CORVALLIS, Ore. - Scientific knowledge about the oceans has increased tremendously in the last quarter century but U.S. policy for managing its territorial waters has lagged far behind the science, experts say, leading to resource depletion, pollution, habitat destruction and political polarization.
Recommendations by the Pew Oceans Commission released today (June 4) are the first step toward addressing the disparity between growing scientific knowledge and outdated national policies and practices, says Jane Lubchenco, an Oregon State University professor and one of the commission's lead scientists.
"What we know is not reflected in what we do," Lubchenco said. "We are facing historic reductions in what once was thought to be an endless bounty. It doesn't have to be that way. With more responsible, science-based stewardship, we can have sustainable, healthy and resilient ecosystems. But the framework for a coherent management plan has been missing."
One of the recommendations of the Pew Commission is the establishment of Regional Ecosystem Management Councils that would report to a new federal agency. Key components of the proposal call for regional decision-making and a management plan based on ecosystems, not individual species or narrow political jurisdictions.
Lubchenco said one of the obstacles to a sound ocean policy has been a piecemeal regulatory approach that reacts to crises instead of addressing management in a cohesive and precautionary manner.
"Recent scientific findings should be giving us a wakeup call," she said.
A scientific study reported last month in Nature determined that most of the oceans' large predator fish - including tuna, sharks, and other species - have been depleted by some 90 percent from their historic highs. Lubchenco points to other phenomena including increases in algal blooms, the proliferation of invasive species and coral bleaching events as oceanic equivalents to the canary in the coal mine.
Lubchenco said Pew Commission members held an extensive series of public hearings over three years throughout the U.S. and a common refrain was: "The ocean system is collapsing; please help fix it."
One of the problems, Lubchenco says, is that the nation hasn't taken a broad-spectrum approach to ocean management since the Stratton Commission in 1969 charted the way the country thought about our oceans.
Many worthwhile initiatives grew out of that commission, she added, including the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the implementation of the Coastal Zone Management Act and the passage of fisheries management legislation.
The commission's recommendations reflected the knowledge and attitude of the day.
"At the time, it was thought that our oceans were endlessly bountiful and infinitely resilient," Lubchenco said. "In those 30 years, we've discovered that neither is true."
Lubchenco said the area of the ocean over which the U.S. has jurisdiction encompasses an area 23 percent larger than the entire U.S. landmass - in large part because of Hawaii and Pacific territories. Yet its remoteness has led to an "out of sight, out of mind" mentality about management.
Science, common sense, and experience, she says, can help guide the nation toward sustainable ocean policies.
"Recent scientific knowledge emphasizes managing on an ecosystem basis," Lubchenco said. "A focus on single species has caused unintended problems because it ignores by-catch, invasive species, and pollution. Knowing how the pieces fit together enables smarter and less wasteful management."
"We have a wealth of information that is not being incorporated into policy and management."
Lubchenco is a principal investigator for the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans. PISCO, a program supported by a pair of five-year grants totaling $20 million from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, is studying the near-shore region of the Pacific Coast. OSU is one of four universities in the initiative, which Lubchenco says is a prototype for large-scale marine ecosystem-based research.
What she and other scientists are discovering is that the world's oceans are resilient enough to rebound if they are managed properly.
"The message is one we've learned from testing and studying marine reserves," she said, "and that is when you eliminate the destructive activities, the ocean can respond in bounteous fashion and recharge depleted areas outside the reserves. We simply need better stewardship."
If managed properly, Lubchenco says, the oceans can provide sustainable harvests of most seafood at rates well above what we have experienced over the last 20 years. "A key, though," she said, "is to acknowledge the primacy of protecting ocean ecosystems so they in turn can provide the bounty."