National Press Club

Ocean Threats Seen in Overfishing, Pollution, Climate Change

December 18, 2008 | By Pat Rizzuto

The day after two University of Rhode Island scientists announced that climate change will harm jumbo squid, a panel of top U.S. marine scientists discussed the crisis that verfishing, pollution, and climate change is causing to the oceans that feed the world.

At a Dec. 16 Newsmaker, Michael Hirshfield, chief scientist of North America Oceana, said: “We’ve been borrowing against the future for far too long, and the oceans can’t lend us any more. We must act responsibly and live within our means.”

Just as the economic bubble depended on lax oversight and wishful thinking, the United States has resisted managing the ocean for long term sustainability rather than short term profit, Hirshfield said.

Jeremy Jackson, director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, also urged restraint.

The opposite of gluttony is not starvation, but eating in moderation, he said, pointing to harmful overfishing practices such as trawling that result in a $50 billion annual loss of the oceans resources.

“The economic pressures to keep on fishing have overwhelmed common sense,” Jackson said.

Jeremy Short, a 30-year veteran of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration who now serves as the Pacific science director at Oceana, said society has 25 years to avoid the global devastation that climate change could cause.

When atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide reach 450 parts per million, coral reefs worldwide will be irrevocably destroyed, Short said, adding current levels are 385 ppm and increasing every year.

“Earth’s fundamental life support system is at risk,” Short said.

Donald Boesch, president of the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, focused on the fertilizer runoff that has created more than 200 dead zones in waters around the world.

There is hope, said Brian Skerry, a photographer with National Geographic, who showed underwater images of degraded and improving waters. New Zealand has created special protected areas in its waters and aquatic life is beginning to thrive there, he said.

“Conservation is our only choice and we must act now,” Skerry said.

Other policy recommendations included: mandating responsible fishing to end overfishing, protecting ocean habitats from bottom trawls, requiring sewage treatment plans to remove nutrients from fertilizers, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions immediately.