Saving Marine Biodiversity

For centuries, humanity has seen the sea as an infinite source of food, a boundless sink for pollutants, and a tireless sustainer of coastal habitats. It isn’t. Scientists have mounting evidence of rapidly accelerating declines in once-abundant populations of cod, haddock, flounder, and scores of other fish species, as well as mollusks, crustaceans, birds, and plants. They are alarmed at the rapid rate of destruction of coral reefs, estuaries, and wetlands and the sinister expansion of vast “dead zones” of water where life has been choked away. More and more, the harm to marine biodiversity can be traced not to natural events but to inadequate policies.

The escalating loss of marine life is bad enough as an ecological problem. But it constitutes an economic crisis as well. Marine biodiversity is crucial to sustaining commercial fisheries, and in recent years several major U.S. fisheries have “collapsed”- experienced a population decline so sharp that fishing is no longer commercially viable. One study indicates that 300,000 jobs and $8 billion in annual revenues have been lost because of overly aggressive fishing practices alone. Agricultural and urban runoff, oil spills, dredging, trawling, and coastal development have caused further losses.

Why have lawmakers paid so little attention to the degradation of the sea? It is a case of out of sight, out of mind. Even though the “Year of the Ocean” just ended, the aspiration of creating better ocean governance has already fallen off of the national agenda. Add a general lack of interest among the media and annual moratoria against offshore oil drilling as a panacea for ocean pollution, and most policymakers assume there is little need for concern.

This myth is accompanied by another: that policymakers can do little to safeguard the sea. Actually, a variety of governmental agencies provide opportunities for action. State fish and game commissions typically have jurisdiction from shorelines to 3 miles offshore. The Commerce Department regulates commerce in and through waters from 3 to 12 miles offshore and has authority over resources from there to the 200-mile line that delineates this country’s exclusive economic zone. The Interior Department oversees oil drilling; the Navy presides over waters hosting submarines; and the states, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the Coast Guard regulate pollution. The problem is that these entities do little to protect marine biodiversity and they rarely work together.

At fault is the decades-old framework that the state and federal powers use to regulate the sea. It consists of fragmented, isolated policies that operate at confused cross-purposes. The United States must develop a new integrated framework-a comprehensive strategy-for protecting marine biodiversity. The framework should embrace all categories of ecosystems, species, human uses, and threats; link land and sea; and apply the “precautionary principle” of first seeking to prevent harm to the oceans rather than attempting to repair harm after it has been done. Once we have defined the framework, we can then enact specific initiatives that effectively solve problems.

Better science is also needed to craft the best policy framework, for our knowledge of the sea is still sparse. Nonetheless, we can identify the broad threats to the sea, which include overfishing, pollution from a wide variety of land-based sources, and the destruction of habitat. To paraphrase Albert Einstein, the thinking needed to correct the problems we now face must be different from that which has put us here in the first place.


Holes in the regulatory net

Creating comprehensive policies that wisely conserve all the richness and bounty of the sea requires an informed understanding of biodiversity. Marine biodiversity describes the web of life that constitutes the sea. It includes three discrete levels: ecosystems and habitat diversity, species diversity, and genetic diversity (differences among and within populations). However, the swift growth in public popularity of the term biodiversity has been accompanied by the incorrect belief that conserving biodiversity means simply maintaining the number of species. This is wrong and misleading when translated into policy. This narrow vision focuses inordinate attention on saving specific endangered species and overlooks the serious depletion of a wide range of plants and animals that are critical to the food web, not to mention the loss of habitats critical to the reproduction, growth, and survival of numerous sea creatures.

Protecting marine biodiversity requires a different sort of thinking than has occurred so far. Common misperceptions about what is needed abound, such as a popular view that biodiversity policy ought to focus on the largest and best-known animals. But just as on land, biodiversity at sea is greatest among smaller organisms such as diatoms and crustacea, which are crucial to preserving ecosystem function. Numerous types of plants such as mangrove trees and kelps have equally essential roles but are often overlooked entirely. We look away from the small, slimy, and ugly, as well as from the plants, in making marine policy. The new goal must be to consider the ecological significance of all animals and plants when providing policy protections and to address the levels of genome, species, and habitat.

