Marine life facing crisis, says US think tank

Vast zones off US coasts must be declared off-limits to fishing and other resource extraction to help reverse the depletion of marine life in the nation’s waters, a commission found.

A report issued on Tuesday by the independently financed Pew Oceans Commission calls for the creation of marine reserves to counter the effects of pollution, coastal development and over-fishing.

“We are convinced that we are facing a crisis,” said commission chairman Leon Panetta, the former chief of staff in the Clinton administration.

He cited a list of threats to marine life, including the dead zone that forms in the Gulf of Mexico where nothing can grow, the hundreds of non-native species in the San Francisco Bay that are killing native marine life, and runoff from agriculture and cities that harms habitats.

Poor management of fisheries has combined with these factors to lead to a 5% overall decline in commercial catches over the last 10 years, according to one of three other Pew reports released on Tuesday.

Catches of cod in New England peaked at 51,75-million kilogrammes in 1980 and dropped to 13,5-million kilogrammes in 1994, resulting in thousands of jobs and millions of dollars in revenue being lost, according to the marine report.

On the West Coast, the ground-fish fishery was declared a disaster in 2000, and some of the rockfish in the fishery could take 50 years to a century to rebuild, according to the study. The decline prompted federal regulators to severely restrict fishing. “We need to treat our ocean as a national trust.
The problem is right now we take our oceans for granted,” Panetta told an audience of students, environmentalists and fisherman on Tuesday.

The Pew commission has been conducting a comprehensive study of US ocean policy and plans to present its recommendations to Congress and the Bush administration later this year.

Marine reserves, areas where extracting living organisms or minerals is forbidden, are needed because they protect full ecosystems, not just one species or habitat, said Stephen Palumbi, author of the report.

“That life is not just beautiful; it’s not just diverse; it’s not just interesting,” he said. “It’s fundamental to the life of the planet. The oceans are the lungs of the planet.”

Only about 1% of the world’s oceans has been turned into reserves. In California, the percentage of protected waters is less than 0,02%.

But reserves can be a tough sell. An economic impact report on the recently established Channel Islands reserve off California’s Santa Barbara coast indicated that sport fishing and diving boat operators could lose as much as $6-million per year. Commercial fishermen could lose as much as $3-million per year.

“There has to be a lot more discussion,” said Pietro Parravano, president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations.

But Palumbi said reserves could wind up helping fishermen by replenishing fish populations, then leaking marine life beyond their borders. - Sapa-AP

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