On April 23, 2012, Dr. Stephen M. Coan delivered remarks entitled “The Future of Our Ocean”, part of the Open VISIONS Forum Lecture Series and presented at the Regina A. Quick Center for the Arts, Fairfield University, Fairfield, Conn. Following is the text of his speech.
Water sustains life on Earth, and the health of our oceans, lakes, rivers, streams and marshlands, which cover 70% of the planet’s surface, is critically important to global economic and human health. Imagine this vast environment and what it could mean for us if we were able to better harvest food, energy, drugs for our health and perhaps even places to live for our growing world population.
The Three Commissions
Three major commissions have convened in modern U.S. History with the intention of informing a cohesive ocean policy for our nation. The recommendations of the 1969 Stratton Commission, our nation’s first ocean policy review, laid the foundation for our principal laws concerning protection of our coastal zones, endangered marine mammals, ocean waters, and fisheries. To ensure the “full and wise use of the marine environment,” Stratton focused on oceans as a frontier with vast resources, and advanced policies to coordinate their development.
The 2003 Pew Oceans Commission report recognized that “We have reached a crossroads where the cumulative effect of what we take from, and put into, the ocean substantially reduces the ability of marine ecosystems to produce the economic and ecological goods and services that we desire and need. What we once considered inexhaustible and resilient is, in fact, finite and fragile.” The Pew report authors advocated a fundamental change in our nation’s posture toward its oceans and outlined a national agenda for protecting and restoring them.
Spurred by the nation’s need for a comprehensive national ocean policy, the 2004 U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy developed far-reaching recommendations to protect the marine environment as well as create jobs, increase revenues, enhance security, protect cultural heritage, expand trade, and ensure ample supplies of energy, minerals, healthy food, and life-saving drugs.
President Nixon accepted many of the recommendations of the Stratton Commission and created the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 40 years ago. But President Nixon rejected the recommendation that the agency be housed in the U.S. Department of Interior where the U.S. Geological Survey is located, in favor of the U.S. Department of Commerce which handles international trade and commerce issues. The reason, confirmed recent by historical research, was that Wally Hickle, Secretary of the Interior, who had written a letter to Nixon that became public, urging him to “listen to the youth” on the War in Vietnam.
The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration has limited authority as a regulatory or enforcement agency. Moreover, NOAA is overwhelmed on the “ocean” side by its weather service activities and focus. Many joke and congressmen prod, “Where is the ocean in NOAA?!”
Other agencies that deal with ocean issues include: the US Coast Guard, the US Navy, the Office of Naval Research, the National Science Foundation, the EPA, the US Department of Transportation and the US Department of Agriculture.
Certainly there is broad recognition that the United States has a strong military interest in the oceans. Interestingly, in addition to the Navy, we have some of the largest non-defense naval fleets in the world including Coast Guard, NOAA which has a uniformed branch called, NOAA CORE, and other operations like the U.S. Geological Survey.
Apart from military interests, there are five broad areas that are key to U.S. interest in the oceans and that largely shape our understanding of how we interact with and care for our ocean environment. These include Marine Protected Areas, Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning, Fisheries Management, Definition of National and International Waters and the Law of the Sea, Deep Ocean Exploration and Management, and Ocean Education.
Marine Protected Areas
National parks helps us pause and reflect on why forests, mountains, canyons or the animals that live there are important. We understand and revel in the inherent beauty and majesty of nature in these priceless protected areas. Most people who talk about oceans in a holistic way agree we should also be setting aside large swaths of ocean environment, particularly areas that have unique biodiversity and geologic features, as marine protected areas. Unlike a national park, however, MPAs often include a variety of commercial and recreational uses. They are not off limits as such, but rather designated places in the ocean that we seek to preserve and better understand. By doing this we establish, if nothing else, a place holder in the oceans, a stake in the ground indicating “the ocean is worth something to us.”
