What Future for the Oceans?


Oceans, which move in deep connected currents over nearly three- quarters of the globe, have historically been slow to exhibit change. Altered oceanic conditions have often been measured in centuries, not decades. More recently, however, oceans have begun to undergo an accelerated transformation that has caught most people, even in this scientific age, unaware and unprepared.

Some changes hold particular dangers for those who live within 50 miles of a coastline-already nearly two-thirds of the world's population and expected to reach three-quarters by 2025. Other changes, if unchecked, could adversely affect all human and animal life on the planet. Among the most problematic of these developments are rising temperatures and water levels, unprecedented damage to coral reefs, disappearing salt-marsh and mangrove swamps, a sharp decline in fish stocks, and rising levels of pollution.

Thirty years ago the international community was just beginning to worry about the dual effects of technological change and population growth on the biosphere. Oceans were on the agenda at the 1972 UN Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm. At that time, however, a growing dispute over restrictions on free navigation and ownership of the oceans' resources was already stalling progress and cooperation. It took another ten years for the countries of the world to arrive at the 1982 UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, which enshrined both the principles of a global approach to ocean problems and the rights to oceanic resources in nothing less than a "constitution for the oceans." The convention's interactive set of commitments holds benefits for and is binding on all of the 142 countries-plus the European Union-that have since ratified it. Yet in spite of this international pledge to the oceans' future, today there is growing cause for concern.

Both the adverse trends and the potential of newly discovered resources have received scant public note and, until recently, woefully insufficient attention from U.S. policymakers. In fact, the United States and Canada, alone among the major industrialized and coastal states, have

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