Moreover, focusing on saving the last individual of a species misses the more basic problem of the causes of the decline. We can do great harm to the system without actually endangering a species, by fundamentally altering the habitat or the system itself. This much more general impact often goes unnoticed in most of the current regulatory framework. We need much more holistic and process-oriented thinking.


Fishing down the food chain

Although a new policy framework must protect the entire spectrum of biodiversity, it also must target egregious practices that inflict the greatest long-lasting damage to the web of life. One of the worst offenders is fishing down the food chain in commercial fisheries.

Fisheries policy traditionally strives to take the maximum quantity of fish from the sea without compromising the species’ ability to replenish itself. However, when this is done across numerous fisheries, significant deleterious changes take place in fish communities. Statistics indicate that the world’s aggregate catch of fish has grown over time. But a close look at the details shows that since the 1970s more and more of the catch is composed of the less desirable species which are used for fish meal or are simply discarded. The catch of many good-tasting fish such as cod has declined and in some cases even crashed. Several popular fish populations have crashed off the New England coast this decade and have not since recovered.

Thus, although the overall take of biomass from the sea has increased, the market value of total catch has dropped. Why? The low-value fish have increased, precisely because so much effort is aimed at catching the more valuable predators. A scenario of serial depletion is repeatedly played out: Humans fish down the food chain, first depleting one valuable species (often a predator) and then moving on to the next (lower down the food chain). For example, as the cod and haddock populations are reduced, fishermen increase their take of “trash fish” such as dogfish and skates. Catch value falls. Worse, the ecosystem’s ability to recover is weakened. Both biodiversity and resilience decline as the balance of predators disappears.

The federal Endangered Species Act (ESA), which is the only current avenue for salvation of a threatened species, misses the issue of declining populations and has done very little to prevent habitat destruction. The ESA is triggered only when a species is almost extinct, something very difficult to detect in the sea or comparatively rare there because of typical reproductive strategies. What does happen is that stocks plummet to levels too low for viable fishing. The species may then survive in scarce numbers, but “commercial extinction” has already taken place and with it, damage to the food web.

Better approaches are needed to address the fishing down of the food chain. Horrific declines such as that of white abalone illustrate the fallacies of the old assumptions. The release of millions of abalone gametes (eggs and sperm) helps to protect the species against extinction, but adults must exist in close proximity for fertilization to occur. Patches of relatively immobile animals must be left intact. Regrettably, these patches are easily observable by fishermen and tend to be cleaned out, leaving widely dispersed animals that are functionally sterile.

Costly disruption of ecosystem resiliency also comes from trawling and dredging, which destroy communities such as deep sea corals and reefs that form crucial nursery habitat for juveniles of many species. Future policy must protect adequate densities of brood stock and prohibit harvests in spawning grounds, or many more species will join white abalone in near-biological extinction.

Two additional factors aggravate the decline in valuable species and valuable spawning grounds in coastal areas: the introduction of alien species and the expansion of mariculture. As global commerce has grown, more ships crisscross the seas. When ships discharge ballast water, nonindigenous species are introduced into new habitats, often with dire results. Waters and wetlands of the San Francisco Estuary now host more than 200 nonindigenous species, many of which have become dominant organisms by displacing native species. Food webs have been altered, and mudflats critical for shorebird feeding have been taken over by alien grasses. Exotic species further upstream are now interfering with the management of California’s water system.

Mariculture can in theory be an environmentally sound means to produce needed food protein, but many efforts have focused on short-term economic gain at the expense of the environment and biodiversity. For example, in many areas of the tropics, mangrove forests are cut down to farm shrimp, even though preserving mangrove habitat is key to obtaining desirable wild stocks of finfish and shellfish in the first place. The buildup of nutrients and nitrogenous wastes from pen culture have led to harmful algae blooms that deplete oxygen in large volumes of water, choking off other life. Mariculture has also introduced disruptive exotic species and spread pathogens to native stocks. Both global trade and mariculture are important economic activities, but sensible regulation is needed to protect the environment and native biodiversity.


