Ocean Dimension of Earth Day

The Washington Times, April 22, 2002
By Leon E. Panetta

Each year Americans celebrate Earth Day by cleaning up rivers and restoring neighborhood parks. However, Earth Day is a good time to remember that 70 percent of our planet is covered by oceans. And today our oceans face growing threats that call out for national attention.

Evidence continues to mount that the oceans are in trouble. Coastal habitats, including marshes and wetlands serving as fish “nurseries,” are disappearing at a rate of 20,000 acres each year. Louisiana alone has lost half-a-million acres of wetlands since the mid-1950s. Pollution runs off our cities and farms and ultimately finds its way into the oceans. In the Gulf of Mexico, a large “dead zone” forms each year, so named because it is devoid of life. The federal government does not know the status of three-quarters of U.S. fish species. Of those it does know, more than 40 percent are overfished.

Despite these and many other problems, scientists tell us it is not too late to restore our oceans and preserve the livelihoods they support. To do so requires the commitment of the nation. We cannot continue to view the oceans’ bounty as endless. That is why I agreed to lead the Pew Oceans Commission, the first independent review of ocean policies in more than 30 years. This distinguished group of scientists, fishermen, environmentalists, and business and elected leaders has traveled around the country to talk to citizens about new ways to protect and restore our oceans.

Next January, we will present to Congress and the Bush administration recommendations on ways to limit pollution, support smarter development along the coasts, improve commercial and recreational fishing, and restore the ocean environment. During our travels, we have learned about the extent of the problems from fishermen, environmentalists, and scientists alike. Whereas the problems may vary from place to place, we have heard some common solutions:

  • We need to appreciate our connection to the oceans. Our activities on land contribute to the health of the oceans, and the oceans are critical to every facet of our lives. This is true for those of us who live along the coasts and those in the heartland. When you consider that 40 percent of the continental United States drains into the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico, you appreciate that every storm drain, every cornfield, and every brook ultimately finds its way to the sea.
  • As we develop along the coasts, we have to take greater care to preserve the natural beauty that draws us there. We can begin by setting aside more undeveloped coastal land. We can also learn from our successes and failures in managing land to protect the oceans’ coral reefs, kelp forests, and estuaries.
  • We need a system of governance based on the contributions of local citizens, backed by quality science, and grounded in an understanding of nature’s intricate relationships. Today, crisis drives decision-making, particularly for commercial fishing. The result is that fishing decisions are increasingly made in federal courts and not in local communities.

The oceans have always enjoyed bipartisan support in Congress and the White House. Meaningful action will require such support again. In the coming months, Congress will act on issues ranging from commercial fishing to agriculture that will signify its commitment to protecting the oceans.

During a recent commission visit to New York, Theodore Roosevelt IV spoke to us about the need to extend our conservation ethic to the sea. He called for new connections between “our heritage of past leadership and our goals for today’s leaders, what is required of this generation as we prepare the way for the next.”

After all, whether we live along the coast or in the heartland, the stewardship of our lands – and oceans – is our common national bond. This Earth Day, let us look beyond our parks, past the forests, and out into the sea with admiration and a new ocean ethic.

Leon E. Panetta was White House Chief of Staff in the Clinton administration. He currently chairs the Pew Oceans Commission.

© 2002 The Washington Times