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.

The problem is not ignorance but political will. At the most basic level, governments and industries are simply not doing enough of the right things. The situation is especially dire in poor countries, which have fewer assets for managing and protecting marine resources. Even wealthy countries, such as the United States, which has made admirable progress in reducing air pollution, providing safe drinking water, and managing hazardous waste, continue to struggle to stem the flow of pollutants into the ocean. Diminished trust in public institutions and the political process makes agreement on even the simplest solutions more difficult. But the longer government and society delay effective action, the worse things get. 


Only a small number of people ever see our planet’s vast underwater reaches. And that is why, although few would tolerate bulldozing the California redwoods or Madagascar’s baobab, industrial fishing fleets get away with destroying underwater Edens. But the seas’ destruction is much more than an aesthetic problem: the oceans’ economic role is also at stake. Healthy seas provide food, jobs, health, and recreation for countless people. They are also a potential source of clean energy, new medicines, and cures for diseases.

Closer to shore, one of the ocean’s best defenses needs protecting of its own: coastal marshes. These serve as feeding grounds for fish and wildlife, filter out pollutants, and shield coasts from storms. But marshes are disappearing at an alarming rate because of commercial and residential sprawl, which far exceeds actual population growth in many coastal areas of the United States. Unlike the silent devastation of coral and other marine life in the middle of the ocean thousands of feet below the surface, the destruction of coasts is highly visible, and the political, social, and economic forces contributing to their demise are well understood.

But even environmental disasters at sea haven’t caused enough outrage to change the status quo. The BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010, one of the worst environmental catastrophes in U.S. history, has long receded from Americans’ national consciousness despite its enormous human, environmental, and economic costs. For 88 days, more than 200 million gallons of oil spilled into the Gulf of Mexico, polluting the coastlines of Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, and Texas. The cleanup bill -- to restore marine and wildlife habitats and revive the fishing and tourism industries -- cost tens of billions of dollars and is still rising. New studies have linked the spill to heart defects in young bluefin tuna and lung disease in bottlenose dolphins in the Gulf.

A big reason society accepts such costly destruction is the steady erosion of collective standards and expectations about how to care for and protect the environment. In 1995, the marine scientist Daniel Pauly called this phenomenon “shifting baselines.” As the oceans decline, what should be cause for alarm is now accepted as normal. People visit degraded coastal environments and call them beautiful, not knowing what they used to look like. In the United States, for example, we have settled into a comfortable zone where the disappearance of wetlands on the lower Mississippi and poor water quality on many coasts are not remarked on -- let alone considered a national disgrace.


The rebirth of the seas will require large doses of education to dispel the myth of an ocean with an endless bounty and an unlimited capacity to assimilate waste safely: an ocean too big to fail. People must believe that the stakes are high and that the consequences of a failed ocean are unacceptable. Increased awareness about the costs of the oceans’ degradation has come from the grass roots: individuals and citizen groups educating the public, organizing community action, encouraging better consumer choices, and holding elected officials accountable. The rebirth of the seas cannot, however, rely on these efforts alone.

Government leaders are in a unique position to seize the bully pulpit. In the United States, successes under both Republican and Democratic administrations are reminders of what is possible. Russell Train, chairman of U.S. President Richard Nixon’s Council on Environmental Quality, led efforts to secure an international agreement on prohibiting the dumping of toxic waste into the ocean at the 1972 United Nations Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm. In 1977, U.S. President Jimmy Carter, responding to a series of tanker accidents off U.S. shores, called for a major international treaty on tanker safety and pollution prevention. Eleven months later, industries and most maritime countries backed two major international agreements: the MARPOL Protocol to prevent pollution from ships and the SOLAS Protocol for the safety of life at sea. Steady U.S. leadership contributed to the adoption in 1993 of a global ban on dumping radioactive waste into the ocean. In 2006, U.S. President George W. Bush established the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument, the world’s largest ocean preserve.

Where government goes, the private sector can follow. Some businesses, nongovernmental organizations, and research institutions have brought the message of ocean health home to more and more people by educating consumers about such things as sustainable fisheries and the health dangers of industrial chemicals. Through a $53 million grant from Bloomberg Philanthropies, two environmental organizations and an investment firm recently joined forces to revitalize fishing off the coasts of Brazil, the Philippines, and Chile. In the United States, one of those organizations, Oceana, is also working with the energy industry and Congress to expand offshore wind production.

But these are, by and large, the exceptions. Too often, government and industry have failed in their duty to safeguard the seas. The National Commission on the BP Deepwater Horizon spill concluded that “systematic failures in both industry practices and government policies” led to the spill. For years, the United States and other countries often stretched the definition of freedom of navigation -- a crucial principle of international law -- to avoid strict environmental standards and enforcement for vessels. Exaggerated concern over environmental regulation by defense and commercial interests continues today on issues such as restrictions on the military use of sonar to protect whales, dolphins, and other marine life and the creation of special shipping routes in ecologically sensitive areas to bypass endangered species.

