The Last Days of the Ocean
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Oceans Policy: It's a Matter of Leadership

The problems facing our oceans have political solutions.

| Wed Mar. 1, 2006 4:00 AM EST

In its March/April issue, Mother Jones presents a dire, often depressing, but sadly accurate assessment of the state of the world’s oceans. To many, these issues are brand new, as the crisis in the oceans has largely been “out of sight, out of mind” to date. In reality, the problems afflicting the ocean – too much fishing, too much pollution, and a broken management system – have been with us for years, but little has been done about them.

And while the pace of decline has unquestionably accelerated recently, the real question raised by this series of articles is: “Where is the leadership?” Most environmental groups have been focused largely on terrestrial issues, Congress is missing in action, and the public’s attention is elsewhere (usually on the latest episode of “Survivor” or “Lost”, which is where we might all end up if we don’t reverse current trends).

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What does it say that, though we literally “carry the oceans within ourselves,” and though we are so drawn to it that over half the U.S. population lives in a coastal county, our oceans languish in neglect, while the biggest environmental fight of our time is over oil drilling in a patch of Arctic wilderness that most people will never visit, and that has a fraction of the ecological significance of our oceans?

In a 2003 report for the Packard, Oak and Munson Foundations, we looked in detail at the effectiveness of the ocean conservation movement. We found a growing force of highly professional activists pressing for essential reforms but not yet able to muster the political power to achieve victory. While the oceans have bipartisan support in Congress, there are very few champions willing to expend political capital to bring about the needed reforms.

The problem is not a dearth of good facts or the lack of a compelling scientific case. (If you think that an overwhelming scientific consensus is enough to win, look at Congress’ inaction on global warming.) Rather, it has been the conspicuous absence of ocean conservationists from the political arena, and the lack of an effective grassroots base that can be mobilized to pressure politicians for change. The result: extremely limited leverage to reward those politicians who will work to protect the oceans or to hold accountable those who would destroy it.

In part, the fault lies with ocean conservationists ourselves; we have failed to capture the public’s attention on the issues. Not that doing so is easy. Although so much of the population lives near and/or recreates at the ocean, the problems of the ocean are largely abstract and invisible; we can’t see what bottom-trawling does to the floor of the ocean the way we can see what clear-cutting does to a mountainside.

Despite what seems to us a compelling message (an ocean largely devoid of magnificent creatures like marlin, sea turtles, and sharks, replaced by little more than jellyfish) public urgency on this issue is not there. Somewhere there is a breakdown in the “educate, motivate, and activate” sequence.

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