One important factor missing for policymakers is a set of good benchmarks to measure the health of the ocean over time. Now, various data sources are maintained in hundreds of universities, research institutions and government agencies. And despite oversight of coastal areas by 23 Florida agencies, 15 federal agencies and more than 45 committees and subcommittees of Congress, there’s no comprehensive report card on marine ecosystems to offer a clear picture of how to manage them.
An EPA-funded National Coastal Assessment begun in 2000 aims to establish a set of baseline data. The five-year project calls for intensive biological data collection in all coastal states at the same time each year. The resulting database will offer the first true assessment of coastal systems, nationally and by state.
“It’s something everyone wishes we would have started 20 years ago,” says
Gil McRae, director of FWC’s Florida Marine Research Institute, which is overseeing Florida’s part of the assessment at 180 stations around the coast.
What policymakers will do with that data remains to be seen, but a dramatic shift in ocean management is likely in the coming decade. It’s been more than 30 years since the last major review of how the U.S. governs its oceans. The 1969 Stratton Commission’s “Our Nation and the Sea” inspired four important pieces of environmental legislation — the Clean Water Act, along with laws governing coastal zone management, marine mammal protection and marine sanctuaries.
Now, two national efforts are under way that will focus attention on the declining health of U.S. oceans from the Keys to Hawaii. This month the independent Pew Oceans Commission is expected to deliver a sweeping report on the state of America’s seas to Congress and the Bush administration.
By the end of the year, meanwhile, the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, which is investigating ecological impacts but also wider issues like shipping and trade, will release its findings.
The reports may recommend ocean-management planning on the scale of the land-management Florida uses to designate areas for development and preservation.
“Protected areas in the ocean seem draconian to some, but the fact is, what little management we’ve practiced in the past isn’t working,” says Ault, the University of Miami fisheries professor.
At the Florida Institute of Oceanography in St. Petersburg, director John C. Ogden, a biologist at the University of South Florida, thinks about the health of the ocean in human terms. There may be several factors making you unhealthy — a high-stress job, too much coffee, too many beers, and not enough sleep. You may not be able to change everything — your job, say — but changing what you can would make a big difference in your overall health. “If we reduce those stresses that can be reduced, the system itself can be better-equipped to handle those stresses that cannot be reduced,” Ogden says.
“Our struggle in Florida, as we grow, is to create reasonable ways of minimizing disturbance,” says Ogden. “We’re not doing it because we’re tree-huggers. We’ve got to do it because the ocean environment of Florida is key to Florida’s future economy.”
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