Researchers Alarmed Over Health of
Alex Barnum, Chronicle Staff Writer
At the edge of the nation's largest marine sanctuary, the blue crescent of Monterey Bay seems a pristine and placid place.
Yet as President Clinton and a raft of politicians, scientists and environmentalists arrive this week for the first National Ocean Conference,
they won't have to look far to find examples of the myriad problems facing the world's oceans.
A growing human population threatens coastal habitat. Once-abundant stocks of salmon, rockfish and abalone are at all-time lows. And lethal algae blooms, such as one that has sent scores of dead birds and sea lions washing ashore in recent weeks, are increasingly frequent.
``Monterey Bay is a microcosm of what is happening off the coast of all our nations,'' said Julie Packard, executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. ``In many ways, we are in much better shape. Yet we face problems in all of the categories of major threats.''
Against one of the most spectacular natural backdrops in California, the nation's leading marine experts and policymakers will meet this week
to discuss how to head off those growing threats and begin to map a comprehensive U.S. ocean policy for the next century.
The two-day conference, the brainchild of Representative Sam Farr, D-Monterey, is being touted as the government's most important show of attention to ocean issues in nearly 30 years.
In addition to Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, the conference is drawing four Cabinet secretaries and more than 500 scientists, business leaders, military commanders and environmentalists. It is being held Thursday and Friday at the Naval Postgraduate School.
The range of topics will be vast, including the ocean's role in military security, commerce, and research and education. And some fear that it will result in little more than vague statements about the importance of oceans.
PUSHING FOR RESULTS
But a coalition of more than 100 environmental and marine research groups are pressuring the administration for some tangible results in the form of more funding for ocean research and tougher enforcement of marine protection laws.
Perhaps just as importantly, the researchers say, the conference represents a chance to draw public attention to often-neglected problems, from depleted fisheries to pollution.
``It's a wonderful opportunity to take a step back and look at what's happening in the oceans,'' said Jane Lubchenco, a MacArthur Fellow and marine ecologist at Oregon State University who will be one of the conference's panelists.
``It shows a recognition that many of these problems are serious and that they can't be addressed in the piecemeal fashion we've used in the past.''
To an observer peering at our world from elsewhere in the galaxy, its defining characteristic would be the blue veneer that covers 70 percent of its surface.
Humans are preternaturally drawn to the oceans. More than half of the nation's population lives within 50 miles of a coast. Much of the planet's growing population depends on the oceans for sustenance. And therein lies the problem.
Foremost among the threats facing the world's oceans is overfishing, and few places know the cost of plundering the sea better than Monterey.
FATE OF CANNERY ROW
In the early part of the century, the region's prodigious fishing fleet harvested ever-increasing numbers of sardines, fueling the growth of the canning industry immortalized by John Steinbeck. Then the fish disappeared and Cannery Row, near the area where the ocean conference will take place, collapsed.
Half a century later, sardines are recovering, permitting a limited commercial fishery. But now other West Coast fisheries are in trouble: Salmon and some species of rockfish are in decline. And squid has become the latest fishery to raise concerns.
Elsewhere the story is the same. Driven by increasing demand, a burgeoning world fishing fleet uses floating processing plants, 80-mile ``long lines'' and other technology to reach deeper into the ocean for fish.
The National Marine Fisheries Service, an arm of the Commerce Department, estimates that a third of the 279 species of harvested fish in the ocean are overfished. And perhaps worse, the status of another 448 species is simply unknown.
The decline has not gone unrecognized by Washington. Two years ago, Congress passed the Sustainable Fisheries Act, requiring regional management councils to eliminate overfishing, reduce by- catch and protect important marine habitat.
The trouble, conservationists say, is finding the political will and funding to implement and enforce these tough laws.
``We're in sort of a bottleneck now,'' said Carl Safina, a marine biologist with the National Audubon Society and author of a new book, ``Song for the Blue Ocean.''
``Many of our most important fish populations are at all-time lows,'' he said. ``We've put in place a number of legal fixes, but we haven't implemented them. We haven't started saving fish.''
Another major threat is pollution. The nation's waterways are much cleaner than they were 25 years ago, thanks to the Clean Water Act, which tightened restrictions on major sources of pollution, such as factories and sewage treatment plants.
But now regulators are wrestling with an even more difficult problem: the many diverse ``nonpoint'' sources of pollution from farms and urban areas.
