It’s strange to be celebrating World Oceans Day in the midst of the biggest environmental catastrophe for our oceans in American history. Like the big spills in Santa Barbara and Prince William Sound, what’s happening in the Gulf is both a human tragedy and an ecological nightmare. And, of course, it’s only just begun.
The images of oiled birds and soiled shorelines are shocking, but we know from experience that we’ll only clean up a tiny fraction of what’s been released. The lingering effects of toxins in the water and the food web will last for decades, as they have in the sea otters and on the rocky shores of Prince William Sound. The chronic effects from long-term exposure to oil will affect the next generation of ocean life by altering its reproductive function and lifespan.
It will take years of research to understand the full impacts of the oil and dispersants on ocean food webs –- in the Gulf and beyond. In the meantime, the shrimpers and tackle shop owners along the Gulf shores don’t need decades to feel the pain; their daily lives and their livelihoods will change forever.
I’ve worked long and hard on behalf of wildlife and nature, and I’m often dismayed to see how much the public and our leaders focus on the human stories instead of the bigger picture of protecting the natural systems on which our lives depend. But this time, I have to agree. The biggest tragedy is a human story.
But it’s not what you think.
It’s not about the tragic loss of human lives in the accident, or the vast economic impacts, or the lost ways of life. The tragedy is that we all stood by –- citizens, government, industry –- and figured that everything was under control. Meanwhile, we extended our reach deeper and deeper, into riskier and riskier waters, in oceans whose health is already under siege.
We have the opportunity, right now, to come to our senses, and to do the right thing on behalf of our oceans, that sustain us in SO many ways.
How do I know this? Because we’ve done it before.
In 1969, a blowout on a drilling platform in the Santa Barbara Channel released more than 3 million gallons of oil into the ocean. The spill coated a stretch of the California coastline in thick sludge. It killed thousands of seabirds, and countless other creatures. As a native Californian, I remember the day well. For the first time, I realized that something I had taken for granted could be taken away. And, if this happened, I’d only have myself to blame.
That dark day served as a wake-up call to the nation about the fragile nature of our environment, and its importance to the well-being of all life on Earth. The spill catalyzed the biggest environmental movement our country has ever seen, compelling lawmakers to enact scores of landmark laws: the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Air Act, the Clean Water Act, the Endangered Species Act, the Coastal Zone Management Act, and the National Marine Sanctuaries Act.
Today, these laws form the foundation of our system of environmental protection. It’s hard to imagine where we’d be without them.
Forty years after the environmental movement began, it’s time for a rebirth. Now is the time to usher in a new era of conservation.
Though oil spills make headlines, it’s the chronic, long-terms threats like overfishing, non-point source pollution and coastal development that have much bigger impacts on our oceans. Oil spills -- no matter how large -- pale in comparison to the effects of carbon pollution that’s causing ocean warming and acidification.
For all our hard work, it’s obvious that we haven’t done enough to stem the continued decline in ocean health. Nearly a decade ago, the two ocean commissions laid out a clear blueprint for ocean policy reforms, and we’ve taken some baby steps in implementing their recommendations. Now, with the whole nation focused on our oceans and coasts, we need to put these ideas into action.
For starters, we need to face up to the risks of offshore oil drilling, especially in deep areas and the Arctic where we are in no way ready to respond to a spill. We need to tighten regulations and put in place effective government oversight.
More to the point, we must recognize that we can’t drill our way out of our dependence on foreign oil. We simply cannot trade the health of our oceans and coasts for a few more barrels of oil. More drilling is not the answer. Rather, we need to get in gear and support renewable energy, create green jobs, stimulate our economy, and safeguard our environment.
Next, we must immediately invest in learning more about our oceans. We need a massive investment in ocean ecosystem science and technology. When my father founded the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute 20 years ago, he was appalled at the state of technology investment to explore and understand the deep sea. The need remains, so we’ll have the information to manage our oceans as integrated living systems. The oil spill is a grim reminder of how we’re "flying blind" as to where to direct immediate cleanup and restoration efforts, not to mention understanding the impact of oil pollution or dispersants on all ocean life.
To achieve these goals, we need to create a national ocean policy, to better align federal agencies toward a common goal of achieving healthy oceans. In the wake of the Santa Barbara spill, the U.S. enacted environmental protection laws focused on land, air, and water. It’s now time to articulate a comprehensive policy for oceans and coasts. I commend the Obama Administration for substantial steps taken to develop this policy.
Last but not least, we can pay for these measures -– and more –- by creating an Ocean Investment Fund, using lease revenues, mitigation funds and other user-generated funding. It’s time we linked the resource fees to the resource itself by devoting a bigger portion of ocean revenue to its appropriate use – protecting and restoring our productive oceans and coasts.
I said we can succeed because we’ve done it before. There’s also another reason.
At the Monterey Bay Aquarium, I get to walk into our exhibit galleries daily and see people every day falling in love with the kelp forest or the sea otters or the seahorses. Our visitors leave with a commitment to taking action on the ocean’s behalf -– using a Seafood Watch pocket guide, sharing materials with their schools, joining as members, or bringing friends back to learn more.
I believe that people everywhere are seeking a common vision of a sustainable future on Earth, one that’s practical, attainable and in which they can play a part. Aquariums can support people around the world who yearn for reasons to hope, and give them guidance about ways to make a difference for our oceans -– as our incredible team at the Monterey Bay Aquarium has tried to do.
Our oceans have provided each of us with so much meaning, so much joy. Let’s focus on doing a few really important things to safeguard their future, with the opportunity we have before us right now.
Credit: Kelp forest photo © Douglas K. Klug