RAY SUAREZ: This month, Americans are heading to the beach for summer vacation, lured there by the water, the sand, and the views. But a new report out today is the latest of several studies warning that oceans and their ecosystems are increasingly jeopardized by development, pollution, and over fishing.
The new study by the Pew Oceans Commission examined the quality of ocean life in U.S. waters, covering nearly 4.5 million square miles, an area about 25 percent larger than the country's land mass. The 18-member Pew Commission included scientists, fishermen, and elected officials who spent three years studying the issue.
At a press conference today, commission members warned of a growing problem. Leon Panetta, former congressman and the White House chief of staff, was the commission's chairman.
LEON PANETTA: When we take our oceans for granted and fail to understand that we have to be good stewards of this great resource, then that precious cycle of life will be broken and in danger of collapse. And this report confirms that it is continuing to happen and is the major threat facing our oceans today.
RAY SUAREZ: The commission found that coastal development was ruining marine habitats.
JOSEPH RILEY, Mayor, Charleston, SC: The problem simply put is we are loving our coasts to death; 3,600 people move to our coast every day. The Pew Ocean Commission found considerable evidence that we are fundamentally changing the natural ecosystem that attracts us and countless other species to our coast.
RAY SUAREZ: One key concern spelled out in the report was pollution and agricultural runoff from nearby bays and rivers. One of the worst examples cited was the Gulf of Mexico. That's where a so-called "dead zone" has been created by a lack of oxygen in the water, killing off ocean creatures.
The report also focused much attention on what it said was a problem with the growth of industrialized fishing and over fishing. Last month, a separate analysis of international waters found that major fish species had been so over fished that only 10 percent of their natural levels remained around the world. In the Pew study, commission members said over fishing was leading to a dwindling supply of once-common species of fish.
The commission also warned of problems with fishing methods and gear. Bottom-scraping nets, for example, often damaged sensitive areas at the bottom of the ocean.
This video handout from the commission shows one such area before scraping nets and after. Fishing methods can also lead to the unintentional capturing and harm of other species, like the sea turtle caught in this net.
But the report was also greeted with skepticism by representatives of the fishing industry. In a letter sent to members of Congress, industry representatives known as The Seafood Coalition accused the commission of "spending heavily on a media campaign declaring the ocean in crisis," and said, "...the commission's findings are not supported by the facts."
A presidential panel is expected to release its own report on the state of the oceans later this year.
RAY SUAREZ: More now on the report from Roger Rufe, a member of the commission and the president of the Ocean Conservancy, an advocacy organization dedicated to ocean protection; and John Connelly, the president of the National Fisheries Institute, the leading trade association for the fish and seafood industry.
Roger Rufe, what, for your money, are the main findings of this report?
ROGER RUFE: Well, Ray, as your setup piece indicated, we found compelling and clear evidence and scientific support for the conclusion that the oceans are in trouble. And that's the bad news. But there is some good news in this, and that is that the solutions are readily at hand. They are common sense; this is not rocket science; they are straightforward. And given sufficient political will, we could implement some significant changes that would really address the problems identified in the report.
Among the recommendations that we have, they cover kind of a variety of aspects that we looked at in this three-year study. It covers ocean governance, where we recommend some changes at the federal level, including establishing a national oceans agency, NOAA really taking on some more responsibility and being independent of the department of commerce, where they reside now; setting aside -- developing regional ecosystem councils at the regional level, which would enable our oceans to be managed in a sustainable way, not focusing on individual species or individual crises, but rather addressing the whole ecosystem on a regional basis, much like is done now in the Chesapeake Bay, where the states and the federal government have come together to try to set standards for restoration of the Chesapeake Bay and making it more sustainable over time.
We're also recommending that there be a national oceans council, which would then take into consideration or into account all the other agencies in government who would not be part of this other independent agency that would be able to coordinate ocean policy.
On the other areas that we discussed, we talked about reforms to fishing management practices, we talked about reforming the way we develop our coasts. Fifty percent of our population now lives within 50 miles of the coast. That's creating tremendous pressures on our coastal ecosystems, and we're not doing it in a very responsible way. We have an array of recommendations for addressing that issue.
And of course pollution, which most people visualize as the big Exxon Valdez spill, is not the major threat that it once was. The real pollution issue that we have not addressed in this country is non-point source pollution, which is the pollution that comes from, as your setup piece indicated, from farms way inland that affect coastal ecosystems like the Gulf of Mexico, but also the runoff that comes off of city streets and parking lots and from our own lawns, for that matter.
RAY SUAREZ: John Connelly, having taken a look at the findings in the report, what's your association's response, and can you live with some of these new suggestions coming out of the commission?
JOHN CONNELLY: Sure, Ray. We believe that it's an important... the report is an important addition to the public knowledge about the fish and seafood business, and how our fisheries are operated. We are concerned, though, that this is a series of solutions in search of a problem. And the reason I say that is the fishery science... the scientists within the fishery management arena, through things like the National Marine Fishery Service or the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization, have indicated that the nation's fisheries are in a lot better shape than the report indicates.