DEADLY ALGAL BLOOMS
Even as experts gather in Monterey, hundreds of birds and marine mammals have turned up on the region's beaches dead or having seizures, victims of a huge deadly algal bloom off the central California coast that gives off a potent neurotoxin.
Like other algal blooms, the cause cannot be traced directly to a source of human pollution.
Nonetheless, scientists say these blooms are occurring with increasing frequency. And they suspect that the blooms are being caused by runoff from farms and human sewage, which have led to a doubling of nitrogen, a nutrient on which the algae and other life forms thrive.
The blooms have alarming results. Along the shores of North Carolina and Maryland, runoff from livestock farms has fueled an outbreak of a deadly organism called Pfiesteria, which has caused massive fish kills and made many people sick.
``What we're seeing is a vast overfertilization of coastal waters and even open ocean waters,'' said Lubchenco, the Oregon State marine ecologist.
Some 40 percent of U.S. coastal waters fail to meet federal water quality standards, and there were some 2,500 beach closings due to contamination in 1996, according to the Environmental Protection Agency.
Underlying many of the ocean's problems is a lack of funding for basic research, management and protection.
Consider the job of Ed Ueber. As manager of the Gulf of the Farallones, Cordell Bank and part of the Monterey Bay national marine sanctuaries, Ueber's responsibilities include protecting marine life and monitoring pollution over an area twice the size of Yellowstone National Park.
He does it with a three-person staff, a 27-foot boat that is too small to put out in high seas and a $400,000 budget that is half the size it was 10 years ago.
Ueber's plight is typical of managers of the other 13 marine sanctuaries. A decade ago, Congress authorized an increase in the system's budget to $30 million. But today it is less than half that amount -- only $13.5 million -- even as the system has more than doubled in size.
``I know we're water, but there has to be a more equitable value placed on the marine environment,'' Ueber said.
Ocean research is another area that has received short shrift. Over the last 15 years, ocean research has actually declined as a percentage of overall federal research spending, from 7 percent of the federal science budget to 3.5 percent.
Organizers of the Monterey conference see it as the best chance in decades to strengthen ocean conservation programs and begin reversing this neglect.
Representative Farr likens the situation to the late 1960s, when the federally chartered Stratton Commission, headed by Ford Foundation Chairman Julius Stratton, was created in America's first attempt to deal with threats to the ocean.
The commission's report led to a number of important measures, including the reorganization of federal ocean efforts, creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, passage of the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972 and creation of the national marine sanctuary system.
Thirty years later, Farr says it's time for a reassessment of the nation's oceans laws.
``A lot has happened since then,'' he said. ``The population has doubled in that time, and most of the population is living in the coastal zone.''
A bill he introduced last year, the Oceans Act of 1997, would create a new council to craft a comprehensive oceans policy for the next century. It passed in the Senate last year and is expected to be heard soon by the House Resources Committee.
Environmentalists support Farr's legislation, but they say new laws are not enough. Their chief concern is that existing statutes are not being adequately enforced.
A coalition of environmental groups, including the Center for Marine Conservation, the National Audubon Society, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Environmental Defense Fund, has drawn up a specific list of recommendations for Clinton.
PROPOSED FUNDING SOURCE
Among them is an idea to create a new mechanism for funding ocean research and conservation called the Ocean Conservation Investment Fund. It would be modeled after the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund, which uses royalties from offshore oil leases to buy land for national parks.
The idea is that in exchange for allowing the extraction of one of the ocean's nonrenewable resources, a tax would be charged to protect the ocean's renewable resources. Conservation groups say the fund should add a minimum of $200 million a year to the nation's ocean research budget.
``If we had that much more in our oceans budget, it would make a big difference,'' said Packard, the daughter of Silicon Valley pioneer David Packard.
Added Congressman Farr: ``The bottom line is a commitment to resources.''
Some of America's most popular and valuable seafoods are so
decimated by overfishing that they cannot reproduce enough to
keep up with demand.
In the Atlantic, populations
of the highly prized bluefin tuna have declined 80 percent,
while the average size of swordfish has fallen from 120 kilograms
to 30 kilograms.
In the pacific, abalone fishing was shut down only after some species were fished to the brink of extinction, and now certain types of rockfish, a mainstay West Coast fishery, are in peril
---- RESEARCH DECLINES
Even so, federal funding for ocean research, which would help
management of endangered fish stocks, has declined as a percentage
of total research spending.