No help from laws of the sea

Today there is no U.S. law directly aimed at protecting marine biodiversity. Statistics show that close to half of the U.S. fisheries whose status is known are overharvested. Yet the chief policy response is to give succor to fishermen painfully thrown from their life’s work. This masks the search for meaningful solutions.

The closest thing we have to a concerted effort for the preservation of marine biodiversity is the set of three United Nations Conventions on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS). UNCLOS includes a number of important initiatives for preserving political peace on the high seas, and the United States, which has not yet ratified the latest convention, should do so. However, UNCLOS offers little protection for marine biodiversity; more troubling, it sets a tone for thinking about regulation that mirrors the self-indulgent and permissive tactics of fisheries management in the United States.

Only one of the four conventions making up the original UNCLOS signed in 1958-the Fishing and Conservation of Living Resources of the High Seas-imposed any responsibility for conserving marine resources. But its chief aim was not conservation but rather limiting foreigners’ access to coastal fisheries in order to maximize the catch available for signatory nations. Problems were legion. Nations often viewed the first UNCLOS goals for fisheries conservation as a moral code that other nations should meet but that they themselves were prepared to violate.

Unfortunately, the latest UNCLOS continues to reflect the traditional thinking of taking the maximum from the sea. Because it was negotiated as a package deal, the thornier conservation matters that eluded consensus were finessed by vague and ambiguous language. Such issues were left to the discretion of individual nations or later agreements. The scarce language in UNCLOS regarding the conservation of marine biodiversity is far more aspirational than operational. Like the ESA, it is simply not a good model, or even a good forum, for protecting biodiversity. We should break away from these precedents and take the bold step of creating a completely new integrated framework.


The precautionary principle

The United States needs a new policy that regards marine biodiversity as a resource worth saving. The fundamental pillar of this policy must be the precautionary principle: conserving marine resources and preventing damage before it occurs. The precautionary principle stands in sharp contrast to the traditional marine policy framework: take as much as can be taken and pollute as much as can be polluted until a problem arises. Rather than wait for the environment to cry for help, the precautionary principle places the burden on fishermen, oil drillers, industry, farmers whose fields run to rivers or shores, and whomever else would exploit the sea, intentionally or not, to avoid harming this precious resource in the first place.

Unfortunately, some special interest groups have already tried to interpret this emerging principle in unintended ways. They claim, for example, that current business-as-usual policies are already precautionary. This is a smokescreen. A good example of a policy that might be portrayed as precautionary, but is not and should be reformed, is the traditional approach of taking the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) from a fishery.

The MSY approach to managing fisheries involves creating a bell-shaped curve to determine the total advisable catch of a targeted stock. In theory, as long as the catch remains on the ascending side of the curve, increased fishing will yield a larger sustainable take. But once the catch moves to the downside of the curve, more fishing will mean less catch because of undue thinning of the population’s ability to replenish itself. Managers thus strive to remain at the peak of the curve, known as the MSY plateau.

Yet it has been shown time and again that MSY is very difficult to predict and that damage is done by overfishing. Commercial fish populations fluctuate considerably, and often unpredictably, because of ever-changing ocean conditions. Meanwhile, industry attempts to stay at the peak of a historically determined MSY curve have led to dramatic collapses. Rather than give due regard to conservation for the long term, MSY management practices seek to maximize short-term exploitation of the sea.


Coastal concerns

The precautionary principle applies to much more than just the take of adult fish. It should immediately be used to protect estuaries, wetlands, and rivers emptying into the sea. Many commercial and noncommercial species depend on these waters as nursery grounds where eggs are laid and juvenile fish grow. Yet these regions are being destroyed or polluted at rapid rates because of dredging and filling for development, trawling, damming, logging, agricultural runoff, and release of toxins.

