Thursday, February 23, 2006
The first-ever National Oceans Summit took place in Monterey in June of 1998. Billed as a meeting of the nation’s top ocean scientists, who gathered to address a looming catastrophe, it also brought together the most powerful collection of political elites to gather here in modern times.
On a sunny Tuesday afternoon, the luminaries assembled on a stage at San Carlos Beach. President Bill and Hillary Clinton, Vice Pres. Al Gore, Sen. Barbara Boxer, Commerce Secretary William Daley (who initiated the event), and Navy Secretary John Dalton took turns speaking, as did Rep. Sam Farr, Rep. George Miller, and Leon Panetta. All of these heavyweights participated in the Oceans Summit to draw attention to the significance of the event. And all of them spoke of a crisis that just seven years ago was only beginning to become apparent, but one that is now accepted as a frightening fact of life.
Like many in attendance that day, I was stunned to learn of the immensity of the predicament. Even the president of the United States, a pretty smart guy, admitted that he had not been aware that things had gotten quite so bad.
This was a few years before the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program would help bring the word “sustainable” to menus and cookbooks nationwide. Three years would pass before Sam Farr introduced the concept of Marine Protection Areas in Congress.
The notion that the oceans were dying—that fisheries were crashing worldwide—was still new enough to be shocking to non-experts like Bill Clinton and me.
To my mind, the most compelling speaker at the Monterey summit was Dr. Sylvia Earl, explorer-in-residence of the National Geographic Society and former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). She offered proofs that certain species—swordfish, for instance—were vanishing. But the point she wanted us to understand was that nobody really knows what is going on. She explained that we knew less about what goes on under the waves than we know about outer space. The reason is simple, she said: Nobody was trying very hard to figure it out. At that time, in 1998, the US spent 30 times more money on space research than it did on oceans research.
Sadly, that has not changed much in the seven years since. Money for research is still scarce. But still, a lot has been learned.
IT WOULD BE NICE TO SEE SOME NEW THINKING ON THIS TOPIC AT THE TASK FORCE MEETING HERE IN THREE WEEKS.
The movement that was unofficially launched in Monterey helped lead to two studies—both massive efforts to get a handle on the scope of the crisis. The Pew Oceans Commission, chaired by Leon Panetta, spent two years on the issue and produced a voluminous report, a first-of-its-kind inventory. That was followed by the US Commission on Oceans Policy (COP), a similarly vast project, this one spearheaded by Sam Farr. Both studies reached the same conclusion: that 90 percent of the ocean’s large fish had disappeared.
Searching for causes, both commissions found many. They found, for instance, that 11 million gallons of leaked oil—the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill—run off America’s streets and eventually into the sea every eight months; and that 20,000 acres of coastal wetlands disappear every year. But the biggest culprit, according to both reports, was overfishing by industrial fishing fleets.
The Pew Commission called for a National Ocean Policy and the creation of an independent ocean agency (NOAA is a branch of the Department of Commerce). It also recommended that the government “establish a national system of fully protected marine reserves.”
Following the COP report, Farr and others in Congress initiated a policy response dubbed Oceans 21. That bill now sits in the House Natural Resources Committee. Meanwhile, the State has been even more aggressive. The California Department of Fish and Game, under the direction of Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger and state EPA boss Terry Tamminen, appointed a task force last year to look into the issue of marine reserves. That task force will be in Monterey on March 14.
Of course, even back in 1998, fishermen already knew that there was trouble. They’re the ones that felt it when the resource that supplied their livelihoods had started to become scarce. It is tragic that local fishermen and their colleagues around the nation will likely be asked to bear the cost of healing the damaged sea—none of them run the big factory ships that decimated the oceans.
It would be nice to see some new thinking on this topic at the task force meeting here in three weeks. Just as Monterey helped bring the bigger issue into the public light, perhaps we can help engineer a solution that doesn’t kill off the last of our fishermen.