Protect our Oceans

The San Jose Mercury News, August 30, 2008
By Leon E. Panetta
It was five years ago that the Pew Oceans Commission, which I chaired, released an alarming report that found if immediate action was not taken, we could see a drastic decline in our country’s ocean resources. The next year, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy chaired by Adm. James Watkins confirmed these findings and recommended new comprehensive national ocean policy to turn the state of our oceans around.

Today, our ocean habitat and wildlife continue to deteriorate at a rapid pace. Scientists now tell us that 90 percent of the big fish in the ocean are gone, major fisheries like the salmon in California have been closed because of significant losses, 95 percent of our historic wetlands have vanished, 25,000 of our beaches have been impacted by serious pollution and climate change has produced dramatic changes in ocean currents, sea levels and temperatures damaging coral reefs, fish stocks and habitat.

Watkins and I have formed the Joint Oceans Commission Initiative to promote an “Agenda for Action” which identifies vital steps to be taken at both the federal and state level. The good news is that more than 20 states are taking action, and California is one of those leaders.

California has always been on the cutting edge of policy protecting our coastline and our ocean. In 1999, an unprecedented state law, the Marine Life Protection Act, required the creation of a network of marine protected areas down California’s coastline. These areas are vital to restoring a sustainable fishery. Californians are forging ahead to create marine-protected areas through an inclusive, regional public process that involves sport and commercial fishermen, marine scientists, conservationists, divers, kayakers and educators.

The progress made here provides renewed hope that diverse interests can work together to address the escalating ocean crisis, and that state and regional governments around the country can fill in the gaps where national leadership is failing.

The challenges do not recognize national or state boundaries. Climate change, overfishing, oil spills and overdevelopment all contribute — and those pressures will only become greater as our population increases.

The complexity of the problems requires multiple solutions. A one-size-fits-all prescription simply will not work across different economic and social jurisdictions. Nor is the current patchwork of arcane federal laws and regulations an effective way to respond.

In the commission’s 2007 report, we emphasized a more coordinated and integrated approach to improving ocean and coastal health. New multi-state regional governance initiatives, including the West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health, along with single state initiatives seeking to better manage human impact on our waters are important steps. Regional ocean governance initiatives engage all community members and take into account local concerns. The bottom line is, whether it is a federal, state or regional effort, we all have to work together if we are to make progress.

In California alone, our ocean supports a $42 billion economy, dependent on the health of fish and wildlife, tourism and recreation. It is crucial to our health, our nutrition, our economy, and our spirit. President Kennedy once said that the oceans are the “salt in our veins.” By protecting our oceans, we will protect life itself.


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