Sea Change

How to Save the Oceans

Smoke billows from a controlled burn of spilled oil off the Louisiana coast in the Gulf of Mexico, June 13, 2010. (Sean Gardner / Courtesy Reuters)

The oceans of studies on dying seas have done nothing to stop their devastation. In a 2011 report, the Oxford-based International Program on the State of the Ocean wrote that the planet faced “losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, within a single generation.” Last month, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reported that the effects of human-induced climate change are already far-reaching. It also singled out ocean acidification. As the oceans absorb higher levels of carbon, the more acidic water threatens coral reefs, shellfish, and other marine life.

The experts only confirm what people around the world see every day: marshland, once teeming with wildlife, paved over; subsistence fishermen in poor countries driven from the ocean by industrial fishing; recreational fishermen chasing fewer and smaller fish farther out to sea; surfers getting hepatitis shots before entering sewage-contaminated waters; families on vacation snorkeling through coral bone-yards. In the Chesapeake Bay, the United States’ largest estuary, harvests of native oysters have fallen to less than one percent of historic levels due to the combined effects of overfishing, disease, and habitat destruction.

There is no shortage of international recommendations, action plans, and other prescriptions for restoring the oceans’ health. The 1982 United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, the 1992 Rio Earth Summit, the 2002 Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development, and the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (Rio+20) all put forward different ways to protect the oceans from pollution and overfishing, preserve biological diversity, and help developing countries build the scientific and institutional capacities to run effective conservation and management programs of their own. The calls for action have brought some victories, such as international rules limiting what oil tankers discharge into the sea, a global ban on the disposal of nuclear waste into the ocean, and the creation of marine reserves, or protected areas of the ocean. But as much as these measures helped, they have not eliminated all the other threats to the seas.

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