There's recently been some positive news about oceans (though climate change, acidification, overfishing, habitat destruction and pollution runoff still threaten to make the oceans a primordial stew). The Obama Administration has won wide praise from ocean advocates for its call, last week, for a new interagency oceans task force to address the multi-faceted threats to the oceans. In the past, U.S. oceans, coasts and Great Lakes are governed by more than 140 laws and 20 federal agencies, each agency with different goals and missions.
"Runoff of fertilizer is really an issue for the Department of Agriculture, transportation runoff from highways and roads is the Department of Transportation ... municipal discharges from sewer systems is the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency," said Joshua Reichert, managing director of the Pew Environment Group, which has actively advocated for a more robust ocean conservation policy. "So when you're proposing trying to manage an area of the ocean, you're trying to take into account all of these variables in a very complicated process." Oceana, an oceans advocacy group, said the Obama plan has "vision."
That wasn't the only recent news affecting the health of the oceans, however, and not all the news has been good. Here's a look at five trends and facts to watch:
The National Marine Fisheries Service reported in August that the largest U.S. fishery -- the billion dollar Alaskan pollock fishery -- is sustainable, with the 2008 reported catch coming in under the targets set to maintain a strong population. (Never choose pollock at the fish counter or restaurant? So you think: The 2.5 million pounds of pollock that we take from the oceans each year is used to make artificial crab meat, fish sticks, fast food fish sandwiches and other generic seafood products.)
But wait, Greenpeace disagrees. John Hocevar, the group's oceans campaigner director, said pollock stocks have not recovered and remain near record-low levels. "While the fishing industry and others continue to cite the pollock fishery as a model of fisheries management, the pollock population has declined sharply in recent years. In spite of concerns raised by Greenpeace and many scientists, unsustainable fishing rates have been allowed to continue, as has heavy trawling on spawning aggregations."
If the pollock stock is indeed in trouble, that means trouble for an already stressed ecosystem. Turns out that whales, seals, sea lions and a host of other species like fish sticks, er, pollock, as much as we do. Several Arctic species are under threat by global warming, as Arctic sea ice melts.
"What we are witnessing with pollock is yet another example of a global overfishing problem that stretches from bluefin tuna in the North Atlantic and Mediterranean to the hoki off New Zealand," Hocevar said. "Clearly, the collapse was not enough to convince governments that they are fishing out our oceans."
In similar news, World Wildlife Fund is raising alarms that too much cod is being caught on the Grand Banks off the coast of Newfoundland. These fish of concern aren't being targeted directly, but instead are being caught as "bycatch" -- that is, hauled up with the nets fishermen set to catch other fish. They're dead all the same, which makes it an issue for the survivability of a species that has been heavily fished, and overfished, for generations.
Fishermen caught nearly 1 million pounds more cod than the population can sustain, according to WWF's quote of Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization data and voluntary bycatch quotas. The bycatch was nearly 20% over the limit set to allow for the recovery of the depleted cod -- which, by the way, was among the most common fish used to make fish and chips (haddock is also popular).
WWF advocates for mandatory bycatch limits, rather than voluntary limits which appear to have failed to rein in fishermen sufficiently.
"We cant continue to ignore these numbers," says Dr. Robert Rangeley, the vice president of WWF-Canada' Atlantic Region. "Rebuilding fish stocks and ecosystems is possible if exploitation rates are reduced and effective controls are implemented in waters beyond national jurisdiction. By enforcing absolute limits on cod bycatch through a combination of gear restrictions and closed areas at this meeting, NAFO can provide the last chance for restoring this cod fishery."
In less controversial news from NOAA's Fisheries Service, scientists aboard a research vessel in the Gulf of Mexico report having captured and photographed a giant squid -- only the second known to have been caught from those waters, and the first since 1954. It's more than 19 feet long and weighs 103 pounds.
Cool. If only they had a professional photographer on board. Maybe the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum for Natural History, which is the recipient of the beast, will get some better photos before it decomposes.
The scientists were out to study sperm whale prey (the whales are known to eat giant squid) when the hauled in the giant squid. "As the trawl net rose out of the water, I could see that we had something big in there ... really big," said Anthony Martinez, a marine mammal scientist for NOAA's Fisheries Service and chief scientist for this research cruise. "We knew there was a remote possibility of encountering a giant squid on this cruise, but it was not something we were realistically expecting."
In a big bit of good news, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council has agreed to preserve an stretch of ancient, 1,000-feet deep coral, some growing into 500-foot underwater pinnacles, about the size of West Virginia in hopes of preserving what could be the largest ecosystem of its kind anywhere in the world. The corals are found off the coasts of North and South Carolina, Georgia and Florida and are described by Environmental Defense as a "veritable wonderland of marine life" important not only for wildlife, but for the exploration of new biopharmaceuticals. Oceana singles out unique sea sponges that may yield clues to the treatment of cancer, heart disease and other illnesses.
Fishing will still be allowed, but only under guidelines that restrict fishing methods to relatively benign traditional methods, rather than deepwater trawls that would tear up the ocean bottom (which may hold million-year-old coral colonies) like a strip mine. (Like the kind that lop off mountaintops in West Virginia, in a stretch of the Appalachians also known for impressive biodiversity.)
The restrictions are actually good for fishermen, the groups contend: "This landmark decision is a win for the oceans and those in the southeast who rely on it for their livelihoods," said Dave Allison, senior campaign director at Oceana. "The crushing of these ancient coral reefs would be a serious loss to the ocean ecosystem and could threaten the survival of golden crab and wreckfish fishermen that catch other species on these deep reefs."
A similarly precious deep-sea landscape, the Oculina banks off of Florida, was destroyed by bottom trawling shortly after being discovered, and before the fisheries council could protect it.
In a final bit of bad news, the Hudson River's last commercial fishery, for American shad, could have seen its last year this year. Since the glaciers retreated more than 10,000 years ago, humans have fished for shad -- a large herring -- from the Hudson River (or "North River, or "Muhheakantuck" or any number of other names it's gone by through the centuries. But it appears that the latest in a series of overfishing events has provided the death knell for the commercial fisheries, according to the assessment of state scientists. Other factors have contributed to the decline: severe sewer pollution that choked off oxygen in prime spawning habitat before the Clean Water Act; a power plant that sucked in and killed millions of young shad every year for 50 years; the loss of thousands of acres of spawning habitat to navigational dredging and the invasion of zebra mussels, a Eurasian shellfish that out-competes shad for food. But the biggest factor, according to scientists has been heavy fishing on shad's spawning grounds, along with industrial-scale ships that for nearly a decade scooped up shad in huge nets just off shore. Now, with the population having crashed, the state aims to close the last commercial fishery on the Hudson in the year being marked as the 400th anniversary of Henry Hudson's 1609 voyage of discovery. The factor that cut off fishing for other species, like striped bass is PCB pollution, and there's historical symmetry there, too, as General Electric began the six-year-long dredging project designed to reduce pollution in fish.
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