July 9, 2002 – The ocean waters around the Virgin Islands are in the same bad shape as those elsewhere around the world, says Nick Drayton, who heads the Ocean Conservancy office on St. John. "Just because the water is still blue and pretty doesn't mean that everything is OK beneath the surface," he says.
On Monday, the Washington, D.C.-based Ocean Conservancy released a report called "Health of the Oceans" which calls for revolutionary changes in the way we manage oceans in order to turn around what the organization says is an imperiled resource. "As a nation, we have not even earned a passing grade in managing this public resource," said Roger Rufe, Ocean Conservancy president.
The report says poor management has reduced many species of fish and marine wildlife to a fraction of their historical abundance. Some species are nearly extinct. The report also says overfishing is the greatest threat to oceans and has a more profoundly negative impact on them than all other human impacts, including pollution.
The Virgin Islands region, Drayton says, suffers from "uneven" fishing pressure, meaning too many fish are being taken from specific areas.
Rufe said technology has allowed fishing deeper and farther than ever before. "We must change the prevailing view that fish are merely seafood and that oceans are fish factories," he said. "As certain species of fish disappear, ocean ecosystems decline. This effect can have repercussions as far reaching as pollution or global warming."
Mark Powell, fish conservation director at the Ocean Conservancy, said the United States has done a poor job of implementing and enforcing measures designed to protect the ocean. In Congress, he said, members of the House Resources Committee are set to roll back provisions of the law that governs the country's fisheries — the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Instead, "Congress should be engaged in strengthening the act and should consider overhauling the entire fisheries management system, up to and doing away with the fishery management councils," Powell said.
The "Health of the Oceans" report states that nearly half of the fish stocks evaluated are depleted or being overfished and that numerous species of marine mammals, sea turtles and sea birds are in danger of extinction. And because of pollution, it says, 44 percent of tested U.S. estuaries are unfit for uses such as swimming and fishing, coral reefs are being lost at an alarming rate, and thousands of beach closures are occurring each year.
Fish habitat destruction is an issue in the Virgin Islands. Development and the lack of paved roads in many areas send sediment down the hills and into the seas to smother reefs, thereby killing the algae that feed fish. And the territory's Coastal Zone Management system hasn't helped to address this problem. Currently, construction on land near the water in what is termed Tier 1 gets close scrutiny by CZM, but development on hillside lands in what is called Tier 2 receives less oversight.
"There is a short distance between the top of any hill and the ocean," Drayton says. He says contractors could incorporate environmentally friendly methods into their projects but tend not to do so either because the builders aren't aware of them or because they add to building costs.
The Ocean Conservancy recommends the establishment of an independent agency to manage oceans. It would consolidate and coordinate efforts now shared by various federal agencies, the organization says, and it should adopt a management approach that preserves entire ecosystems and thereby protects the species and resources they contain.
The organization suggests reducing polluted runoff by fully implementing, funding and enforcing the federal Clean Water Act. And it urges the country to adopt an ocean wilderness ethic similar to that adopted on land. "The task of managing and protecting our oceans lies with each of us," Rufe said.
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