The opportunity to write for the oldest magazine in the USA about a topic I’m passionate about came together in the following story about the state of our oceans. Appallingly we treat as oceans mostly as sources of food, transport and recreation, and we use it as a dump, not thinking much about the animals that inhabit saline waters. Oceans are not too big to fail, as we once thought. Oceanographer Sylvia Earle, Congressman Jared Huffman and many others reveal what’s at stake in the following story. It’s not too late to save much of the remarkable diversity of our oceans, Dr. Earle says, but time is running out – we have to act now! Click the link to read the story as it appeared in the Post, or read the text below to see the unedited version, with quotes from Nancy Pelosi that were deleted in the final version.
Oceans on the edge: Still time to save the planet’s life-support system
By Michael Shapiro
Join a boat tour to the Farallon Islands, about 25 miles west of San Francisco, and you’ll likely see humpback and blue whales, gracefully arcing dolphins, sea lions, and thousands of seabirds. A bracing, salt-scented breeze scours these islands as the squawks of gulls, cormorants and common murres create an outdoor symphony. Uninhabited by humans, the 3,295-square-mile Greater Farallones National Marine Sanctuary is a poster child for healthy oceans, but beneath the surface the planet’s marine conditions are far from ideal.
On the other side of the country, 71-year-old Rip Cunningham has been fishing along the Eastern seaboard since he was 7 or 8. He recalled the remarkable abundance of striped bass and other species, a plentitude that wouldn’t last into his adult years.
“In the 1970s we went into a huge decline” for striped bass, Cunningham said. “Fishery managers put a moratorium in most every state along the Atlantic coast where there were migratory striped bass.” Some fishermen were outraged – this was considered “very drastic” action at the time.
By 2006, striped bass had reached levels that “for 50 years we hadn’t really seen,” Cunningham said. “Striped bass essentially became the crown jewel of fisheries management success.” But once a species comes back it can be hard to maintain, as fishermen want to increase their quotas, he said. “Maybe it’s just simple human nature.”
New England’s iconic fish is the Gulf of Maine codfish, he said. This is not a success story: codfish is down to 3 to 4 percent of its virgin stock. “Some say it’s environmental impact; the other end of the spectrum would say it’s all a product of long-term chronic overfishing. My opinion: it’s both,” he said. “It was a fish that was very important to a lot of communities on the New England coast, and it’s essentially gone. There are some people who believe it can be brought back, and maybe it can.”
Today it takes more than restricting fishing to bring a species back from the brink of extinction. Environmental factors such as rising ocean temperature and acidification are affecting marine species in ways we’re just beginning to understand. The Gulf of Maine is warming faster than any place along the coast of the continental United States, Cunningham said.
“We don’t know what that ultimately means to the fish out there. We know it’s impacting plankton production; we know it’s impacting the shellfish industry,” he said. “What that might ultimately do to the second most iconic species up here, the Maine lobster, the jury is out on that.”
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In late August, in response to the Trump administration’s indication that it would seek to reduce the size of some national monuments, including protected ocean areas, U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman called a public hearing in Sausalito, a coastal town just north or San Francisco.
Opening the hearing, Huffman noted that protecting special marine areas has never before been a partisan issue. “President George W. Bush (a conservative Republican) designated our first four National Marine Monuments. No president has ever attempted to revoke a predecessor’s national monument designation.”
Representing a district with more than 500 miles of coastline – California’s 2nd congressional district stretches from the Golden Gate Bridge to the Oregon border – Huffman has become an expert on marine policy. “These underwater parks provide many benefits,” he said at the hearing. “They help fish populations where the fish can actually grow large enough to reproduce, not only benefiting ocean ecosystems but also global fishing communities like the ones that I represent on the North Coast.”
Several of the speakers at the hearing, including House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, spoke about the economic benefits of preserving the ocean, from salmon fishing to recreation. Pelosi called America’s marine sanctuaries an “irreplaceable treasure” and said, “We have a moral and practical responsibility to protect these waters and ensure that their bounty endures for responsible fishing, for research, for recreation, and for future generations. The foolishness of degrading protections for these waters could have broad and long-lasting consequences.”
Fisherman are especially concerned about proposals for opening new areas to oil drilling along the West Coast, said Noah Oppenheim, executive director of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fisherman’s Associations. Speaking at the hearing, he said oil and gas drilling inevitably causes oil spills that kill fish. He had one message for the more than 500 people who gathered at Sausalito’s Bay Institute: “Keep oil in the ground; keep it out of our ocean; keep it out of our marine sanctuaries.”
Perhaps the most heartfelt statement at the hearing came from an ordinary citizen who has long worked for ocean preservation along the Mendocino Coast, about 130 miles northwest of San Francisco. “When we were fighting to preserve our coast, our slogan was: ‘Save the Kansas Coast.’ What? Kansas?” said Rachel Binah of Little River, a seaside village near Mendocino. “Well, we felt our coast belonged to all Americans, to everyone, not just the oil companies. And we continue to feel that way today.”
