Who is responsible for cleaning up our oceans?
— David Rockefeller, Jr. is a philanthropist and CEO of Around the Americas and Chairman of Sailors for the Sea. Any views expressed here are his own. —
When the Ocean Watch set sail from Seattle last May at the launch of our Around the Americas expedition, our greatest challenge was to make Americans start thinking about health of oceans. For too long, we have been taking our rich seafood supplies and scenic seascapes for granted.
One year and 28,000 miles later, and now with the massive BP oil spill, much has changed.
While I’d love to say that our expedition is responsible for finally turning around the slow drip of public concern for ocean health into a steady flow, I am fairly certain that the continuous flow of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico is, unfortunately, driving home what the captain and crew of Ocean Watch have been saying all along.
The fact that our oceans are not too big for one person to damage is becoming clearer with each passing day. In just one month, we have witnessed the largest oil spill in the history of the U.S., with the full repercussions yet to be seen.
We know our Gulf seafood supply of shrimp, oysters and blue crab will likely be damaged for generations to come, to say nothing of the sea turtles, sea birds and other wildlife that are already suffering.
Coastal tourism and fragile wetlands are also in limbo.
But perhaps the most daunting realization for most Americans is that we shouldn’t make the threats facing our oceans any less real by making light of them.
We need to acknowledge the challenges we face in order to reverse them. This is why educating the public has been the mission of Around the Americas and what our founding partner, Sailors for the Sea, was created to do.
Our expedition has taken us through the Northwest Passage, around Cape Horn, past the vast fisheries spotting the Chilean coast and along the coral reefs of the Galapagos Islands. As we return to the West Coast of the U.S., we’ve seen that three major threats span the oceans of North and South America – pollution, acidification and overfishing.
The truth is there are more sources of damaging pollution flowing into our oceans than escaped oil. Pollutants run into our waterways everyday from our city streets, farms, industrial sites, faulty septic systems and construction sites.
Together, the pollutants that flow from land to sea are the largest source of water contamination in the United States.
Run-off pollution can’t be skimmed from the surface of the water or diluted with dispersant chemicals. Run-off pollution, as well as excess carbon absorbed from emissions in the air, is actually changing the PH of our oceans, causing them to acidify, damaging wildlife, bleaching coral reefs and creating “deadzones” where no sea creatures can live.
There were 305 dead zones in 1995. Today there are over 400. This kind of pollution happens every day, all over the world. The only way to stop it is to change the way we do things on land.
Overfishing is another top challenge facing our oceans. Our love of seafood has placed a major strain on the ocean ecosystem; worldwide seafood demand is projected to increase over 60 percent by 2025.
Meanwhile, an estimated 90 percent of big fish have already been fished out of the sea and some predict that our natural stocks of all seafood could collapse in less than 40 years.
Fish farming holds promise for meeting our growing demands, but finding and enforcing sustainable practices has proven to be another challenge.
In Chile, we had an opportunity to talk to local scientists and environmentalists about the country’s unstable Salmon farming industry.
At its height in 2008, Chile produced 403,000 tons of farmed fish and the sector had created an estimated 55,000 jobs.
But an outbreak of a virus called ISA – caused by overcrowding and unsanitary conditions in some of Chile’s Salmon farms – has put a damper on production.
Since the outbreak began, as many as 17,000 jobs have been lost in Chile and production was reduced more than 80 percent to 90,000 tons in 2009.
The Chilean government and companies like Mariscope Chilena are taking steps to rehabilitate the industry, including enforcing new sustainability measures that will scale back the use of antibiotics and other chemicals and also reduce the number of Salmon that escape and pose a threat to natural seafood supplies.
But there are also measures that can be taken by citizens like you and me to ensure that our love of seafood doesn’t damage the environment. We can educate ourselves about whether the fish on our plates have been sustainably raised and caught. We can take advantage of safe seafood eating guides from organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Blue Ocean Institute to help us make better decisions.
It is easy to look at a disaster like the Gulf coast oil spill and feel both righteous anger and helplessness, but the fact is that the responsibility for cleaning up our oceans does not lay solely with BP; it lies with all of us.
Bryan Walsh of Time got it right in a recent article when he says that this latest oil spill is “…a chance for something worthwhile to rise out of the muck still bubbling from the floor of the Gulf of Mexico.”
Our hope is that long after the geyser is sealed and the oil cleaned up, concern for our oceans and a commitment to living sustainably will continue to flow from people, politicians and corporations all Around the Americas.
But we should start now.
Photo shows oil floating on the surface in Pass A Loutre near Venice, Louisiana May 26, 2010. REUTERS/Sean Gardner