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Saving Our Seas Requires Leadership at Home and Abroad

Three years ago an independent commission, which I had the honor to chair, began an inquiry into the health of the United States (US) oceans and the efficacy of the policies that govern them. The United States has economic and environmental authority over the largest exclusive economic zone in the world. The marine waters of the United States encompass some 4.5 million square miles, an area more than 20 percent larger than our land area. Together with a commission appointed by the President expected to report this fall, this was the first comprehensive review of this vital national resource in more than 30 years. 

The Pew Oceans Commission brought together a diverse group of American leaders from the worlds of science, fishing, conservation, government, education, business, and philanthropy for an inquiry into the state of our vast ocean resources, the problems they face, and what might be done to address these problems. In the ensuing two and a half years, the Commission traveled around the country to learn firsthand about the problems facing our oceans. Along the way, we spoke with thousands of citizens who live and work along the coasts. The Commission secured the help of leading scientists to help us identify the most important issues and to write reports summarizing the best scientific information available on those subjects. 

We traveled from Maine to Hawaii, from the Gulf of Alaska to the Gulf of Mexico.  We studied coastal development in Charleston, South Carolina and Portland, Oregon. In more than a dozen listening sessions we heard the concerns and outlook of sport fishermen in Florida, lobstermen in Maine, crabbers in Baltimore, salmon fishermen in Kodiak, and many others. We even traveled far inland to Des Moines, Iowa, to talk with farmers, scientists and agriculture officials about ways to limit polluted runoff from fields and feedlots that is fouling the waters of the Gulf of Mexico a thousand miles away.    

We found that our oceans are in crisis. 

This spring, scientists reported in the respected journal Nature that 90 percent of the large fish are gone from our oceans. Once seemingly inexhaustible stocks of tuna, marlin, swordfish, cod, and other species have been reduced to a fraction of their historical abundance within a few decades of the onset of large-scale industrial fishing. By 1989, the great cod stocks of the Georges Banks had declined to a few percent of their historical level. Despite draconian restrictions on fishing in Georges Bank, the cod do not seem to be recovering. Mismanagement is not just an artifact of the unenlightened past. Along the West Coast, a once-thriving groundfish fishery was virtually shut down last year because stocks of some prized species had been reduced to a few percent of their historic levels. 

Two-thirds of our coastal waters are degraded by pollution, mostly from excess nutrients in farm and urban runoff. Under normal conditions the lack of nitrogen in seawater limits the growth of marine algae. But excess nitrogen running off fields, animal feedlots, suburban lawns and golf courses, and even settling from air polluted by automobile exhaust and power plants, causes explosive growth of marine algae. When these huge “blooms” of algae die and sink to the bottom, decay by bacteria sucks the oxygen out of the water, creating low-oxygen “dead zones” where marine life cannot survive. Nutrient pollution, primarily from farms in the upper Midwest, has created the well-known dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico that is now routinely the size of Massachusetts. Heavy runoff this year created an unprecedented dead zone in the Chesapeake Bay, despite a 20-year effort to improve water quality in that treasured estuary.

More than 13,000 beaches were closed or under advisories not to swim as a result of contamination with pathogens. The National Academy of Sciences recently reported that nearly 11 million gallons of oil and other hydrocarbons—the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez oil spill—run off roadways and enter our waterways every eight months. Invasive species, some hitchhiking around the globe in ballast water, others escaping from fish farms, crowd out native species and alter the underwater habitat along our coasts. Despite completion of surface clean up efforts, PCBs and other contaminants are still leaching out of industrial sites and accumulating in marine sediments at levels that would never be tolerated on land.

Coastal land is being developed at an unprecedented pace. More than half our population lives on the 17 percent of the land comprising coastal counties. This is five times the population density of the interior. What’s more, the sprawling development pattern that has evolved since World War II is gobbling up land much faster than the rate of population growth. In many coastal metropolitan areas, land is being consumed at five times the rate of population growth or more. Not only does this pattern of growth pave over habitat needed for the survival of coastal species, but it also destroys wetlands, forests and other natural lands that slow the flow of runoff and filter the pollution from our farms and cities. 

For centuries, we have treated the oceans’ bounty as limitless and beyond our capacity to deplete. We have treated wetlands as wastelands, and rivers and streams as conduits for our pollution. The evidence of our neglect and mismanagement is un­equivocal. The question now is: What do we do about it?

