" Beyond that, another 26,000 tons of "plastic packaging material" is dumped by the fishing industry each year, Sverdrup's text maintains. Why is plastic trash so bad? First, there are over 50 million tons of plastics produced in the U.S. annually, and secondly, a good deal of that plastic is responsible "for crippling and killing tens of thousands of marine animals yearly."
The Depleted Fisheries: There are plenty of existing threats to marine life, in particular those marine species humans depend on for nutrition, without the problem of toxic spills and the ongoing dumping of plastics. To wit, the fisheries themselves are being depleted by aggressive fishing practices. According to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, Chapter 1, some "25 to 30% of the world's major fish stocks are overexploited." Also, of the 267 "major fish stocks" in America (99% of all fish landings) "roughly 20% are either already overfished, experiencing overfishing, or approaching an overfished condition."
There are several reasons explaining overfishing, besides the obvious: there is the "unintentional removal of non-targeted species (known as bycatch), habitat loss, pollution, climate changes, and uneven management," the commission report states. But the cumulative impact of these reasons add up to a "serious" problem: it is called, "fishing down the food web," which occurs when fishing boats turn to "smaller, less valuable, and once discarded species." This changes the "size, age structure, genetic makeup, and reproductive status of fish populations. Basically, the practice of fishing down the food web does more than compromise the quality of the marine ecosystems; indeed, the ocean commission reports that "the collapse of the North Atlantic cod fishery (in the 1990s) resulted in the loss of about 20,000 jobs, and $349 million annually; fading salmon populations in the Northwest cost 72,000 jobs and $500 million.
In Sverdrup's textbook, things look a lot worse for fisheries than the ocean commission's information: a United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization study (presented by Sverdrup) indicated that 70% of "fish stocks worldwide are now overfished, depleted, or recovering after pervious overfishing." In the U.S. (according to the U.S. Office of Fisheries Conservation and Management), some "41% of the species" are overfished. The swordfish catch in the U.S. plunged by 70% from 1980 to 1990, according to Sverdrup's research in the textbook. The additionally troubling fact about the decline in swordfish catch is that the fish themselves are much thinner - they average 60 pounds each, compared with 115 pounds previously.
Bluefish tuna fisheries "have been devastated" - especially in the Gulf of Mexico, which has seen a 90% drop-off since 1975. As if the depletion of fisheries isn't sad enough, Sverdrup's text reports that 30 million tons of fish each year are caught then discarded; the unwanted fish, caught on hooks or in nets, amount to 25% of the total catch in all commercial fish landings. And amazingly, "25 million tons of halibut (worth about $30 million) are discarded by Alaskan Pollock and cod fishermen" annually. Why throw valuable fish away? "They are not allowed to keep or sell the halibut," the Sverdrup text reports.
With this information regarding the serious demise of fisheries having been written, it is additionally troubling to read a report in Oceans Alive, a newsletter published by the Environmental Defense organization, that President George W. Bush's response to the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy report is to commit "less than 1% of the funds" that the Commission says are necessary to begin to come to grips with the problems facing oceans. As to the specific question in this portion of the paper, overfishing, Oceans Alive reports that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) "is pushing to loosen the standard that serves as the national guidance for what is deemed 'overfishing'."
That "standard" is a product of the U.S. Sustainable Fisheries Act (1996), and it is referred to as "National Standard 1," the requirement that fishery "councils" prevent fishermen from "catching fish faster than they can replenish stocks," and also, that fishermen "rebuild stocks that have been overfished." According to Oceans Alive, NOAA's proposal to change the National Standard 1 "will weaken fishery protections by replacing the standard's hard limits and timelines with mere guidelines." Those guidelines "will leave gaping holes" in the way the legislation was supposed to protect fish stocks from over-exploitation.