Estuaries, for example, provide nursery habitat for juvenile animals. Wetlands also provide rich sustenance for young fish in the form of small prey in the concentrations necessary for growth. They act as buffers as well, trapping volumes of sediment and runoff nutrients such as fertilizers that would otherwise threaten coastal systems. Ocean-bound rivers provide spawning grounds for major commercial species such as salmon. In short, many marine organisms need these critical habitats at a key stage in their life-cycles. Without suitable grounds for reproduction and maturation, adult populations will decline significantly and whole species will be lost.

Fisheries management, therefore, should include protecting coastal waters and be linked to other policies concerning the coastline. Although the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) is charged with conserving marine fisheries, it has lacked the authority to protect nurseries. Authority over wetlands, for example, is assigned to a number of federal and state agencies with very different mandates and cultures and that typically act with little regard for their role in replenishing oceanic fish stocks. All NMFS can do is offer advice on whether federal agencies should permit filling or dredging.

Similarly, NMFS for many years was granted little say over how large dams, such as those on the Columbia River in the Northwest, were operated-for example, when or if water was released to assist crucial migrations of salmon smolts. Although that is slowly changing, NMFS still has virtually no say over logging, which degrades river water quality and thus destroys salmon spawning habitat. Even where it has some control, such as over trawling and dredging along coastline shelf communities (critical for replenishment of many species), it has been slow to act.

The lack of cogent jurisdiction is perhaps most problematic with regard to management of water pollution. Water quality from the coastline to far out at sea is degraded by a host of inland sources. Land-based nutrients and pollutants wash down into the sea in rivers, groundwater, and over land. The sources are numerous and diffuse, including industrial effluents, farm fertilizers, lawn pesticides, sediment, street oils, and road salts. The pollutants kill fish and microorganisms that support the ocean food web. Excessive sediment blankets and smothers coral reefs.

Nutrients such as fertilizers can cause plant life in the sea to thrive excessively, ultimately consuming all the oxygen in the water. This chokes off animal life and eventually the plant life too, creating enormous dead zones that stretch for thousands of square miles. Studies show that the size of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico off Louisiana has doubled over the past six years and is now the largest in the Western Hemisphere. It is leaving a vast graveyard of fish and shellfish and causing serious damage to one of the richest U.S. fishing regions, worth $3 billion annually by some estimates.

Rectifying these problems is not a technologically difficult proposition. The thorniest matter is gathering the needed political willpower. Because pollutants cross so many political boundaries of the regulatory system, the action needed now must be a sharp break from the past.


A new policy framework

Clearly, a new policy framework is needed to protect marine biodiversity. The existing haphazard approach simply does not prevent damage to the ocean or even provide proper authority to the right agencies. A comprehensive strategy can be developed from a new integrated framework that uses the precautionary principle to protect all marine environments and species, regulates all uses and threats, and links the land and the sea. We propose a new framework that has three main pillars, each of which offers opportunities for progress.

The first pillar is a reconfiguration of regulatory authority. Today, oversight is divided along politically drawn lines that sharply divide land from sea and establish arbitrary ocean zones such as the 3-mile and 12-mile limits. Although these divisions may be useful for separating economic and political interests, they have nothing to do with ecological reality. Fish swim with no regard for state and federal jurisdictional divides. Spills from federally regulated oil rigs situated just beyond the states’ 3-mile line immediately wash inward to the coastline. Until artificial regulatory lines are rethought, little policy headway can be made in safeguarding marine biodiversity.

The second pillar is to greatly widen the bureaucratic outlook of agencies that cover marine resources. Key agencies such as the Department of Commerce, the Department of Interior, and the California Department of Fish and Game have very different agendas and rarely communicate when making policy. A new framework must create cooperative, integrated governance based on ecological principles and precautionary action.