The United States still hasn’t ratified the 1982 United Nations Law of the Sea Convention, which established international rules for all uses of the oceans and their resources. As a result, the United States cannot fully participate in negotiations over how the convention applies to competing claims on continental shelf resources in the Arctic, or to protecting U.S. waters from pollution originating in other countries.


Restoring the oceans will require a shift in how governments and societies act, including a fundamental transformation in the use and management of energy, agriculture, and natural resources in general. Achieving substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, transitioning to clean energy, eliminating the worst toxic chemicals, and cutting pollution from fertilizers and pesticides in watersheds will not be easy. All those are the results of long-standing political factors, economic behaviors, and consumer choices.

Take climate change and ocean acidification. They are related to so many other pressing problems -- rising seas, extreme weather, destruction of ecosystems, loss of biological diversity, species extinction, drought, disease, food and freshwater scarcity, and the astronomical costs of responses -- that any strategy for the seas’ renewal is an empty vessel without concerted action on climate change and ocean acidification. The ultimate policy prescriptions for those problems might be clear -- carbon taxes, conservation, legally binding international rules to limit greenhouse gas emissions, enforceable environmental standards across industries, and advanced fuel systems, from better batteries to fuel cells. But they are still years away.

In the meantime, there is a great deal that can be done. Federal and state laws should be strengthened to end pollution from industrial chemicals, many of which eventually find their way to water systems, consumer goods, and the sea. Studies have linked exposures to so-called persistent organic pollutants to declines, diseases, or abnormalities in fish, birds, and mammals, as well as reproductive, developmental, and other adverse health effects in humans.

Washington can begin by updating and strengthening the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976, which provides the regulatory basis for preventing pollution by the 80,000 industrial chemicals in commerce today and the roughly 700 new chemicals introduced each year. The law currently does not require that the health and environmental risks of chemicals be routinely assessed or that they be tested for toxicity. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) should be empowered to demand more health and safety information from the chemical industry and shift the burden for demonstrating chemical safety to chemical companies, as many European countries already do.

Washington must also lead the fight against the massive amount of pollution in watersheds -- what the EPA calls “nonpoint source pollution,” or pollution from runoff, precipitation, drainage, and other diffuse sources. Industry and most state governments have failed to take effective action on their own. As a result, 40 percent of U.S. rivers, lakes, and estuaries are not clean enough for basic uses such as fishing or swimming. A leading source of this degradation is pollution from  chemical fertilizers used in agriculture and from animal feed lots. Chemical runoff has also contributed to offshore dead zones, areas devoid of most ocean life, which have increased fourfold worldwide in the past decade and now number more than 600. The second largest dead zone in the world is in the United States, in the northern Gulf of Mexico. Washington should strengthen the Clean Water Act to protect watersheds, building on the Obama administration’s successful efforts to limit the amount of pollutants that flow into the Chesapeake Bay from local streams, rivers, cities, and farms.


But the fight to save the seas will have to go beyond the United States’ borders, to other countries as well as the more than 50 percent of the world’s ocean area that is international waters. These “high seas” are a global commons, as defined by international law, and they need effective collective management to protect them from a number of risks.

Take fishing. Healthy fisheries provide food, jobs, and recreation for millions of people. But overfishing by heavily subsidized factory ships and industrial trawlers reduces or eliminates these benefits altogether. Many studies have documented the dramatic reduction in recent decades in the number and size of fish species, especially large predatory fish such as tuna, swordfish, and Atlantic halibut. The late Ransom Myers, a prominent marine scientist, captured the devastation caused by overfishing in 2003: “From giant blue marlin to mighty bluefin tuna, and from tropical groupers to Antarctic cod, industrial fishing has scoured the global ocean. There is no blue frontier left.”

Shellfish and small grazing fish are also rapidly disappearing. In the central Atlantic, schools of the tiny menhaden, a crucial link between the top and bottom levels of the food chain, are swept up by industrial trawlers and processed into fishmeal for livestock, aquaculture, and pet food. Fish, dolphins, whales, sea turtles, and large sea birds are often accidentally captured or entangled, too. In fact, millions of tons of unwanted sea life (by catch) are killed or injured in commercial fishing operations each year.

Determined national and international action is needed to maintain or restore fish stocks to sustainable levels. Fortunately, rebuilding fisheries is a relatively manageable environmental problem. In addition to independent scientific oversight and ecosystem-based management, regulators can enforce limits on catches, periodically close off areas to fishing, and crack down on illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. The Norwegian cod, American haddock, and Japanese snow crab were all brought back after periods of severe decline thanks to strict measures to decrease catches and harvests. 

