Toward a New Policy for the Oceans

If a single message emerged from a symposium on Marine Sciences and Society at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Diego (Feb. 21, 2010), it was an emphasis on cooperation rather than competition.

Perhaps you’ve never heard of Marine Spatial Planning (MSP). I hadn’t. It’s an idea conceived a decade ago in the North Sea, where a “super ring” of renewable energy to supply each country along its shorelines was first being considered. Given the many things going on in a particular area – commercial and recreational fishing, oil and gas development, transportation, military activities, mineral mining, conservation of nature, and the emergence of wind energy and wave energy – it became clear that a more integrated way of managing was required.

“Almost no ocean area is untouched by human activity,” as Fanny Douvere of UNESCO’s World Heritage Marine Program put it. “So is a spawning area more valuable than a wind farm? How, with conflicts, do we measure cumulative effects on species, habitats and ecosystems, and make trade-offs? And how do we deal with uncertainty in our planning, like climate change?” MSP, which is currently underway in ten countries, is place-based and “a continuous adaptive process, not a one-time plan.”

In the U.S., as Larry Crowder, Director of Marine Conservation at Duke University, said: “There are 140 laws and 22 ocean agencies that weren’t talking to each other.” In June 2009, the Obama Administration sent a memo to every agency, saying that a more coherent framework had to be the top priority. “Right now the MSP plan is largely conceptual,” Crowder said. “But it is nothing less than revolutionary, because to this point we’ve been doing everything sector by sector. Now you would manage a place with its various activities. MSP must be very future-oriented.”

It’s the idea of ecosystem-based management for fisheries, as previously recommended by a government Oceans Commission, taken a further step. “This administration is off to an amazing start in fulfilling requests that the conservation community has been making for years,” according to Mary Turnipseed, also of Duke.

The Massachusetts Ocean Partnership, implemented by Governor Deval Patrick, is one test case. Offshore wind energy proposals were a driving factor, given conflicts that had surfaced with fishermen and other interest groups. The Partnership seeks to “raise standards to protect species and habitats, at the same time allowing more community-scale wind energy development,” said Andy Rosenberg of the University of New Hampshire. The Partnership now includes 65 organizations, who come together informally to “talk through issues at a non-governmental forum” outside of the standard public hearing process.

Kevin St. Martin, of the Rutgers Department of Geography, discussed the Atlas Project that uses GIS mapping tools and participation by fishermen in a unique new collaboration. “In the 20th-century, you collected data on single species and people as competing individuals,” he explained. “Now this is changing dramatically, shifting toward a community-level understanding.”

The Atlas Project goes to various ports, using GIS data developed on specific fishing areas while involving fishermen from different ports in the process – “using their specific ecological knowledge of particular places, to recast themselves as stewards rather than exploiters.”

The idea of letting individual fishermen feel they’re part of a shared commons has paid dividends already. In Port Clyde, Maine, for example, participants have gone on to develop Community-Supported Fisheries modeled on what local farmers’ markets have achieved. Share-holders are provided locally-caught fish on a weekly basis, eliminating the middlemen. As St. Martin described: “Port Clyde fishermen then had to re-think what they were doing, change their gear and fish less to reduce bycatch, to convince their customers they had ecologically-sound practices.”


These kinds of ideas can’t happen fast enough, in terms of the worldwide overfishing crisis. “We have exceeded the limit of what the oceans can produce,” said Ellen Pilkitch, executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University. “By 2007, 80 percent of 523 [fish] stocks were fully exploited, over-exploited, or recovering from depletion.”

Daniel Pauly, a well-known fishery scientist from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, compared what’s happening in fisheries to “a Madoff Ponzi scheme. Instead of extracting sustainable harvest from invested capital, we use up the capital itself. The bank has been robbed, and we continue only by expanding and exploiting new banks. But the game is over, the expansion cannot continue.”

Julie Baum, of Scripps Institution of Oceanography, added: “North Americans have no clue there is a fisheries crisis because you can still buy whatever you want. But there are not enough fish for everyone, and they are going to become luxury items.”

Pauly noted that “some think aquaculture is going to save us.” But while figures published by the UN’s Food & Agriculture Organization indicate that 40 percent of our fish consumption is now farm-raised, that’s highly misleading because two-thirds of that total comes from China – and their concentration is on freshwater species “that most people in the West would not eat.”

Also, aquaculture requires large quantities of forage fish like sardines and anchovies. Today, according to Pilkitch, forage fish comprise seven of the top 10 marine capture species and 90 percent of those landings are turned into fish meal and fish oil for aquaculture. No surprise that many forage species are in severe decline, while at the same time they remain an important food source, especially in the developing world. For every pound of farm-raised bluefin tuna, it takes 20 pounds of fish meal! Pauly sees the problem as the wrong kind of aquaculture being pushed, like salmon farming, although that catfish and tilapia can be grown using plant-based foods and little fish meal.

Much of what’s led to the global fishing crisis are the distant water fleets from places like Japan, Taiwan and Spain trawling the lower latitudes. “This is largely due to the abundance of cheap oil,” said Pauly, “and that era is ending. There is way to maintain the current fleet strategy.”