First defined on a national level by Executive Order 13158, signed in May 2000, MPAs span a range of habitats including the open ocean, coastal areas, inter-tidal zones, estuaries, and the Great Lakes. The U.S. has more than 1700 MPAs—including 15 national marine sanctuaries— which cover more than 41% of U.S. marine waters, and vary widely in purpose, legal authorities, managing agencies, management approaches, level of protection and restrictions on human uses.
The framework for a National System of Marine Protected Areas, completed in November 2008, outlines comprehensive national goals—to advance conservation and management of the nation’s natural and cultural heritage, as well as our renewable living resources and their habitats. The framework also addresses:
• MPA eligibility, design and implementation criteria;
• Mechanisms for national, regional and international coordination; and
• Support for improved MPA science, stewardship and effectiveness.
Tremendous debate continues, however, over how to protect marine mammals, often hit by ships going in and out of MPAs; and the extent to which oil drilling and fishing in protected areas and sanctuaries should be permitted. These are frustrating issues for everyone involved, all of whom have valid concerns and legitimate needs relative to using these areas. At least the framework for MPAs has brought about discussion and in many cases resolution that would not otherwise exist. It seems to me we should be talking a lot more about what we want our coast and offshore waters to look like in 25 or 30 years. MPAs are intended for that very purpose.
Significantly, Connecticut Senator
Richard Blumenthal has called for designating Long Island Sound as a Marine Protected Area. Often, areas that are fragile ecosystems qualify. Long Island Sound would be unique because of the sheer volume of commercial and recreational activity taking place on it.
Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning
Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning (CMSP), similar to land use planning has emerged in recent year with the advent of Geographic Information System mapping tools which make it easier to track and analyze complex data sets. In July, 2010, President Obama signed an executive order establishing a National Policy for the Stewardship of the Ocean, Our Coasts, and the Great Lakes. The policy included 9 key objectives including CMSPs. The CMSP framework:
• Establishes a new approach to how we use and protect the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes to decrease user conflicts, improve planning and regulatory efficiencies and decrease costs and delays, and preserve critical ecosystem services;
• Moves away from sector-by-sector and statute-by-statute decision-making;
• Brings federal, state, and tribal partners together to jointly plan for the future of the ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes; and
• Emphasizes stakeholder and public participation.
CMSP is intended to consider the ecosystem as a whole and establishes science as the basis for decision-making about where to locate certain activities. As with land based planning, however, debates often emerge about the accuracy of the science, and the best uses of the shoreline and waterways. Simply put, people who have houses on the shoreline that are in danger of being washed away probably don’t want to hear that rebuilding is not an option. Likewise, shipping interests that are told that their routes interfere with a certain fish hatchery don’t always readily accept the need to incur additional expenses to re-route.
However, Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning is bringing more data to the table and a better understanding of the totality of water habitats and how we interact with them.
Fisheries management policy is among the most contentious of all, and concerns how much fish one person or boat should be allowed to take at any one time or in any one area. Fishing, like farming and hunting, is as old as humankind. Food from the sea represents about 15.7 percent of the global population’s intake of animal protein and 6.1 percent of all protein consumed by humans; it’s a key source of food for the world, not a luxury. Yet key species have been overfished and are nearing extinction; trawling destroys habitats; and massive factory fishing vessels—which stay out to sea for months at a time to catch, process and freeze fish—deplete whole regions of the ocean far quicker than would any fishing fleet from a town like Stonington, Connecticut or Gloucester, Massachusetts.
When the Stratton Commission report was released in 1969, U.S. marine fisheries were largely unregulated; coastal states had primary responsibility for fishery management; and Japan, Spain, and the Soviet Union dominated harvests just outside the 3 nautical mile limit of our territorial waters. The Stratton Commission predicted that enhanced technology and intensified exploitation of new species could eventually increase worldwide landings from 60 million metric tons in 1966 to 440–550 million tons. However, fish landings were already at or near their peak in the late 1960s and subsequently began to collapse.
