WASHINGTON - The oceans bordering the United States are overfished, polluted, infested with invasive species, dotted with "dead zones" and in a state of crisis, but they still can be saved, an independent commission reported yesterday.
Bringing the oceans' ecosystems back from the edge of collapse - one recent study found that 90 percent of the world's big fish have disappeared - requires dramatic, controversial and expensive efforts to limit fishing, coastal development and runoff from cities and farms, according to the Pew Oceans Commission. Its report is the product of a three-year, $5.5 million study.
"People look at the ocean and it looks blue and peaceful and as good as it always did, but you don't know what's going on beneath the waves," said commission member Charles Kennel, director of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography in San Diego. "What is going on is a systematic decline of our marine ecosystem. It's a global crisis."
The Pew report is the latest in a series of reports warning of worsening problems in the world's oceans. A separate commission, appointed by President Bush, will make its own recommendations in the fall, but it already has concluded that "there are substantial problems in the oceans," said presidential commission member Paul Sandifer, senior scientist at the federal Hollings Marine Lab in Charleston, S.C.
The Pew Commission - a bipartisan group of scientists, politicians and philanthropists sponsored by an environmental charity - stressed that it is not too late.
"It is possible to rescue much of the bounty that has been lost, but only if we focus society on protecting and restoring the ecosystem," commission member Jane Lubchenco, an Oregon State University marine biologist, told a news conference.
The commission called for:
Setting aside far more no-fishing zones in U.S. waters.
Imposing severe limits on the fishing technique of trawling, which scrapes the sea bottom.
Strengthening land-pollution laws to regulate storm-water runoff from urban areas, fertilizer-tainted runoff from mass animal farms and cruise-ship sewage dumping.
Acquiring environmentally sensitive land on the coasts.
Reforming the National Flood Insurance Program and other policies that promote coastal development.
Many commercial fishermen don't want new limits on where and how they catch seafood.
New Bedford, Mass., fisherman Robert Lane, president of the Trawlers Survival Fund, accused the commission in an interview of "cooking the books."
"They exist on crisis. That's their trademark," Lane said.
He argued that fisheries are reviving. "Things have bounced back," he said.
A top Bush fishery official agreed. "From a fisheries standpoint, I don't think we're at a crisis point," Bill Hogarth, the director of the National Marine Fisheries Service, said in an interview. "We have made progress, but that doesn't mean we don't have things to do."
Hogarth's agency issued a report this spring that said the general trend in overfishing "continues to be positive," with 26 species coming off the overfished list in the past six years.
But the same report noted that of 237 fish stocks for which the government has good data, 36.3 percent are overfished. That's up from 32.8 percent in 2001 and 28.4 percent in 1997.
Several fish populations have dwindled to historic lows. Pew Commissioner Pat White, who has been fishing out of York, Maine, for 47 years, said in an interview that better controls on commercial fishing were crucial: "I want to keep this fishery going for my son and grandson, so there are going to have to be some changes made."
Putting small areas of the ocean off-limits to fishing has worked off Florida's Cape Canaveral and in California's Sea of Cortez, according to Lubchenco and Kennel.
The Pew Commission's recommendations also would change life onshore.
The commission called for slowing residential development on the nation's coasts by buying up land and conservation easements with money from gas and oil drilling in federal waters.
"We are loving our coasts to death," said Charleston Mayor Joseph Riley. "We have to reassess how we live and develop along the coast if we are to maintain - much less restore - these special places."