The third pillar of the new policy framework is conservation of marine species, genomes, and habitats. This is another face of the precautionary principle, which again requires fresh thinking. For example, preserving stability and function within ecosystems, which is crucial to regeneration of fish populations, should be a key element in next-generation policies. To ensure that this happens, it is important to shift the burden of proof. For example, industries that seek to release contaminants into the sea or fisheries that seek to maximize harvests should have to show that their methods do not produce ecological harm.

However, conservation measures will be effective only if they begin to address the current threats to biodiversity. For example, large quantities of bycatch-unwanted fish, birds, marine mammals, and other creatures-are caught in fishing gear and simply thrown over the side, dying or dead. All species of sea turtles are endangered because of bycatch. Ecosystem stress can be reduced by mandating the use of specific types of fishing gear and methods that can reduce or prevent the incidental killing of nontarget species. Turtle excluder devices reduce bycatch in shrimp fisheries, and various procedures used by fishing boats can prevent dolphin deaths in tuna fishing.

Ecological disasters such as bycatch are allowed to occur in part because traditional economic theory disregards such impacts. The fishing industry sees bycatch as an externality that lies outside the reach of cost/benefit calculations. Therefore, it is simply dismissed. This folly is beginning to be addressed, but inertia has caused progress to be slow, reflecting the fact that our thinking about harm remains largely permissive.

Precautionary thinking also means that excessive catch levels have to be defined and then truly avoided. The fishing industry must adopt this mindset if it hopes to have a future anything like its past. This can be done by selective means. For instance, a few immense ships often cause a disproportionately large part of the problem. Such overcapitalized vessels, along with destructive fishing methods, should be removed if stocks are to be restored. It is heartening to see that some fishery trade magazines are beginning to support this view and are promoting new solutions, such as boat buy-backs. Just a few years ago, the hardy souls that go to sea would have regarded such measures as unacceptable.


Building reserves and sanctuaries

Another important aspect of conservation is to set aside more effective marine reserves, where all take is prohibited and that prohibition is enforced. A network of marine reserves can protect ecosystem structure and function and improve scientific data collection by offering reference sites relatively free from human impact. It can also help exploited stocks replenish themselves; large adults protected in reserves can produce orders of magnitude more gametes than smaller animals in heavily fished areas. Reserves and sanctuaries also provide excellent spawning and nursery grounds. Recent studies show that fish populations do indeed bounce back faster in protected waters.

Although no-take refuges are not the solution for highly migratory species, cannot prevent pollution from sources outside their boundaries, and do not replace traditional fisheries management, their very existence provides insurance against overexploitation when fisheries management fails and protects biodiversity in habitats damaged by dredging and trawling. The need for refuges is clear.

So far, little marine habitat has been set aside. What’s more, fishing is generally allowed within the existing small network of National Marine Sanctuaries. Current regulations covering the Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary off southern California, for example, prohibit oil drilling but say nothing about fishing. Measurements just being compiled indicate that off California, where the combined state and federal ocean area is 220,000 square miles, only 14 square miles-just six-thousandths of one percent-are set aside as genuine protected areas that are off limits to fishing. In sharp contrast, of the 156,000 square miles making up terrestrial California, 6,109 square miles, or 4 percent, are designated as protected park land.

Although the concept of no-take marine reserves is gathering political support, making them successful will require much more effort, communication, and consensus building with fishing interests, which are naturally wary of losing any fishing grounds. Still, we should seize the political momentum that has been built and push this idea to fruition.


Places to start

A new policy framework built on the pillars of reconfiguring government authority, untangling bureaucratic overlap, and conserving resources will go a long way toward implementing the precautionary approach to preserving marine biodiversity. Specific measures must then be hung on the framework to address the biggest sources of damage: overfishing, habitat destruction, loss of functional relationships in ecosystems, land-based sources of pollution, and invasions by exotic species. Because all of these all affect each other, a national strategy for marine biodiversity is needed.

