Is it really possible that the planet’s blue space is at risk of being completely consumed and abused?
Given the gusher in the Gulf (86 days and counting) it is easy to imagine man having nothing but negative impact on the world’s ocean. But with 72 percent of the planet covered by salt water is it really possible that our one big ocean could truly be at risk of what some have dubbed “ocean sprawl?”
I’d like to say no, that the ocean is simply too big, that while the its fringes may suffer from man’s flagrant contempt, won’t the bulk of it be protected simply by its its depths, its enormity, its far-awayness?
Then I remind myself just how rapacious we have proven as a species.
Man’s heavy footprint on the ocean came to me the other day flying low in a helicopter south of Port Fouchon, Louisiana, headquarters of the state’s $70 billion a year oil industry. Below, everywhere I looked were scattered oilrigs, shrimpers, tankers, small fishing boats, floating docks and barges, stretching for many miles away from the coastline.
Let’s not be fooled by current events though; it is hardly just the oil industry that is threatening Planet Ocean.
Oil and natural gas are obvious villains, in part due to the BP spill, but also the infrastructure that accompanies it, giant physical rigs and infrastructure carrying resources from seabed to shore.
But we use – and abuse — the ocean in hundreds of ways, from fishing to generating electricity, from tourism to military protection. Shipping lanes collide with the migration routes of endangered whales. Fish farming booms while climate change alters ocean chemistry. Power lines, reefs, lobster traps and sunken ships compete for seafloor space. New energy sources including wave generated power and offshore wind turbines each eat up space. Every year coastal development destroys 20,000 acres of estuaries and near-coast fish habitat (Louisiana’s coastline alone loses 25 square miles a year, a football field every half hour). Urban waste runs-off into the ocean, so do millions of gallons of pesticides from farm fields. Plastics and cigarette butts are the most common types of ocean litter. And then there are those damn oil spills.
It is the cumulative impact that is most worrying. Is the ocean’s future to become some kind of watery version of Houston – paved over, horribly polluted, with no zoning, no controls.
Around the globe three billion people live within an hour of the ocean. In the U.S. the ocean that surrounds creates more than two million jobs and more than $128 billion in gross domestic product each year. One impediment to taking care of and monitoring man’s impact is because there is no one agency or policy controlling it. In the U.S. more than 140 laws are administered by six different federal departments and twenty different agencies, each operating under conflicting mandates and often failing to coordinate with one another in their efforts to “look after” our ocean and coastlines.
Within months of taking office President Obama set up a first-of-its-kind task force to put together a federal plan for the ocean and coastlines. He stocked it with some of the best and the brightest drawn from the marine biology world. Since issuing an interim report ninety days after it was first set up the task force has been largely on hold as the same team has devoted itself to the Gulf of Mexico oil gusher.
For all those good intentions, which I hope arrive at some kind of national Ocean Policy, ever since man started using the ocean – to explore, to open trade routes, for resources – he has approached the ocean with a single mindset: Out of sight, out of mind.
It is in part the ocean’s very vastness and seeming toughness that has allowed us to continue to abuse it.
That has to change, for the ocean’s sake, for our sake.