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Jan 122009

“The impact is potentially large. And one reason is the oceans have become severely degraded over the last few decades –  by overfishing, loss of coastal habitat, (non-biogradable) ocean debris, lots of things – and, most people don’t realize this, but we’ve lost 90 percent of all the large fish in the oceans. Along with this we are running the risks of losing bio-species that are very important to the the health of the oceans and the planet. And these are the most pristine, most intact areas on the planet, and it’s very important to protect them before they are degraded.

“In the ocean, those areas that are fully protected in the world make up less than one tenth of one percent,” Heinemann continues. “Many scientists around the world as well as environmental groups and nations of the world, have called for protecting anywhere from 10 to 30 percent of the world’s oceans. … So George Bush is a leader around the world in moving everyone forward toward that goal… ”

But the biggest reason the move was so important is that “the biggest environmental threat to our whole planet is climate change, and ocean eco-systems are critical to that,” the Ocean Conservancy VP says. “And if living ocean systems are going to survive climate changes, global warming, acidification, assaults on coral reefs, increased storm intensity – if they’re going to survive, they have to be as healthy and resilient as they possibly can be. … Already degraded areas don’t have the strength to ‘fight.’ We need to preserve resilience and restore it in the face of climate change.”

The only real criticism that has come since Bush made the announcement is that, as with all environmental protection policies and laws, enforcement will be the toughest part. Also, history has proved in other cases -  as McManus points out – that recreational fishing can be just as harmful as commercial fishing and other big-industry extractions.

The problem is, we don’t know if we can restore the ocean or other areas. The science can’t predict the tipping point is or even tell whether we’ve already reached it on some fronts (polar ice, for instance) .

“We know that we’re facing something that we’ve never faced before,” Heinemann concludes. “There are scientists who say we are close to – or at least within two decades of – reaching the tipping point with coral reefs. And losing the majority of the world’s reefs would be like us losing all of the rain forests on the planet. Twenty five percent of the species of fish in the ocean are associated with coral reefs…  In that situation, we have to do absolutely everything we can, and do it as fast was we can. Because we don’t know where those tipping points are. So we have to be both extremely cautious in taking new actions and extremely careful to do everything we can to reduce carbon dioxide.”

The world’s oceans, being responsible for absorbing more than half of all carbon dioxide that humans have produced since the industrial revolution, are critical to saving the planet, as Heinemann and other marine biologists and scientists have been telling us all along.

“The oceans are performing a great service to humankind by removing this carbon dioxide from the atmosphere,” Christopher Sabine, a geophysicist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in Seattle, Washington, told National Geographic back in 2004. “The problem is that this service has potential consequences for the biology and ecosystem structure of the oceans.”

In simple terms, as the oceans absorb carbon, they become more acidic which reduces their ability to continue functioning as atmospheric cleansers or  a “carbon sinks”.

And so it’s an ever-degrading cycle, a circle that has become broken. With the Bush Administration making the first major global strides to break the cycle, it has become, unexpectedly, a force for restoration.

(Photo credits: Coral and fish, top, credit: dreamstime/Stephankerkhofs; hawksbill turtle, credit: George Balaz, US Fish & Wildlife Service; pink coral, credit: White House CEQ) )

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