Celebrating World Ocean Day by Looking at Ocean Economics

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“[W]e don’t have enough information about the oceans’ impact on our economy,” William M. Daley, Secretary of Commerce said back in 1998. “A complete and accurate assessment of the ocean bounty has never been done, and I think this has been a serious handicap in our decision making over the past number of years. We need such information to make decisions on how to responsibly use our ocean resources. And we need it to protect the marine environment. We need it if we’re going to give the public a better understanding of how the oceans directly affect us.”


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For centuries, human have considered the world’s oceans as an inexhaustible resource. Lately, however, there have been indications that most of the world’s 17 major ocean fisheries are in decline, important coastal habitats are disappearing at an alarming rate and climate change and pollution are harming coral ecosystems beyond recovery. Today’s celebration of World Ocean Day offers an opportunity to explore what we know about ocean economics and their impact on American life.

“Every year, the ocean just seems a little bit smaller,” Dr. Kathleen Sullivan Sealey of the University of Miami and a principal investigator of Earthwatch’s Coastal Ecology of the Bahama’s project, said in a prepared World Ocean Day statement. “There is much more trash washed up on the beach with every tide in all shapes, materials and languages. There are fewer fish and conch around for local consumption, and greater fears as new information is circulated about health threats in contaminated coastal waters.”

Any conversation about ocean economies, must include a discussion of near shore and coastal regions. Just in time for World Ocean Day, the Census Bureau released the first study of the regions affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. It reveals that New Orleans is nearly 39 percent smaller, having lost nearly 279,000 residents. The population of nearby St. Bernard Parish fell to just over 3,300 residents, a decrease of 95 percent. Ninety-nine percent of the population losses occurred in the top 10 parishes and counties, according to the Census Bureau special studies. Only 40 percent of the 117 counties and parishes identified by the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) lost population in the four months after the storms.

The 2006 edition of the "Economic Statistics from NOAA” (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) indicates that seven of the most expensive storms in U.S. history occurred between August 2004 and October 2005, including Katrina’s $40.0 billion in insured losses, Rita’s $4.7 billion losses and Wilma’s $6.1 billion losses. The NOAA booklet also includes preliminary estimates ranging from $500 million to $1 billion per year as the potential economic benefits from new investments in regional coastal ocean observing systems in U.S. waters. Significant updates to the previous year’s statistics on fisheries and coastal contributions to the economy are available in the report as well.

Fisheries and maritime economic issues are being raised in other regions as well. In North Carolina, a bill establishing a commission to study the problems facing traditional waterfront businesses as a result of rising land prices, taxes, and redevelopment, is under consideration by the legislature, according to the News & Observer. In Alaska, they are debating quota-based fisheries. Fishermen from Alaska’s largest salmon fisheries also recently approved a self-tax that would fund marketing projects and programs intended to boost the value of the Bristol Bay salmon fishery, the Anchorage Daily News reports. Senator Gordon Smith (R-OR) in May asked the Bush Administration to redirect existing federal tax dollars to aid Oregon fishing communities affected by limited salmon fishing along 700 miles of the Oregon and California coast.

Also at the national level, Congress is considering changes to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) which governs fishery management activities within the federal 200-mile limit. The bill under consideration by the House Resources Committee, H.R. 5018: the American Fisheries Management and Marine Life Enhancement Act, would, according to Environmental Defense, weaken conservation and management protections by rolling back the rebuilding delays of fisheries and reducing environmental review. The bill passed by the Senate Commerce Committee in December 2005 maintains current protections and aims to provide new tools for improving fisheries.

A new report by the Marine Fish Conservation Network titled “Turning a Blind Eye: The ‘See No Evil’ approach to Wasteful Fishing”, examines the federal government’s effectiveness at minimizing bycatch (ocean wildlife other than the intended catch species that are caught) finds that federal fisheries managers:

  • Have not adequately established bycatch reporting systems as mandated by the 1996 amendments to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act;
  • Have taken few steps to minimize bycatch; and
  • Are not accounting for the number of fish killed as bycatch when setting annual catch limits for fisheries.

The report also looks at how the regional fishery management councils have addressed the problem of bycatch in the "dirtiest" fisheries around the country, including the most problematic Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery, which catches more than four pounds of bycatch for every pound of shrimp. The report will be submitted to members of Congress currently considering legislation reauthorizing the nation’s primary federal fisheries law.

“We need to act like our actions matter, because they do matter,” Dr. Wallace J. Nichols, a research associate at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, Calif., noted scientist, ocean advocate and president-elect of the Sea Turtle Society, said in a prepared statement about World Ocean Day. “We must act like our actions affect others, because they do affect others.

“That means that what we do on one coast does matters to the people living on another coast half a world away,” Nichols added. “Animals like sea turtles, elephant seals, bluefin tuna, and white sharks connect the ocean through their thousand-mile migrations. A sea turtle born in Mexico is not a Mexican sea turtle when it’s grazing on a coral reef in Hawaii or plucking jellyfish from Indonesian seas. It’s just a beautiful sea turtle.”

World Ocean Day was established in 1992 at the United Nations Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, as a way for organizations and individuals from around the world to come together to celebrate our world ocean. It provides the time to reflect on the ocean’s importance in our lives and encourages doing something good for our blue planet.

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