In 1976, Congress approved the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to manage and assert U.S. control over fishery resources within 200 nautical miles of the coast. Eight Regional Fishery Management Councils were created to develop and manage fisheries in federal waters, and new technologies and economic incentives led to an unprecedented and unforeseen expansion of U.S. commercial fishing prowess, as well as unsustainable harvest levels, and the collapse or near-collapse of several important fisheries.
Scientists urged harvest reductions but fishermen resisted and raised doubts about scientists’ findings. The councils often supported the fishermen despite declining stocks in most regions.
Increased litigation, crisis-driven decision making, management through court orders, and congressional intervention marked the 1990s. By 2002, more than 110 lawsuits had been filed against NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service. Meanwhile some fishing stocks began to recover in the ‘90s, including Atlantic striped bass, New England ground fish species, and summer flounder stocks in the Mid-Atlantic.
A 2002 study by the National Academy of Public Administration concluded that the U.S. fishery management system was in disarray and recommended that the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy explore the need for major changes. Accordingly, the 2004 commission stated that “Accurate, reliable science is critical to the successful management of fisheries.” Among its many key points, the commission recommended that each regional council should:
• Rely on and incorporate their Scientific and Statistical Committees’ (or “SSCs”) findings into their decision making process; and
• Set harvest limits at or below their recommended allowable biological catch.
The commission also outlined a process for independent review of the scientific information relied on by the SSCs; and urged NOAA to create an expanded, regionally-based cooperative research program that coordinates and funds collaborative projects between scientists and commercial, tribal, and recreational fishermen.
Today, fishing regulation remains complicated, costly and heart wrenching because it often impacts individual fishermen more than anyone else. One solution is to promote environmentally-safe technology for farming of fish and seafood. This represents an essential way to rebuild economies of many areas of our coastal and riverfront communities that have been devastated by the shutdown of traditional fishing.
Our nation should be exporting fish as a major food product for the world. We should also be teaching developing nations how to utilize technology to create food sources for their people that are sustainable. As the old saying goes “Give someone a fish, they eat for a day. Teach them to fish, they eat for a lifetime.” But if you teach someone to raise fish, their community eats for a lifetime, and you’ve solved a lot of their nutritional problems. Unfortunately, this has not been an area where we as a nation have invested in significant research and development.
National vs. International Waters
The issue around fishing begs the question, how do we define sovereign waters of one country verses another? In 1793, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson informed Britain and France, that the United States officially
claimed authority to a 3 nautical mile territorial sea. In 1945, President Truman issued a proclamation asserting control over the natural resources of the continental shelf beneath the high seas adjacent to our territorial waters. In 1977, the Magnuson–Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act extended American fisheries jurisdiction from 12 to 200 nautical miles, an expansion in area roughly equal to the size of the continental United States. In 1983, President Reagan declared a 200 nautical mile exclusive economic zone (EEZ), to govern access to all ocean and continental shelf resources. And, finally, in 1988, the United States officially extended its territorial sea from 3 to 12 nautical miles.
Currently the question of national versus international waters affects our relationship with Canada. Our countries get along well on almost every issue, but when it comes to fishing rights the gloves come off—as indicated by the US government’s March 2012 suspension of a 31-year old agreement that allowed Canadian vessels to fish for tuna in American waters.
Russia, Canada and the US are also all vying for rights to various parts of the Arctic Ocean. In 2007, Russian explorers even dove below the North Pole in a submersible to plant their national flag on the seabed, in an area claimed by Canada. I have to say, it’s not clear if the flag is visible from the governor’s mansion or not. In any event, as climate change melts Arctic ice and frees up access to untapped oil and natural gas reserves, tensions and territory disputes in the region will escalate.
Law of the Sea
In 1958, countries began negotiating an international law of the sea agreement on issues such as freedom of navigation, fisheries jurisdiction, continental shelf resources, and the width of the territorial sea. By 1973, negotiations included provisions to regulate deep seabed mineral mining in areas outside the jurisdiction of any country.