The economic issues are “critical,” Binah said, “but our emotional connection to the ocean is often ignored by those who would industrialize it. We are drawn to protect it because it is beautiful and because it inspires awe. The beauty and magnificence, our universal appreciation, fills a spiritual, recreational need for personal renewal and creativity.”
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The creators of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which opened in 1984 and redefined the role of aquariums, recognized that healthy oceans can be a source of spiritual renewal. At first glance, the aquarium appears to celebrate fish (and other sea creatures) as art. As visitors enter the Open Sea exhibit, hundreds of glittering silver Pacific sardines race around a circular tank near the ceiling as ethereal music plays. Nearby are orange lion’s mane jellies (not called “jelly fish” because they’re not fish) and bioluminescent jellies that create their own colorful light.
The aquarium aims to let visitors know how they can help preserve the ocean by changing personal habits ranging from what we eat to how much plastic we use and how we dispose of it. The goal is to explain ocean environments and see how species live in harmony, she said. “So rather than a tank with one animal in it, you walk into a room and see the kelp forest, the cathedral of the ocean, and animals that live within the kelp. The idea is to help the general public learn to love the ocean like scientists do.”
To that end a key part of the aquarium is outdoors. Its back deck is equipped with binoculars and spotting scopes trained on the wildlife in the bay. Visitors almost always spot sea otters swimming on their backs; those who are lucky may see dolphins and whales. Aquarium officials call Monterey Bay “our best exhibit.”
Program manager Ryan Bigelow said the aquarium grew out of a desire to “open up the ocean, to show that natural beauty to our guests.” Without getting political, Monterey Bay Aquarium explains some of the problems facing the ocean, such as the plastic bags swallowed by fish or seabirds, often killing them.
An early exhibition discussed overfishing, which led aquarium visitors to ask: What should I eat? This sparked the aquarium’s Seafood Watch program (seafoodwatch.org) which started as a pamphlet to help people make better seafood choices for a healthier ocean. Seafood Watch is now available on the Web and as an app. (See related story.)
Monterey Bay Aquarium works with influencers ranging from institutional food services like Aramark to chefs “who are very influential with the public,” Spring said. And the aquarium seeks to broker accords to protect species on the brink of extinction, such as the Pacific bluefin tuna, which is down to 2.6 percent of its historic numbers.” I think that Japan now is very concerned about the future of the ocean; they’re at a moment of reckoning. If they want big Pacific bluefin, they’re going to have to stop eating small Pacific bluefin.”
The bluefin fishery “is fully capable of being recovered if we could just stop” taking so many fish, Spring said. “They are fishing in the spawning areas where babies are born, you’ve got to let them get bigger. The math isn’t working here. I would just say, don’t eat Pacific bluefin tuna. Don’t do it.” In early September the aquarium announced that Pacific nations had agreed to restore populations of bluefin tuna to sustainable levels. The agreement will be monitored by an international regulatory body, the Western and Central Pacific Fisheries Commission.
Spring called it a “historic moment” for the survival of the species. “This is a significant and encouraging departure from the previous stance of this commission,” she said. “If it is implemented appropriately, it will recover the population” of bluefin tuna to 20 percent of historic populations by 2034.
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Fish is the last widely available wild protein – we don’t eat wild chickens or pigs or beef for the most part – and it’s efforts like the bluefin tuna accord that could sustain fisheries for many generations.
Asked if we’re in the era of the last wild fish for human consumption, Spring cited cause for hope: “That’s up to us. We’ve driven the ocean to the brink, but we can bring it back.” Sunfish take a long time to grow and mature “so if everyone is eating those, yes they will disappear,” she said. “But there are other fish like mahi mahi which reproduce quite quickly, and they’re delicious.”
Farmed fish and shellfish are inevitably going to be part of the equation – and that’s not necessarily a bad thing, said Ryan Bigelow, program engagement manager for Seafood Watch. At least 50 percent of the fish Americans eat is farmed, he said. “While some of that is very, very red (not recommended), some of it is very well done. But the public overall has a very negative image of what farmed seafood is. So if there’s a good farmed seafood story, we’ll tell it.”
The idea that “we’re going to feed ourselves solely with wild seafood, that’s never going to happen,” Bigelow added. “We have to have farmed products, and if that’s the case then we have to do it well. If you needed a panacea, we could just farm mussels and clams. You could provide all the protein for the world in a very small area with clams. Now is the entire world going to get on board with just eating clams, I doubt it very highly.”
Mussels and clams can be cultivated in large numbers relatively easily, but because most people generally want to eat them occasionally if at all, he said, they’re just a small part of our diet. “They don’t need feed, (and) everything that we think about farmed fish, overcrowding, they love.” Bigelow said. “You could feed the entire world very effectively and sustainably with aquaculture.”
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Limiting the catch of wild fish raises the question: What about the people around the world who depend on fish for sustenance? “Most of the fish that have been taken out of the ocean have not gone to poor populations,” said David Helvarg, executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean advocacy group. “High-tech fishing fleets have stripped coastal waters from poor countries in order to provide a constant supply to the supermarket and white-linen-tablecloth restaurants in Europe, North America and Japan, and increasingly China.”
