Policy Options: Message in a bottle
TROUBLED WATERS: A Call for Action


Washington DC...At the start of the United Nations's International Year of the Ocean, more than 1,600 marine scientists and conservation biologists from 65 countries have issued an unprecedented warning to the world's governments and citizens that the sea is in trouble. Troubled Waters: A Call for Action summarizes the urgent threats to marine species and ecosystems and calls for immediate action to prevent further damage.

Troubled Waters paints a dismaying picture of the destruction of marine biological diversity from five causes: 1) overexploitation of species, 2) physical alteration of ecosystems, 3) pollution, 4) alien species from distant waters disrupting local food webs and 5) global atmospheric change. Overfishing has decimated commercial fish populations and caused the collapse of many fisheries worldwide, including the once-bounteous cod fisheries of Georges Bank off New England. Destructive fishing methods such as bottom trawling have crushed and buried bottom-dwelling species by scouring a vast area of seabed. Coastal development has consumed mangrove forests and salt marshes. Reef corals and marine mammals are falling victim to new diseases, perhaps caused by pollution. And global warming has dramatically reduced the sea's productivity off Southern California since 1951 and contributed to the steep decline of salmon in the North Pacific.

The call for action comes from scientific leaders in renowned marine research institutions such as Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the Australian Institute of Marine Sciences and the Russian Academy of Sciences, from scientists in universities, federal agencies, local governments, tribal fisheries commissions, conservation groups and private industry. Endorsers include marine scientists such as Drs. Jane Lubchenco, Past President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science; Paul Dayton of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Sylvia Earle of Deep Ocean Exploration and Research. Leading conservation biologists who are expert on conserving species and ecosystems on land and are all too familiar with threats to biological diversity, including Drs. Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University; Peter Raven of the Missouri Botanical Garden and Michael SoulŠ, the father of the science of conservation biology, have also endorsed Troubled Waters. The signatures were collected in only eight months, starting just before the first Symposium on Marine Conservation Biology in June 1997.

"A recent New York Times poll found that only 1 percent of Americans consider the environment the most important problem facing our country," said Dr. Elliott Norse, marine ecologist and President of Marine Conservation Biology Institute (MCBI), the nonprofit organization that coordinated the statement. "Because few of us spend much time below the surface, it is easy to overlook signs that things are going wrong in the sea." But the signs are increasingly obvious to the experts," according to Norse. "The scientists who study the Earth's living systems are far more worried than the public and our political leaders. That's a wake up call that nobody can afford to ignore."

Dr. JoAnn Burkholder of North Carolina State University, who discovered the linkage between coastal pollution and outbreaks of nightmarish fish-eating Pfiesteria piscicida, said "It's hard to imagine that farming on land and building in cities could harm the marine environment and fishermen, but it does. The tons of sewage produced by millions of people don't just go away when we flush... a lot of it winds up in our coastal waters. And construction, agriculture and logging send clouds of choking sediments and excess nutrients into marine waters, smothering sensitive habitats. What we do on land profoundly affects life in the sea."

"If it's business as usual," said Dr. M. Patricia Morse, a marine biologist from Northeastern University, "we'll see more declines in corals, fishes, marine mammals and seabirds. That spells disaster for industries like fishing and tourism that depend on healthy marine life, and for every human on Earth, because we all use goods and services provided by the sea every day. Oceans regulate our climate, provide a breathable atmosphere and break down wastes. Coastal wetlands protect our shores from flooding and storm damage, improve water quality and provide crucial habitat for fishes and other marine life. When we destroy these ecosystems, we lose both their products and services."

Troubled Waters calls on citizens and governments to act now to reverse current trends and avert even more widespread harm to marine species and ecosystems. It outlines needed changes, including elimination of government subsidies that encourage overfishing, an end to fishing methods that damage fish habitat, reduction of non-point source pollution from activities on land, cuts in emissions that cause global warming and the creation of an effective system of marine protected areas from the shore to the open ocean.

"Getting scientists to agree on anything is like herding cats," said Norse, "so having 1,600 experts voice their concerns publicly highlights how seriously the sea is threatened. Troubled Waters shows that the world's experts want the public and our leaders to know that threats to marine species and ecosystems are urgent, and that we must change what we're doing now to prevent further irreversible decline. A White House Conference on the Marine Environment would help to highlight what's known about marine environmental problems and to address the most pressing ones. The International Year of the Ocean provides the ideal opportunity to move forward in protecting, restoring and sustainably using life in the sea. We need to do it for two reasons: because it's essential to our well-being and survival and because it's the right thing to do."

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