When the Law of the Sea negotiations concluded in 1982, the U.S. was one of four countries to vote against the treaty. The Reagan administration, with support from Congress, argued that the deep seabed was a frontier area, and exploration and exploitation should be allowed without restriction. However, President Reagan also issued a statement declaring that the U.S. would accept and act in accordance with the Law of the Sea, except with regard to the deep seabed mining provisions. The treaty was officially modified in 1994 to address U.S. concerns.
In 2004 all 19 members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted unanimously in favor of the treaty. Although not a single Senator abstained or voted against it, then Majority Leader Frist never brought it to the floor for a vote.
In May 2007, President Bush urged the Senate to approve the Law of the Sea because joining “will serve the national security interests of the United States, including the maritime mobility of our armed forces worldwide. It will secure U.S. sovereign rights over extensive marine areas, including the valuable natural resources they contain. Accession will promote U.S. interests in the environmental health of the oceans. And it will give the United States a seat at the table when the rights that are vital to our interests are debated and interpreted.”
At the time and since then hundreds of top government and military officials, scientists, environmental groups, educators and other leading experts have also urged acceptance of the treaty but to no avail. Even though the U.S. has been in voluntary compliance with it, opponents fear ceding authority to an international governing body. Yet signing it would protect U.S. waters, legitimize our nation’s claims to disputed waters and allow enforcement of measures to protect iconic undersea treasures like Titanic. Accepting the treaty would also help reduce tensions with regard to how we define international and national waters and elevate our stature when it comes time to negotiate the inevitable wrangling over rights and protection of Arctic waters and resources.
Deep Sea Environments
One thing is certain, however we define international waters and apply the Law of the Sea, we know little of what goes on in our oceans. My colleague, Dr. Robert Ballard, who has explored more deep sea than any human dead or living will tell you, “We know more about the surface of Mars than we do about our own oceans, 90% of which are unexplored.”
Exploring the oceans should be a top priority for our nation. From a military/defense perspective, it’s essential we utilize oceans to protect ourselves, yet we do not have accurate or even preliminary maps of much of the ocean floor. What exists down there holds the key to so much of what happens on Earth. There are solutions to some of our most vexing medical issues. There are life forms and habitats we’ve probably never contemplated. For example, Dr. Ballard and his team discovered hydrothermal vents which support life through chemosynthesis—clam and crab-like creatures carry on in anoxic environments, existing as a result of a food chain dependency on chemical interactions, but without sun, air or any other element we normally associate with life.
During the cold war years of the ‘60s and ‘70s, significant federal investments by the Navy and National Science Foundation helped scientists promote the U.S. economy and security by supporting research on the fundamental physical, chemical, biological, and geological properties of the oceans. During that period, funding for ocean-related research constituted 7 percent of the federal research budget. Since then, funding for oceanography has stagnated, a short-sited policy which ill serves our nation’s need to understand and protect our ocean assets.
Despite that, two ships of exploration currently operate in the world, dedicated solely to traversing the ocean and uncovering natural phenomenon and sunken remnants of human history. One is the Okeanos Explorer, a NOAA vessel, whose fate is uncertain because NOAA is cutting much of its ocean related funding to pay for replacement of weather satellites that are near the end of their lifespan. The other ship is the E/V Nautilus, operated by Dr. Ballard and his Ocean Exploration Trust in collaboration with Sea Research Foundation. This extensively equipped ship has operated in the Black, Mediterranean and Aegean seas since 2009, and will make its way to the Caribbean and North Sea regions in the next two years. The E/V Nautilus has remote operating vehicles—or ROVs—capable of transmitting high-definition imagery. One even has manipulative arms that can transmit feeling back to the operator so they can get a sense of touch.
Ocean Science Education
As much as our oceans are unexplored, they are not part of our K-12 education system either. Did you know that there is no mention of oceans in existing national science standards? This is a sad indication of how little our society knows or perhaps cares about the ocean environment.
