National ocean policy needed

New governance plan would help Chesapeake Bay recover

April 13, 2010

I've spent my whole life living and often fishing along the Atlantic Seaboard. My most exciting experience was catching a 900-pound giant bluefin tuna off the coast of Massachusetts 10 years ago — an epic, 75-minute battle I'll never forget. So it bothers me that nearly all the fish I purchase for my seafood distribution company for Washington, D.C. -area restaurants must come from Alaska and the Pacific. But I only source seafood from healthy, sustainable fisheries, and the sad fact is most East Coast species are severely depleted.

Our western Atlantic bluefin tuna population has been driven to just 1.5 percent of its 1960 abundance (see http://www.BigMarineFish.com). Likewise, the Chesapeake Bay's iconic blue crab and oyster populations have declined to just 1 percent of their former glory. Shad and river herring populations are equally low, as are most other fish species that call the bay home.

Given the importance of the Chesapeake Bay and Maryland's coastal waters to our state's heritage and economy, we need a national ocean policy that ensures more enlightened management of our valuable marine resources.

In the coming weeks, President Barack Obama may have the opportunity to sign an executive order creating a National Ocean Policy to govern the way our oceans, coasts and the Great Lakes are managed. Adopting such a policy was recommended by two "blue ribbon" commissions. In order to protect the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland's coastal waters and the living resources that sustain Maryland's economy and our quality of life, we need a coordinated federal management approach — one that focuses all agencies' efforts on what's needed from each to restore our fisheries.

Currently, our waters are suffering under disjointed management by more than 20 federal agencies, plus local and state governments, with many acting at cross purposes. They operate within a framework of more than 140 different laws and regulations. A strong National Ocean Policy would guide and coordinate the work of all government agencies tasked with coastal ocean resource management and focus it on restoring "the resource."

Such a national policy would deliver both environmental and economic benefits to the complex situation affecting the Chesapeake Bay — the nation's largest estuary and one of its most threatened. After years of piecemeal and ineffectual restoration efforts, the bay and its fisheries continue to be degraded by runoff from upstream urban areas and farms, wetland loss due to continued permitting of unwise development (such as Dobbins Island), lax control of toxic pollution from industry, overfishing and invasive species.

Demand for seafood, with its highly touted health benefits, is at an all-time high. But our nation imports 80 percent of its supply; I suspect that the vast majority of the crab in "Chesapeake Bay crab cakes" — a top seller on many Maryland restaurant menus — has to be imported. A healthy Chesapeake Bay could potentially produce more than 90 times as much seafood as it does now, creating jobs and revenue for local communities' economies.

I see some positive trends. Consumers are increasingly conscious about where their food comes from, and demand for sustainable, local seafood grows daily, affecting chefs' purchasing decisions. For example, I now rarely see the severely overfished "Chilean sea bass" in their kitchens. We've also seen sound management bring back "rockfish." After being nearly wiped out in the 1990s, I can now happily source rockfish from the bay, thanks to tough regulation of the fishery. Nowadays, roughly 90 percent of the rockfish we eat on the East Coast comes from the Chesapeake Bay.

Now is the time to act. The longer we wait, the more difficult and expensive it will be to protect and restore our coastal waters and the economies and communities they support. We need the Obama administration to deliver a strong national policy for the Chesapeake Bay through an executive order centered on protection and sustainable use of our nation's coastal and ocean resources.

Jim Chambers is the founder and owner of Prime Seafood, serving many of Washington's top restaurants. A retired fisheries biologist, he was an official with the National Marine Fisheries Service for 20 years and the Army Corps of Engineers for eight years. His e-mail is jimchambers@comcast.net.

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