In fact, two weeks ago, NMFS, which is the National Marine Fishery Service, had a report from their scientists to Congress that indicated about 75 percent of the nation's fisheries are operating at a sustainable manner. In those 15 percent or 16 percent of fisheries that aren't being operated sustainably, government and industry are working in partnership to develop appropriate fishery management plans to try to build those stocks back up to where they should be.
So we find the information useful. We'd agree with Roger and the commission on a number of areas. But in other areas we find the report redundant, as a matter of fact, because it calls for things that are already in place: for instance, local involvement in fishery management processes, the concepts of having integrated fishery management plans are already in place.
RAY SUAREZ: So, when you say a series of solutions in search of a problem, do you reject the notion that some of the best known, most heavily sought species of fish are, in fact, hard to find now in places that used to be teeming with them, for instance?
JOHN CONNELLY: Ray, we're relying on the scientists within our government who are tasked with this mission, the National Marine Fishery Service within NOAA, which is the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They came out two weeks ago with a congressionally mandated report, an annual report to Congress that lays out what is the state of the U.S. fisheries. That report is a requirement of the Magnusson Stevens Act and some subsequent amendments in 1996, the Sustainable Fisheries Act.
In that report, the scientists within the U.S. Government have indicated that again, about 85 percent of our fisheries are operating at a sustainable level, meaning there's resources now and they're being operated in such a way that there will be resources in the future. The United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization have indicated globally that about 75 percent of the world's fisheries are operating in a similar manner.
I think what's important is for those fisheries that aren't being operated in a sustainable manner, that government, industry and other stake holders develop appropriate integrated fishery management programs to build those stocks up to a level that...
RAY SUAREZ: You began this conversation, Roger Rufe, by sounding the alarm bell. Now Mr. Connelly is quoting a report from the federal government saying, well, in many sectors things aren't really that bad.
ROGER RUFE: Well, John is using, I think, those numbers very selectively, Ray. We've read the report as well, and it doesn't really match with one, what we discovered in our three-year sojourn around the United States in talking with fishermen, fishermen that actually work the waterfront every day. We found universal consensus from them that are serious problems in our fisheries management system and in our fisheries in general. And the NFI really represents large-scale commercial fishing interests, not the individual fishermen.
The National Marine Fishery Service data that we read says that 41 percent of our fish species that are managed are either depleted or are in an over fished condition, or both. In addition to that, the fish stocks that we don't know anything about number 75 percent of the fish stocks that are supposed to be managed by National Marine Fishery Service. In other words, there's incomplete data to really tell us the status of these fish stocks. So the situation is bad.
You know that story that your grandfather used to tell you that "I once caught a fish this big?" Well, those are true stories, and we don't catch fish that big anymore, and you can ask any fisherman that, what we have now is what's called a shifting baseline. We have accepted a much lower level of response and health in the fish industry and the recreational fishing in general than we really ought to accept. And what our report points out is a number of really common sense steps to return fisheries management to people who know what to do and will make the right decisions and base it on the sound science it needs to be based upon.
RAY SUAREZ: Can in those grades of fish that you both agree are being over fished, can this industry withstand some short- term pain in order to save the livelihood and save the fish stocks? There are some in the Pacific, it's rock fish; in the Atlantic it's cod. There are many fish that you just don't see much of any more.
JOHN CONNELLY: Ray, the fish and seafood industry has, and the fishermen that we represent ranging from large-scale fishermen down to the folks at the very local level, within NFI, no one cares more about having a sustainable resource than the person that wants to pass that boat onto his son or daughter. So we have every interest, the fishermen that we represent have every interest in assuring that fish are here now and in the future. And we have worked closely with government and other stakeholders to develop fishery management plans to solve those kinds of problems.
An example is, in about 1995 or so, the scientists identified the mid-Atlantic swordfish as having some problems. It wasn't at the optimum level of sustainability. Industry and government and other stakeholders looked at the signs, agreed on the signs and came up with an integrated strategy to build that fish stock back up, by things like temporarily shutting off some areas of the ocean to fishing, changing the kind of gear that you use to do things, and other harvesting reduction methods. That success has led to about 95 ... we're now at about 95 percent of the optimum level for swordfish in the mid-Atlantic.
RAY SUAREZ: Let me get a quick response from Mr. Rufe on whether that approach can work.
ROGER RUFE: Yes, those approaches can work in selected fisheries and I wish the examples that John cites were the norm rather than the exception. The problem is now, as you kind of indicated, we have 5,000 square miles of ocean that's closed to fishing in New England. We have 20,000 square miles of ocean closed to fishing off our Pacific coast. That is not an indication of a healthy fishery, and some of these stocks will take decades to bring back.
The few instances that he cites are-- I'll give you one good example in New England-- the NFI cites 150 percent recovery in five years. That's 150 percent recovery of a very small number.
RAY SUAREZ: Roger Rufe, John Connelly, thank you both.