This gives Pauly some cause for optimism. “In the long-term, with the price of energy rising and global carbon taxes, industrial fishing will go down the drain and there is potential to rebuild small-scale fisheries for local consumption and some export. These use passive gear and not much oil, and operate in the local vicinity. I could imagine fish as ritual food, for example like turkey at Thanksgiving.”


One solution being touted by the Obama Administration is known as “catch shares,” the idea that fishermen will operate more sustainably if they’re allowed to divide up quotas and buy into fisheries as long-term “property rights.” However, John Lynham, co-author of a much-heralded scientific study supporting that principle, admitted at the meeting that some of the data was skewed. “ITQs [individual transferrable quotas] are not bad but they are limited,” Lynham said. Except for reducing the bycatch of unwanted species, “there is no clear evidence in terms of all the other indicators of ecosystem health” that catch shares are other than a “tool to generate more economic value to commercial fishing.”

A much better means of reducing fishing pressure are marine reserves. These are areas similar, in a sense, to terrestrial parks and world heritage areas that are protected from development. In Marine Protected Areas, as Stephen Palumbi of Stanford described, “several hundred studies show that biomass [of individual fish] tends to double” – and the bigger they are, the better. With small reserves, “eggs and larvae waft away, productivity leaks out and promotes [more] fishing.”

Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is showing an extraordinary range of benefits from a network of protected marine reserves introduced there five years ago. “Our data show rapid increases of fish inside no-take reserves, in both reef and non-reef habitats,” according to Professor Terry Hughes of James Cook University. Another Australian authority, Dr. Laurence McCook, said that “the reserves also benefit overall ecosystem health and resilience.” There is now talk of extending a no-take zone eastward into the Coral Sea.

To make a real difference, there’s a long way to go. Of 361 million square kilometers of ocean, Marine Protected Areas cover a mere one percent, and only .2% of that are no-take zones. The hope of the Pew Environment Group’s Global Green Legacy program is to vastly increase those numbers. They started looking at sites in 2007, many in relatively unspoiled areas and nations with an expressed interest in conservation. So far, most of the protected areas – such as the largest in Hawaii’s northwest Pacific region, established under President Bush – are isolated spots with little pre-existing human incursion. “We feel that, in the long run, ocean areas can be the same as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone,” said Jay Nelson of the Pew organization.


A related series of panels examined the rapidly-changing situation in the Arctic Ocean, where sea ice is retreating so fast that it may entirely disappear in the summer as early as 2016. This, of course, is attributable to global warming. Not only does this mean a radically altered habitat for species such as polar bears and gray whales which can no longer find enough food, but it portends huge changes in the “human landscape” as well.

“If the Northwest Passage opens up in the next ten years,” said Dr. Lloyd Axworthy, a former Canadian Minister of Parliament and today President of the University of Winnipeg, “We will have shortened the space by 7,000 kilometers between Asia and Europe. In the fragile Northern ecology, this could be a disaster.”

A disaster because a Wild West mentality among countries including the U.S., Canada and Russia is poised to develop resources that have been untapped for thousands of years. “We have a very short window to get ahead of industrial development,” said Lisa Speer of the Natural Resources Defense Council. “The existing regulatory structure was okay when everything was ice-covered. Now the area is increasingly crowded, and the question is how can we manage all the human activities?” These include oil-and-gas, transportation, mining, cable laying, fishing expansion northward, and the possibility of a new deep-water port in Alaska.

In 2008, U.S. sales of potential oil-and-gas leases in the region reached $2.7 billion. Canadian bids in the Beaufort Sea were record-breaking, and 14,000 exploratory wells are being considered in the Siberian basin. Daniel Pauly called this “a surreal situation,” since burning of fossil fuels is what’s caused this situation to exist, and he wondered whether there was any talk of a moratorium on oil-and-gas development in the Arctic. While agreeing that it’s “absolutely surreal,” Oran Young of U.C. Santa Barbara added that “there is no serious talk of a moratorium per se.”

What’s happening cries out for an international framework for “Arctic Marine Ecosystem-Based Management,” as set forth by the Oceans Program of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, but it’s moving much more slowly than the pace of development. “We need multi-sector Marine Protected Areas and to involve indigenous peoples in a more robust fashion,” as Lisa Speer put it. One hope is the Arctic Council, where the Inuit peoples who have lived in the north of Canada for 15,000 years are very much included. “This is the first multilateral institution where there are not just nation-states, and sovereignty is shared,” said Dr. Axworthy.

Yet, while a large part of legal precedent in previous U.S.-Canada disputes has hinged on the Inuit, they were not invited to a meeting of five Arctic coastal states that will be presenting proposals to the G-8 Summit next summer. “This is regression,” Axworthy added. “How do we break out of a boundary-based syndrome, toward a cooperative base? In today’s world, governance is inclusion of populations, corporations, universities – a network that is connected in a variety of ways. This is being most vividly tested in the Arctic, where the Arctic Council was set up to bring people together, not to establish individual bailiwicks.”

As Axworthy concluded, perhaps the billions watching the Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver might start having more awareness of global warming. “Wouldn’t you say we should re-name it the Spring Olympics, with sports like ski mushing, crosscountry slushing and bobsled gliding?” he wondered.

This much was abundantly clear at the science convention in San Diego: ways and means toward a more cooperative future not only exist but are being more widely discussed than ever before. The question is whether this new paradigm can transcend self-interest, while there’s still time.

Dick Russell