Protecting the Ocean For Our Children

The Good Times, June 19, 2007
By Leon E. Panetta

For those of us who live on the Central Coast of California, our oceans and coastline are an important part of our lives. I was born and raised in Monterey, so the oceans are very much in my lifeblood. The lesson of what happened in my hometown is a lesson for all of us.

As a boy in the 1940s, Monterey was a fishing village-the sardine capital of the world. Local fishermen would catch almost a billion fish during a single season. I remember fishing with my grandfather at the wharf and I remember the fishermen’s boats overflowing with sardines.

It was a prosperous time for Monterey. It was the heyday of Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. Our economy was largely dependent on the fishing industry. In the late ’40s and early ’50s, the sardines were suddenly gone. This was not the result of a natural disaster. It was the result of a human disaster-the failure to protect and sustain a valuable fishery for the future.

The loss of the sardine industry impacted every family in the community. What happened in Monterey should not happen again. An important legacy that I enjoyed as a boy was lost forever to my sons and future generations. This is why I have worked throughout my career to protect our oceans-because I want this greatest natural resource to be there for our children.

One of the ways I pursue my commitment to our oceans is through my work with the Joint Ocean Initiative Commission, which I co-chair with the highly respected Admiral James D. Watkins. The Joint Initiative is a bipartisan, collaborative effort to advance comprehensive ocean policy reform.

Our oceans are in crisis. For example, 90 percent of big fish in the ocean are now gone. Whether it is sardines, salmon, or cod, we are losing our important fisheries at a mind-boggling pace.

Pollution is impacting our coastlines, and we are seeing increasing sizes and numbers of dead zones-areas where marine life can’t survive-in our oceans. Here in California and in Oregon, we are finding large dead zones near the coast. Runoff from the Mississippi River has caused a dead zone in the Gulf that is the size of the state of Massachusetts. Dead zones are also appearing on the East Coast.

Onshore, coastal development is wiping out historic wetlands and causing the kind of runoff that destroys vital marine habitat.

Oceans are the first victims of global warming. The increase in ocean temperature, the rise in sea levels, the rising acidification of the ocean is seriously affecting our currents, our weather systems and life itself.

The good news is that it’s not too late. These crises, while daunting, can act as a much needed wake-up call to communities across the nation. However, to effect change, we must make a fundamental commitment that the ocean is important to all of us.

We need a national ocean policy that commits the nation to protecting our oceans as a national trust. We must improve coordination of policies among federal, state, and local governments on an ecosystem basis. We must control pollution, manage coastal development and restore our fisheries. And we must increase our investment in better science, research and education. If we can spend billions searching for life in space, we can spend a few million dollars more protecting life on earth.

Urgent action is needed at the federal and state levels. On the West Coast, the governors of California, Oregon, and Washington recently came together to form an historic West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health. This unique partnership demonstrates the commitment of these governors to the improved and continued health of the Pacific Ocean.

Despite tragic losses, progress for our oceans is still possible. In our Central Coast area, the legislation that I authored in Congress creating the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary provides an important protection for the unique resources of our ocean. In fact, the quintessential example of a community’s effort to fight for its coastal resources was the restoration of the otter population in Monterey. As a result of a partnership between the government and the people of Monterey, the otter population that was almost extinct is making an impressive comeback for our ocean and our children.

Oceans are essential to life itself. We are dependent on our oceans for our climate, our nutrition, our health, our economy, and our recreation. In many ways, we are dependent on our oceans for our very spirit. If we come together and fight for its preservation, we can protect the oceans not only for ourselves, but for future generations. As my grandfather used to say, “If we care for our oceans, our oceans will care for us.”

LEON PANETTA is a former congressman and White House chief of staff who now heads the Leon & Sylvia Panetta Institute for Public Policy at CSU-Monterey Bay. He was a member of the Iraq Study Group. His column runs every other month in Commentary.

© 2007 Santa Cruz Good Times and wire service sources.
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