Meanwhile, as fishing fleets continue to deplete fisheries near to the shore, "trawlers are moving ever deeper, scraping seamounts and plains bare of species like orange roughy," writes Hayden in the U.S. News & World Report article. And in the process of scraping along the seamounts, the trawlers' netting hardware "often destroys the delicate patches of slow-growing deep corals, sponges, and other bottom life that provide shelter to these fish."
The Vanishing Wetlands: More than 110 million acres of wetlands have been lost since the "Pilgrims first arrived at Plymouth Rock," the ocean commission report states. That amounts to the loss of "over half" of the fresh and saltwater wetlands; California, in fact, has lost 91% of its wetlands "since the 1780s," and Louisiana, "home to 40% of the coastal wetlands in the lower 48 states, is losing 25 to 35 square miles of wetlands each year."
What is causing the loss of wetlands in America? The commission reports that the "building of structures that alter sediment flow," the rise in sea levels, pollution, "development" and "subsidence" all contribute. And additionally, the loss of wetlands causes the loss of habitat for wildlife, leaves shorelines more vulnerable to erosion, contributes to saltwater intrusion into fresh water environments, allows flooding, hastens the degradation of water quality and takes away valuable recreational areas for citizens.
Mangrove forests, seagrass and kelp forests are being lost, as well; "more than 50% of the historical seagrass cover has been lost in Tampa Bay," the commission explains; also, 90% of the seagrass in Galveston Bay is gone, as is 76% of the seagrass in Mississippi Sound.
The Sverdrup textbook explains that wetlands have been lost through industrial development and port facilities, but mangrove swamps "have also been cleared and filled to create fields for crops, shrimp ponds, and resorts." In fact, the text continues, "over 50% of the world's mangroves are gone"; they are logged for wood chips, timber, and fuel, and the swamps have been cleared and filled "to create fields for crops, shrimp ponds, and resorts."
Worldwide, there has been a merciless attack on mangrove forests and swamps, Sverdrup's book points out: in the Philippines, 80% of mangrove forests are wiped out; in Bangladesh, it's 73% and in Africa over 50% of mangroves have been destroyed.
In the U.S., the average rate of loss of estuarine wetlands was 20,000 per year; and the states which have seen the greatest loss of wetlands are California, Florida, Louisiana, New York, New Jersey, and Texas.
In its 450-page report, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy stresses the need for "national coordination and leadership," pointing out that "fifteen cabinet-level departments and four independent agencies play important roles in the development of ocean and coastal policy." What would help in terms of cleaning up the oceans, and setting out to protect the oceans from further destruction and despoliation, would be "improved communication and coordination" between these fifteen agencies and organizations would "enhance the effectiveness" of America's policy on oceans. The report also calls for the strengthening of NOAA, which is presently responsible for a majority of policy decisions regarding ocean management. Further, a "National oceans Council" should be established in the executive branch, regional ocean councils in the states with coastlines, and a "shift in wildlife management from an approach based on a single species to one based on ecosystems" (Querna, 2004) - according to an article in Scientific American.
But how will these programs be funded? Querna writes that the commission has proposed setting up the Ocean Policy Trust Fund, "using money already paid to the government by offshore drilling companies." but, there are officials in states who fear that funding structure "will pressure states to beef up their oil and gas-drilling programs," Querna asserts. So, states that have resisted offshore drilling, the article continues, "fret that they will not receive funding unless they open their waters to more exploration." One hopes that after all the effort that went into the commission's findings, and the heightened hopes for a better strategy to protect our oceans in the future, that funding won't be tied somehow to allowing oil and gas exploration - industries which have been a big part of the pollution problem - to beef up their offshore drilling activities. Renewable energy sources should, and must, be pursued, in every area where it is reasonable and possible.
Hayden, Thomas. 2004. The Blue Planet (a new initiative in oceanography probes
Mysteries of the deep). U.S. News & World Report 137 (August): 46-52.
Oceans Alive. 2005. What's at Stake! Act Now to Stop Rollbacks of Overfishing
Regulations. Environmental Defense, available at http://www.actionnetwork.org/campaign/overfish/explanation.