As far back as 1929, the National Research Council emphasized that advances in ocean knowledge would depend on an ocean-related workforce sufficient in size and ability, with ample educational opportunities at its disposal. Today, several ocean-related federal agencies—including NOAA, the U.S. Navy, NASA, the EPA, the National Park System and National Science Foundation—reach out to students, teachers, and the public to inform them about ocean issues. Yet there remains no coordinated, national effort to include ocean science in K-12 grade education.
The oceans have particular resonance with kids, and Sea Research Foundation feeds their curiosity and yearning . A platform for lifelong learning, every E/V Nautilus expedition encompasses broad-scale outreach, internships and on-the-job-training. The JASON Project, our formal K-12 STEM education program, features virtual field trips and over-the-shoulder views of real-time discoveries, as well as teacher and professional development, in-school learning tools and a comprehensive after-school program for Boys & Girls clubs and 4H Clubs. These efforts reach 2 million kids a year in 15 countries (170 per Eleanor?) and every state including Connecticut.
In the past 20 years, we’ve seen a tremendous number of students who’ve participated in JASON pursue Ph.D. programs and careers in marine science. But mostly we’ve seen kids otherwise turned off by school, science or math get excited because we take them to places no one has ever seen before and help them envision the relevance of studying to their own future and the future of our world.
I want to conclude by saying a word about conservation.
Landmark laws such as the Clean Water Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act have played a crucial role in reversing some of our nation’s most egregious conservation failings. For decades, for example, the Charles River—subject of the famous song “Love That Dirty Water”—carried sewage into Boston Harbor as did many catch basins of the area. Beaches were contaminated and water consumption exceeded the capacity of existing reservoirs and supplies. But over a 20-year period, court-ordered actions led to vast improvement. These steps included aggressive enforcement of the Clean Water Act; actions to reduce water consumption and sewage discharge; reconstruction of a major urban sewage system, including cleansing sewage; and designation of marine protected areas outside Boston Harbor.
Today, the Charles River is nearly pristine, the beaches are open, and harbor islands that were once abandoned or used as garbage dumps are now part of a national park system. Fishing stocks are rebounding on George’s Bank and existing reservoirs are meeting water demand.
The Charles River is a shining example of how good conservation law and determined efforts can empower massive change for the better. Now imagine the good we could do if we only had a cohesive, coordinated national ocean policy based on a conservation ethic.
The Restore Act, currently before the U.S. Congress would turn the recent BP Deepwater Horizon disaster into a transformational moment for U.S. ocean policy. The Restore Act would return 80% of the fines paid to the federal government to Louisiana for the purpose of rebuilding its coastlines but more importantly for activities like establishing research centers on water quality and usage and educational outreach efforts to help young people and the general public better understand their own dependency on the Gulf’s complex ecosystem.
Conservation is the underlying message of everything I have said today. Conservation is neither liberal nor conservative. So why is it that we as a nation cannot endorse, embrace and move forward with an ocean policy that makes important investments in our own future and protects our most vital resources, especially now when there is every scientific indication that our ocean planet is under siege and faltering?
I don’t have a ready answer for that but you can be sure Sea Research Foundation works endlessly to inspire a new generation of leaders who take the ocean seriously and see in its depths the present and the future for themselves, their descendants and the world.
One by one we turn kids on to the oceans’ wonders. Image by image we illuminate understanding about the ocean depths. Animal by animal we capture our visitors’ hearts and imaginations at Mystic Aquarium, and help them appreciate the oceans’ importance and mystery.
I have great hope that in the near future we will adopt the recommendations of the commissions and make our oceans a national priority. I urge each of you to join me and do your part to secure a healthy ocean planet for generations to come. In the words of John F. Kennedy:
“All of us have in our veins the exact same percentage of salt in our blood that exists in the ocean, and, therefore, we have salt in our blood, in our sweat, in our tears. We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea— whether it is to sail or to watch it—we are going back from whence we came.” Speech given at Newport at the dinner before the America's Cup Races, September 1962.