But conservation must extend all the way down to the seafloor. Large underwater mountains known as seamounts, teeming with marine life, are threatened by unchecked mineral exploration and trawlers searching the depths for whatever fish are left. These harmful activities must be regulated and controlled and, in some instances, barred altogether.

The oceans are vast, and the challenge of protecting them seems as daunting. But it isn’t impossible. The Grand Canyon and Yosemite are some of the United States’ most familiar national treasures. But far less known are the country’s 223 marine reserves. From New England and the Florida Keys to the Great Lakes and Alaska, these “parks” include the open ocean, coastal areas, and estuaries. The creation of a marine protected area in 1994 on Georges Bank off the New England coast, in which federal regulators closed off a number of areas to fishing year-round, brought back to life a legendary fishing ground.

Marine reserves around the world, including the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and the Galapagos Islands, do not just conserve valuable marine ecosystems -- they also provide sustainable livelihoods for local people. In Indonesia and the Philippines, the protection of coral reefs has attracted tourists and restored local fishing areas. In 2012, Mozambique, working with the World Wildlife Fund, set aside more than 4,000 square miles, made up of ten islands off its northern coast, to create the largest marine reserve in Africa.

Establishing a marine protected area doesn’t always guarantee environmental improvement, because of competing economic interests and weak government enforcement in many reserves. But when managed well, marine protected areas are a proven and effective way of conserving sensitive ecosystems, such as coral reefs, and their fish, wildlife, and biological diversity. Unfortunately, today only about half of one percent of the planet’s oceans has been designated for special protection. Some scientists and ocean activists have called for setting aside 30 percent of the world’s ocean and coastal areas as marine reserves or protected areas.

Given the Arctic region’s rapidly melting sea ice and the prospect of expanded industrial activities there, it should be a prime candidate for this kind of protection. Individual countries could set up Arctic marine reserves in their own economic zones, or the eight-nation Arctic Council could try to foster an international agreement. Any effort to protect the Arctic, however, would no doubt have to contend with growing and competing economic interests in what lies beneath the melting sea, including oil, gas, and mineral deposits. Competition will be fierce: last year, Russia and Ukraine successfully blocked an effort led by the United States and New Zealand to create the largest marine preserve in the world, at the opposite end of the Earth -- the Ross Sea off the coast of Antarctica -- because of their commercial fishing interests there.


Any effort to protect fish and other sea life would be for naught without cleaner seas. Marine pollution takes many forms, from toxic chemicals to plastic garbage, and comes from a variety of sources on land, through the air, and at sea. But most of this pollution can be eliminated quickly. Investments in wastewater treatment, for example, protect coasts from sewage. Cleaner fuels and new regulations by the United Nations’ International Maritime Organization have cut harmful air emissions on ships and made them more efficient. Reducing sewage and other waste from huge cruise ships has been more difficult, mainly because of the large number of passengers they carry. But stricter rules and enforcement could still make a difference.

Other solutions are already out there; policymakers just need to endorse them. In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences recommended a goal of “zero waste discharge” into the marine environment from sea and land. It focused on how the international community could work together to eliminate marine debris from fishing and waste from ships. Washington should take note. If the United States finally ratified the Law of the Sea Convention and other international treaties on the preservation of biological diversity, ocean dumping, persistent organic pollutants, and the reduction of mercury emissions from power plants and other sources, it would send an important environmental signal to the rest of the world.

Policymakers should base their decisions on how to save the seas on the best available science. Without this foundation, sustainable solutions could easily fall victim to short-term interests. But even with the benefits of science, individual countries cannot go it alone -- they have to cooperate. Pollution by toxic chemicals and greenhouse gases does not honor national boundaries; neither do fish and other marine life. Solutions must also be commensurate with the problem. Poorly designed and executed strategies can undermine confidence across the board. Lowest-common-denominator answers may provide the illusion of progress, but they usually have poor results. Preventing more devastation is paramount to avoid an endless spiral of decline.

In any coordinated international effort, states most affected by the seas’ deterioration should have a major role in crafting solutions. Local officials, businesses, and citizens are in a unique position to understand what does and does not work in a particular social, political, or economic context. Finally, institutions and their leadership must be held accountable for decisions. Successful programs should be rewarded and ineffective ones changed or eliminated. The need to demonstrate a return on investment is especially critical in an era of budget austerity. Any mass campaign to save the oceans rests heavily on the shoulders of citizens around the world, who have a right to expect that their efforts and tax dollars will not be wasted.

How to bring the seas back to life is no mystery. The obstacles to healthy oceans are not technological, nor are they found in the laws of nature. They involve human will. The oceans are tough. They will not break easily. But they have their limits, and time is running out. Determined efforts by governments and societies, however, can begin the process of the seas’ rebirth.

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  • ALAN B. SIELEN is Senior Fellow for International Environmental Policy at the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He was Deputy Assistant Administrator for International Activities at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency from 1995 to 2001.
  • More By Alan B. Sielen