Changing jurisdictions and reducing bureaucratic overlap will be a complex undertaking. One starting place should be the set of regulations pertaining to fisheries. Important 1996 amendments to the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act give NMFS more jurisdiction over essential fish habitat, although the language is not clear on how far NMFS can go. It requires fisheries managers to “consider habitat” and map “essential fish habitat,” yet says little about what powers NMFS has to enforce these vague directives. In reality, the legislation only allows NMFS to be a consultant to other regulatory agencies. If NMFS is to take an active role in protecting ecosystems, it will have to overcome its past reluctance to contradict fishery management councils, the fishing industry, and other government agencies.

Any sound policy must be built on solid data; unfortunately, research in the marine sciences is still rudimentary. We certainly know a lot more about the oceans than we did 50 years ago, but our knowledge is not commensurate with the rate at which we are exploiting the sea. We take a lot of useful protein from the ocean and dump a lot of unwanted contaminants into it, as if we know what we are doing. But we don’t. The very fact that we experience huge fish crashes like those off New England proves that we assume we know far more than we really do.

To form policy with confidence, we need to collect much more basic data from the ecological sciences, oceanography, and fisheries management. The range of needed information is so broad and deep that it can be met only by a federal-level funding initiative. Today, there is no federal agency or department that focuses on ocean research in the way that NASA focuses on space exploration. Despite its name, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, which runs NMFS, spends the vast majority of its money on weather research and satellites, leaving only a small research budget for the oceans.

The pursuit of precautionary policies would probably also lead to increased private research funding. Because precaution places the burden of proof on those who exploit the resource, these groups would want additional research to better make their own case. If the fishing industry, for example, wants to offer a convincing argument for setting a higher total allowable catch, it will likely seek increased funding for scientific studies to obtain sufficient data. Larger catches could be justified only with better information about stocks.


A time for pioneers

Marine biodiversity is key to the resilience of life in the sea, yet is imperiled by many policy failures. Because we have only recently begun to comprehend the importance of biodiversity, it is not a surprise that marine policy is lacking. But more than two decades have passed since the first generation of ocean policy was created in the United States. We are long overdue for change.

Incremental change will not suffice, however. We need a leap in policymaking. This is evident in recent proposals from the Clinton administration, which are encouraging by their very existence (after years of no action) but don’t go nearly far enough. President Clinton announced in 1998 that he was extending the moratorium on offshore oil leasing for another 10 years and that he was permanently barring new leasing in national marine sanctuaries. This is certainly welcome but misses the point: It is merely a continuation of the old ocean policy framework maintained by President Bush.

Clinton also announced an additional $194 million to rebuild and sustain fisheries by acquiring three research vessels to increase assessments, restoring depleted fish stocks and protecting habitats, banning the sale and import of undersized swordfish, and promoting public-private partnerships to improve aquaculture. These are more potent steps in the right direction. Yet as is often the case, the devil is in the details. The most important of these goals is restoring fish stocks and protecting habitat. Unfortunately, the fishery management councils, which are charged with these responsibilities, have too often lacked the political will, and NMFS is already encountering political pressure from various stakeholders to proceed slowly.

Although one can hope that NMFS will soon seriously turn its attention to designing and administering plans emphasizing long-term conservation of fish and habitat, this is not likely. The single greatest step forward would be for NMFS to adopt a genuinely robust form of precautionary action throughout fisheries management. So far it has resisted this step. Among the reasons are the influence of fishery management councils dominated by the same fishing industry NMFS purports to regulate, the acceptance of fishing down the food chain as business as usual, inadequate federal funding, and the lack of public awareness of what has been happening to fisheries worldwide.

If the science of understanding biodiversity is young, then the goal of creating policy to conserve marine biodiversity is younger. Indeed, it is just now being conceived. There will always be debates about the extent to which biodiversity should be valued. But if opportunities already exist to protect marine biodiversity-while conserving natural resources and saving money and jobs to boot-then why not seize them? Inertia is no excuse for inaction. Together we can all be pioneers in protecting this planet’s final frontier.



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