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Oceans could use help

Alan Braunholtz

Shocked at all the garbage he saw on the beaches of Caribbean islands, a friend started to go off about the lack of care and appreciation for natural beauty. A local pointed out that he was right to be upset at this pollution, but it mostly came from cruise ships like his, which dump sewage and garbage overboard.Public pressure and activism can work. Oceana highlighted Royal Caribbean’s sewage practices and the publicity got the company to commit to installing advanced wastewater treatment technology on all 29 ships by 2008. Sen. Dick Durbin introduced the Clean Cruise Ship Act, which should establish clear and reasonable environmental standards to an industry that has abused its largely unregulated status. It’s an election year, so this could pass. Who wants to be for raw sewage?The cruise industry is one small example of our free-for-all in the oceans. “Free” here gives the strong players (industrial fleets) the freedom to abuse the weak (subsistence and local fishermen). Not to mention the havoc wreaked on sea turtles, whales, coral reefs, etc. A new report from the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy backs up last year’s Pew Oceans Commission. Our seas are in deep trouble.I don’t know why I care so much about the seas. Like the mountains, there is some mystery and constant hum of a power beyond ours. They’re places we’re not meant to be. We can visit for awhile, but our place is far away in a pleasant meadow gathered around a communal fire. Nowadays, it’s probably alone on a couch in front of a TV in an endless suburb. The seas are more inaccessible than mountains, and few people venture farther than the boundary of the beach. Fewer still visit the world beneath, the oceans. It wasn’t even possible before the invention of the aqualung 50 years ago. For most of us, it’s an “out of sight out of mind” deal.Overfishing is probably the biggest threat. We can now fish anywhere and for anything. There are no natural safe harbors left for the oceans’ fish. Blue fin tuna are impressive animals, capable of speeds up to 50 mph. Nothing in the sea can catch them at that speed except us. With spotter planes, high-tech boats and Japan’s insatiable demand for blue fin, we’re driving them to extinction. Their only hope is to make it onto the CITEs list that bans all trade until they can recover. There’s so much money involved that this won’t happen. Oh well, another awe-inspiring animal to tell your grandchildren about in the dead spaces of a museum.Europe’s pushed its surface stocks to the limit. Cod, mackerel and herring are all touch and go, or gone. Now their commercial trawlers go for deep fish, and these we really know nothing about since no one’s been down there. New Zealand found large stocks of orange roughy at depths up to 1,500 meters. What people didn’t know is that they grow slowly in the cold and dark. Orange roughy only sexually mature at 30 years and live to 150. Harvest too many too soon, and there is no next generation.Trawlers target rocky mounts in the sea floor. They protect their nets with heavy metal balls that drag along the bottom. This Hoovers up everything and flattens the seabed. It’s the farming equivalent of bringing in a cow by blindly bulldozing every animal, plant and building into a pen, then picking out the cow. The catching and throwing away of non-targeted fish is known as “by catch” and is incredibly wasteful. Over a third of everything caught is thrown back into the sea dead or dying. Shrimping is especially bad. For every pound of shrimp, 15 pounds of fish are wasted as “by catch.” Subsidized commercial fleets are devastating to small local fishermen. The trawling takes all the fish and destroys the ocean floor habitat, so recovery is slow if at all.We’ve only explored 2 percent of the deep oceans and we could lose the other 98 percent before we even know what is down there. That’s a moral crime against nature and the resources of future humans. Sponges are immobile animals that protect their space with chemicals. These chemicals look promising in research to stop cancer cells from growing. Bio-diversity is an irreplaceable resource that shouldn’t be lost to a trawl net’s crushing bar.Reef fishing using explosives or cyanide is a destructive, non-sustainable technique. Explosive damage is obvious, but cyanide kills the coral and mortally damages the fish. If your latest exotic aquarium fish only lasted a week or two, it’s worth asking the shop about whom they import from. Some are good and refuse to buy from suppliers known to use cyanide. They know as the mortality rate is so high. Others don’t care. If they sell them quickly enough, they make more sales. In southeastern Asia 80 percent of the reefs are dead or dying.Only 1/10,000 of our oceans are totally protected from fishing. When marine reserves are created, they teem with fish and overflow out into the surrounding seas. In New Zealand 5 kilometers of reserve produces the same amount of lobster as 100 kilometers of unprotected sea. They’re like deposits in a high yield account with the interest flowing out into the seas for everyone’s benefit. Protecting 10 20 percent of our oceans with particular attention to migration routes and spawning grounds could make the seas bountiful again.It’ll take public pressure and international dialog and cooperation – not our strong suit at the moment. But we’ve done it before. After Greenpeace and others highlighted the plight of the whales, the world collectively saved them from extinction in the 1970s. Election years are good for politicians hearing. Try contacting a few to ask them to support the Clean Cruise Ship Act and see if they’re planning to support the findings of the Pew and U.S. commissions on ocean policy. The seas need some help.Alan Braunholtz of Vail, Colorado, writes a weekly column for the Daily.


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