The Coastal Post - May, 1997

The Ocean Is Not Dying

BY JOSH CHURCHMAN

Most of the recent articles that have come out about the state of the world's oceans have spelled out a picture of doom. According to the experts, all the world's fisheries are in serious decline, and areas that once teemed with life are now barren wastelands. Some of this is all too true, but it does not tell the whole story.

Once again the whole picture is more complex than it first appears. Some of the species of fish that have been targeted for hundreds of years are in serious trouble. But there are some good signs, too. The Monterey sardine that was all but gone a few years ago is coming back so strongly that an old fishery is being reborn. There are so many marine mammals of all kinds flourishing on the West Coast that they are creating problems nobody thought possible. These mammals are at the virtual top of the food chain, so one would think that if there is enough food to support a population boom of top predators, the health of the oceans can't be all gloom and doom.

The sun still shines, and the plankton (tiny plants that are the green grass of the ocean) still grow. The krill and other small organisms that eat the plankton are still in abundance. It is the select few fish species people eat that are in decline. The marine mammals that people relate to and now wish to protect are in great shape. There is an adopt-a-whale program, but has there ever been an adopt-a-cod program, or a friends of the flounder group? We, as the managers of the sea, seem to be playing God a bit.

My suspicious mind puts money at the root of the gloom stories and the declining fisheries. Fish are becoming increasingly valuable, so even though the catches are down, the boats will still make a living. The lawmakers will not make laws that could save or restore a resource, because the big-time fishing fleets have enough money to lobby for their own interests, and have in fact bought the laws that keep themselves in business. On the other side are the science and agency people who make their living studying the various situations as they arise. These people paint a picture of gloom and doom because it helps create a need for the studies and justifies their existence.

The ocean has been around a long time, and I trust it will remain long after man has had his brief dominance of this planet. I spend several hundred days a year on the ocean and have been doing so for over 20 years. I have seen lots of changes in those years, from the look of a barren sea during the El Nino in the early '80s, to a sea of life in 1988 when all records were broken by the abundance of fish. Do not underestimate the ocean's ability to produce life, it is in a sense the Great Mother.

We should study the oceans as much as we possibly can, and fight off the greedy interests that would willingly fish it until it's gone, as much as we can, if we want there to be something left of what we enjoy today for the next generation of fisherman. But, even if we continue along the way we are today, with spotty management and money rather than common sense in the driver's seat, I think the world's oceans will remain resilient.

Spring is blooming on the ocean as it is on the land. I can see it every day I go offshore. If you have the time for a drive out to the tip of Point Reyes, go to the lighthouse and look for the gray whales on their way back up north. Smell that sea air and you will be smelling the fragrance of a blooming sea, mixed of course with the smell of a thriving sea lion population.