After reviewing all the evidence, the Pew Oceans Commission recommended five major reforms in US ocean policy:

  • First, we need to establish a national ocean policy to protect, maintain and restore the health of marine ecosystems, and to guide their sustainable use. This will require the enactment of federal legislation that establishes an enforceable ocean policy and a process for carrying it out.
  • Second, we must realign institutional structures to ensure federal agencies and programs are carrying out the national ocean policy. To do this, we recommend the establishment of an independent national oceans agency and the consolidation of a number of federal ocean programs within it. Even with consolidation, there is a need for better coordination among the many federal agencies and programs that affect ocean health. We recommend this be accomplished by the statutory creation of an interagency national oceans council in the Executive Office of the President.
  • Third, we need to manage marine resources on an ecosystem basis. To accomplish this requires a new, stronger partnership among the federal government, the states, Native American tribes, and others with jurisdiction over marine resources. A regional forum charged with assessing threats, identifying solutions and assigning responsibility to carry them out is needed to overcome the arbitrary jurisdictional lines that divide ocean ecosystems.
  • Fourth, we need to acknowledge and address the direct connection between our activities on land and the health of the oceans.  We must reduce land-based sources of pollution that are fouling our coastal waters, and we must realize that development and land-use decisions strongly affect the health of marine and freshwater ecosystems.  If we integrate pollution control with growth management and land-use planning on a watershed basis, we bring a powerful new suite of options to bear on the problem of reducing polluted runoff.
  • Fifth, we need to reform federal fisheries management to require sustainable use of our living ocean resources. For this to succeed, we must require that decisions about how many fish can be caught be determined by science. To reduce the severe political and economic pressure for overexploitation, we must find creative ways to reduce excess fishing capacity. Lastly, we must recognize that fish stocks are part of a larger ecosystem, not individual commodities, and they must be managed as part of this greater whole. It is particularly important to consider relationships among species in setting catch limits, minimize wasteful destruction of non-targeted species, and reduce harmful effects on habitat of certain gear types and fishing methods.

The Commission was charged with a review of US waters and US ocean policy.  Although it understood that effectively addressing the problems facing our oceans requires international cooperation, it determined that it was crucial for the United States to set a strong standard for protection of its own waters if it were to exert leadership in international forums. Particularly in the areas of invasive species, highly migratory fish stocks and persistent organic pollutants, however, there is no real solution without an international solution. We recommended several actions in the international arena that are key to addressing these concerns. These included:

  • US ratification of the Law of the Sea Convention and the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants;
  • Continued US leadership in concluding a new international agreement on ballast water management in 2004; and
  • Pressing for implementation and aggressive enforcement of existing conventions for the management of highly migratory fish stocks in the Atlantic and eastern Pacific oceans, and for early and effective implementation of the new convention for highly migratory stocks in the central and western Pacific.

In addition, the effect of global climate change on the health of the oceans was of great concern to the Commission. The expected warming of the oceans, rise in sea level, changes in circulation patterns, and other effects will have a profound impact on coastal and marine ecosystems. Although climate change policy was outside the scope of the Commission’s charter, it was clear to the Commission that domestic and international efforts to understand and address global climate change take on new urgency when the economic, environmental and cultural disruption that will be caused by significant changes in the ocean and coastal environment are considered. It is equally clear that the Commission’s recommendations to restore the health and resiliency of marine ecosystems will leave them better able to adapt to the changes that will inevitably result from climate change. 

In many ways, the solutions recommended by the Pew Oceans Commission are simple enough. What has been lacking, of course, is the political will and leadership to face our responsibility to effectively manage and protect our oceans. 

An important first step is to recognize that our oceans are a public trust and begin to treat them as such. One hundred years ago, Teddy Roosevelt recognized that it was important for this country to take responsibility for stewardship of our land and natural resources. He greatly expanded our National Parks and he created our system of wildlife refuges, among other steps, to accomplish this. Today we enjoy the fruits of his labor, as well as the good work of the many other dedicated conservationists that followed him, in our magnificent patrimony of public lands. 

Our oceans are no less a patrimony than our public lands. They are, perhaps, our greatest natural resource. Yet despite the huge economic, natural and cultural benefits the oceans provide, short-term political and economic considerations have consistently won out over long-term precaution and sustainability in their management.  Our ocean laws and policies date back to a different era, when exploitation was the priority. They are in desperate need of reform. We have viewed the land and the sea as separate, when they are in fact one. If we continue to combine a 19th century attitude with 21st century technology, little worth protecting will be left in our oceans.

It is not just for their bounty of fish and other resources that we are drawn to the sea:  their beauty and mystery compel us as well. Now we are compelled, out of necessity and crisis, to take a more active role in their management. We must summon the political will to reform our ocean laws and policies to protect, maintain and restore the health of ocean ecosystems. We can perhaps be forgiven for turning late to the conservation of the seas. We are, after all, terrestrial creatures who have only recently developed the technol­ogy to fully explore and exploit the oceans. But our responsibility is to future generations to ensure that they can enjoy the beauty and the bounty of this great resource. The decisions we make today will determine whether our oceans can be protected for tomorrow.

Issue Date


Chairman, Pew Oceans Commission;
White House Chief of Staff, 1994-1997;
Director, Office of Management and Budget, 1993-1994;
Member, United States House of Representatives, 1977-1993