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Never mind Earth Day, this is World Oceans Day!

by John Hocevar

June 8, 2007

[Thanks to Jennifer Jacquet at the Shifting Baselines blog for being the first to post this piece.]

I am looking forward to a World Oceans Day where I can kick back with a beer and relax, knowing that the oceans are in great shape. I sincerely hope this won’t involve time travel or an inter-galactic voyage.

Anyone paying attention knows that the oceans are in serious trouble, and that overfishing – and use of destructive and indiscriminate fishing methods – is at the heart of the problem. Climate change is starting to make a run for the ocean enemy # 1 prize, but for now unsustainable fishing is safely in the lead. The good news, I suppose, is that in theory we should be able to do something about that.

In the recent debate over Boris Worm’s finding that most commercial fisheries could be in a state of collapse by 2048 based upon current trends, some representatives of the Alaska fishing industry were quick to point out that all need not be lost, if only the rest of the world followed the Alaska model.

Meanwhile, back in reality, Alaska fisheries managers recently responded to a proposal to protect some of the world’s largest submarine canyons by saying ‘yes, these are unique and diverse habitats, but we don’t know enough to justify protecting them.’ Ah, the precautionary approach we’ve all come to know and love! Greenpeace’s response is to pull together an expedition to explore these remarkable canyons, using submersibles and an ROV to gather data which will hopefully lead to more informed – and precautionary – management actions.

This week, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is meeting to decide whether to allow bottom trawling in the northern half of the Bering Sea. The Advisory Panel chose the strangest option on the table, Alternative 3, which would set "a performance standard of at least 2.5 inches of elevation of the sweep from the bottom." Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t have made that "back in reality" crack, because this is pure fantasy. Even the bottom trawlers have no idea how to pull that off.

The final decision, though, will be made not by the Advisory Panel (which has exactly one "conservation" seat) but by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (which has none). And this brings us to the common thread that threatens to unravel any attempt to reform fisheries management in the US and much of the rest of the world: as long as the fishing industry is allowed to regulate itself, short-term profits will continue to win out over long term sustainability. Fisheries will continue to be managed on a single-species basis with little or no regard for the ecosystem, marine reserves will remain the topic of scientists’ recommendations and environmentalists’ appeals, and 2048 will be as bleak as predicted.

Fortunately, we have a few cards of our own to play: the public is beginning to recognize the need for change, consumers are starting to recognize their power, and direct action can often be quite persuasive. And most hopefully yet, more and more fishermen, processors, distributors and retailers are beginning to recognize on their own that sustainability may better serve their interests than business as usual.

We still have a ways to go, but we just may be able to celebrate World Oceans Day together in the not so distant future, right here on the Water Planet.

John H

John Hocevar

By John Hocevar

An accomplished campaigner, explorer, and marine biologist, John has helped win several major victories for marine conservation since becoming the director of Greenpeace's oceans campaign in 2004.

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