to hone sensible, science-based policies that will balance environmental and economic concerns to preserve these vast waters for generations to come? Or will we have killed the oceans by then?

COLLATERAL DEATH In order to catch one pound of shrimp, fishermen scrape a net along the ocean floor, often killing up to 12 pounds of other animals. “If we did that on land . . . people would be outraged,” says National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry. “Yet you can do it in the ocean and nobody cares.”

Lions and tigers of the sea
Skerry, an Uxbridge native who shoots primarily for National Geographic, doesn't enjoy being the bearer of bad news. Still, there's no getting around it: "I've seen a lot of degradation in the ocean over my 32-year diving career."

Things are worse now, he says, than he's ever seen them. Just a couple weeks ago, for instance, Skerry returned from an assignment in Mexico. "The reefs were anemic. They were highly overfished. They consisted of a lot of dead coral, from warming and bleaching. They'd also sustained heavy hurricane damage" — frequent and severe hurricanes being harbingers of climate change — "and because they're stressed already, they don't have the ability to be resilient and rebound."

New England isn't doing too well, either, he says. "I remember in the late '70s and early '80s, I'd dive off of Rockport or Gloucester and ... see these huge schools of herring and pollock. You don't see that today. You just don't see it."

Skerry recognizes the Herculean efforts being made by the American fishing industry to comport with this country's stringent stock-rebuilding rules. But he's dismayed by some of the excessive and destructive fishing practices he's seen across the world. Among the worst, he notes, are those for catching shrimp.

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