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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Ocean Health

Air Date: Week of

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CURWOOD: A few months before leaving office, Bill Clinton created the new Federal Oceans Commission. Its mandate: Take a comprehensive look at improving America's marine and coastal policies. Commentator David Helvarg wonders how far it will get.

HELVARG: In 1890 the Census Bureau declared the American frontier closed. Almost 100 years later Ronald Reagan, in a significant but little-noted act, gave us a new frontier, declaring a 200-mile exclusive economic zone around America's coastlines. The zone is six times the size of the Louisiana Purchase, 30 percent larger than the continental United States. The new Federal Oceans Commission could help us better manage and protect this blue frontier, but the signs aren't hopeful.

Big oil, along with the Navy, oppose the very idea of this new commission. After three years of delay Congress reached a compromise. This will allow the Bush White House and the Republican majority on the hill to name 12 of the 16 commissioners. Whoever sits on the commission, set to be finalized this April, will face huge challenges. Our oceans are seeing the collapse of coral reefs, sea grass meadows, mangroves, and estuaries. About half our commercial fish species are being caught faster than they can reproduce. Harmful algal blooms and dead zones are being fed by nutrient runoff from factory farms and cities. Storm damage linked to climate change is increasing. And shorefront development is booming.

Today 17 of the nation's 20 fastest growing counties are coastal, and climatologists I've talked to are literally betting when the big one, a $100 billion city buster, will hit. We've seen this madness before on our last frontier. Instead of buffalo hunters emptying the plains, we now have giant factory trawlers over-harvesting our seas. In place of the seventh cavalry seizing Indian lands for gold miners, we have the Army Corps of Engineers allowing developers to fill in coastal wetlands in order to build more high-priced gold coasts. And where once a corrupt Congress sold off the public lands to the railroad trusts for pennies on the dollar, today's federal government holds fire sales for offshore oil and gas leases.

Fortunately, along with the slow biological collapse of our seas, there are also signs and centers of hope. The American people have begun not a grassroots but a seaweed rebellion, restoring coastal communities and taking on greater responsibility for maintaining our offshore waters and marine sanctuaries. We can also make sure the new Oceans Commission does right by our living seas, or else gets the sharp end of the gaffe.

Those of us drawn to the sea know that our blue frontier remains full of strange wonders that may thrill generations yet unborn, with waves that call to be ridden, winds made to snap a sail, shells newly tossed upon the shore, sunsets not to be believed. Despite all the problems and challenges we face, this is still enough to give one hope. After all, it's not every great nation, forged by its earliest frontier experiences, that gets a second chance on a wild new frontier.



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