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

1998: Year of the Ocean

Air Date: Week of

In the "Year of the Ocean" President Clinton draws mild praise for his efforts to protect the marine environment. But some say they're just a small part of what's needed to shore up the nation's greatest natural resource. A lesson about the oceans for President Clinton and Vice President Gore came from explorer Dr. Sylvia Earle on the shores of California's Monterey Bay recently where the nation's top ocean experts gathered to brainstorm about protecting the marine environment. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick was there, and he tells Laura Knoy what happened.


EARLE: More of the United States is ocean than land. Consider the territory out 200 miles. So, Mr. President, Mr. Vice President, more of your constituents are fish than people. (Audience laughter)

KNOY: A lesson about the oceans for President Clinton and Vice President Gore. It came from explorer Sylvia Earle on the shores of California's Monterey Bay, where the nation's top ocean experts gathered recently to brainstorm about protecting the marine environment. Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick was there, and he joins us now to explain what happened. Hi, Terry.


KNOY: What did the environmentalists and marine scientists gathering in Monterey say? What were they trying to accomplish?

FITZPATRICK: Well, the United Nations has declared this the "Year of the Ocean," and for some time folks have complained that the oceans don't get nearly the attention we give to natural resources on land. So, they've been struggling to figure out how to change that. I think the most important thing that they've come to realize recently is that ocean protection groups have failed to unify into a cohesive political force, sort of an oceans movement that would make the oceans a national priority.

KNOY: There are lots of oceans groups out there already.

FITZPATRICK: Yes. Well-respected, well-funded. There's Save the Whales, Save the Bay and so on. But many observers think these groups haven't worked as closely with one another as they ought to. At least that's true in the past; I think that is beginning to change. And that change is an important development because there is an emerging sense now among scientists that all of these problems we read about in the oceans are actually closely-related themselves.

KNOY: How so?

FITZPATRICK: Well, scientists have begun to notice some fundamental changes in both the physical and the chemical makeup of the oceans. They say the fishing nets, for example, are literally destroying the ocean bottom, kind of like strip mining does on land. And they say that nitrogen pollution is changing the basic chemistry of the water, kind of like carbon dioxide in the air is causing climate change. In many cases, of course, this is happening out in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes it's happening at the microscopic level. But some scientists believe these changes are actually responsible for the problems that we do see. Here's how Dr. Jane Lubchenco, from Oregon State University, put it when she spoke in Monterey.

LUBCHENCO: The litany is large and growing. Harmful algal blooms, demise of fisheries, dead zones, loss of species, coral bleaching, mass mortalities of marine species ranging from whales to urchins. We have responded to each incident as an individual problem, isolated from the others. We have treated symptoms, not the underlying problems. The nation needs more ocean awareness, and a more comprehensive enlightened ocean policy.

KNOY: A comprehensive ocean policy. What does she mean by that, Terry?

FITZPATRICK: Well, there's a push right now in Congress to create a task force, a special task force that would conduct a sweeping assessment of the ocean health. And then do what's being called a stem to stern overhaul of the government's ocean policies. There was a commission like this about 30 years ago and that led to coastal protection laws and the creation of NOAA: the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The scientists and environmentalists say that the oceans are under assault right now, though, in ways that weren't true 3 decades ago. So it's time for another overhaul. There's a bill to create this task force in Congress right now; it's called the Oceans Act, but it's stalled in committee.

KNOY: Now, President Clinton got lots of visibility when he spoke in Monterey. Did he acknowledge the need for the task force?

FITZ PATRICK: He did. He stressed the importance of making ocean protection an apple pie cause.

CLINTON: Like every other great leap forward in environmentalism in the last 35 years, we have to make this an American issue that transcends party and other philosophical differences, that is at the core of our own humanity and our obligation to our children and our grandchildren.

FITZPATRICK: Despite the rhetoric, though, all the President could offer was a grab-bag of initiatives that seemed tailored to specific groups, instead of doing something comprehensive.

KNOY: What was in the grab-bag of initiatives?

FITZPATRICK: There were quite a few, actually. There was a 10-year extension on the ban on offshore oil drilling along most of the US coast, and the ban is made permanent inside marine sanctuaries. The President banned the sale or the import of undersized swordfish because their population has been collapsing. He announced a program to restore coral reefs and fund deep sea exploration. There's even a new Web site at the EPA to warn people when it's unsafe to swim at a particular beach or to eat fish from certain waterways.

KNOY: Was that enough, Terry, to satisfy the environmentalists at the conference?

FITZPATRICK: They were certainly pleased to see such high-level recognition, and there certainly was a collective sigh of relief that Mr. Clinton didn't show up in Monterey empty-handed. He had been warned against doing that. But many environmentalists feel that these Clinton initiatives are a mere drop in the ocean; that's the term they used. And some openly wondered if the Administration will really follow through. Jean Michel Cousteau, for example, told me the whole event reminded him of the Earth Summit in Rio a few years back, where there were also plenty of promises.

(Milling and music in the background)

COUSTEAU: I have concern, because I've seen it fail so often in the past. The Rio conference was a great, great expectation, and it hasn't really worked. There's been no follow-up. There were a lot of promises, and very few have been kept. And that's a big disappointment.

FITZPATRICK: Those disappointments are why environmentalists want this task force, which could get ocean protection beyond these periodic hand-outs from the White House at major events. You know, I think there's a feeling that America is on the cusp of a great awakening about the seas, and all sorts of organizations are trying right now to ensure that happens.

KNOY: Okay, Terry. Thanks a lot for talking with us.

FITZ PATRICK: My pleasure.

KNOY: Living on Earth's Terry FitzPatrick joining us a couple of hours drive from the beach at our Northwest Bureau in Seattle.



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