But sometimes the little guys fight back – and win. “A few years ago Senegal took away fishing permits from foreign trawlers and within six months, local fishermen were catching levels of fish they hadn’t seen in a generation,” Helvarg said. And after Indonesia’s navy helped banish almost 400 pirate vessels, hundreds of thousands of local Indonesian fishermen are seeing a recovery of their livelihood.”
Yet the overall recovery of oceans depends on forces beyond the seas. Helvarg said he’s “more frustrated than despairing with the ongoing disasters on our blue planet because we know what the solutions are. If you stop killing fish they tend to grow back. If you stop producing 100 million metric tons of throw-away plastic every year, then you don’t face huge plastic pollution of our oceans. If we don’t turn around the trend lines by mid-century, there could be more weight of plastic in the ocean than of living fish.”
Another issue is that ocean acidification threatens shellfish, said Helvarg, author of The Golden Shore: California’s Love Affair with the Sea. “I love oysters, raw oysters; they are mostly grown (farmed) now. But those who are growing oysters are facing problems due to acidification. As the ocean becomes more acidic, it eats away the shells.”
With the evidence piling up about ocean stability reaching a tipping point, we haven’t taken more decisive action because “the problem with environmental stories is they don’t break, they ooze,” Helvarg said. In other words, the full impact of carbon emissions on oceans, for example, won’t be felt for many years. “The trend lines are still challenging, but at least we recognize what the solutions are, and now we have to start working seriously to build the resilience for our coasts and oceans.”
Putting the seriousness of the issue in perspective, Sylvia Earle, the former chief scientist at NOAA, said, “It’s not just a matter of no longer getting to dine on blue-fin tuna – if humans push the ocean past the point of no return, we could go down with the ship. Our life-support system is at risk.”
Even from a purely economic perspective, healthy oceans make sense, she said. “This is not about jobs. Jobs come where there’s prosperity. When we destroy the natural systems, poverty, wars, lack of prosperity follow. We need clean water, we need places to live, we need a quality of life that causes people to feel good, to be happy, to feel secure.”
When humans act responsibly, Helvarg said, oceans tend to rebound. “After chasing the whales down, (seafarers) started killing elephant seals for their oil, and by 1896 there were an estimated 20 to 100 elephant seals left” along the Pacific coast, said Helvarg.
“In the 1960s and ’70s we changed our attitudes and created the Marine Mammal Protection Act, the Clean Water Act, and we protected offshore breeding islands in the Channel Islands. In 1990, the first elephant seal hauled up on the beach near San Clemente, (Calif.), the first breeding pair was there in 1992, and last year 27,000 returned just to that one beach,” he said.
“When we do the right things, life comes back.”
Seafood Watch guide can help you choose wisely
We can all limit our impact on the ocean and restore the seas to health. Author David Helvarg’s book 50 Ways to Save the Oceans suggests reducing plastic use, picking up trash on beaches, lobbying for ocean preservation, and supporting groups working to protect oceans, such as Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue, mission-blue.org.
But perhaps the most important thing each of us can do is to make sensible choices when consuming fish and seafood. For advice on consuming seafood and fish to avoid, see Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch guide at seafoodwatch.org or download the free Seafood Watch app. Print guides are also distributed at the aquarium.
Seafood Watch sorts fish choices into three categories: Best Choices (coded green), Good Alternatives (yellow), and Avoid (red). Best choices are “well managed and caught or farmed in ways that cause little harm to habitats or other wildlife,” says the Seafood Watch site.
Among the best choices are albacore tuna caught with hand-operated poles or trolling lines and handline-caught yellowfin tuna. However other types of tuna are on the Avoid list, most notably bluefin tuna that is now below 3 percent of historic population levels. There are now about 1,300 recommendations on the Seafood Watch site, and it can be daunting to try to discern an acceptable type of tuna from one on the brink of extinction.
“The best advice is to look for businesses with a sustainable seafood commitment,” said Seafood Watch program engagement manager Ryan Bigelow. “It’s a whole new level of complexity, and frankly we’re all too busy to really think about it in our day-to-day lives, so look for a Seafood Watch partner.” These partners display the Seafood Watch logo and should only serve fish endorsed by the program.
Seafood Watch also has a sushi guide that warns against consuming threatened species such as eel (unagi) and recommends alternatives such Arctic char, sardines and sablefish.
At least 50 percent of what we eat his farmed, Bigelow said. “While some of that is very, very red (should be avoided because it’s damaging to the environment), some of it is very well done. But the public overall has a very negative image of what farmed seafood is. So if there is a good farmed seafood story, we will tell it.”
Since watching Jacques Cousteau TV specials as a boy in the 1970s, Michael Shapiro has been entranced by ocean life. But it wasn’t until he saw the 2014 Nexflix documentary, Mission Blue, about the work of undersea explorer Sylvia Earle, that he realized how serious the threats to our seas have become — and that we’re all dependent on healthy oceans for our survival. Recently he’s swum with penguins and rays in the Galapagos, kayaked under San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and paddleboarded among humpback whales and bald eagles on Alaska’s Glacier Bay.