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A DROP IN THE OCEAN: Highlights from The DC Issue

Highlights from The DC Issue

Illustration by KEVIN CHRISTY


Friday, October 31, 2008

The following piece appears in Issue 37: The DC Issue. For more on this issue, click here


By Barton Seaver

The Chesapeake Bay was once the most productive estuarine environment in the world. Its watershed area, covering six states, has been the lifeblood of the mid-Atlantic region since Jamestown was settled over four centuries ago. As far back as our history goes, the bay has fueled growth for this country even before we considered ourselves Americans. When Captain John Smith first sailed through the bay the oyster reefs were so great they would grow beyond the confines of the water. Oysters were in such abundance that the discarded shells were used to create firm land on which towns were built. This massive population of filter feeders was said to have completely filtered the bay every two days. This filtration kept the bay waters clean and crystal clear and the unique salinity and temperatures of the waters made for the greatest accumulation of biomass anywhere in the world. Crabs, clams and countless other species thrived for centuries in the bay’s waters, while our country thrived off their bounty. Now fisheries and their once bountiful catches have reached shockingly low levels, and it didn’t happen overnight nor as the result of a single action.

Many of the problems now facing the bay are not the result of those who ply its waters, but of those who live upstream of its main body. The sprawl of suburbia and its subsequent paving of fertile land have been a triumph of civic growth, but its ultimate effects have been deleterious to the health of industry and of the ecosystem. As rainwater hits pavement, it carries with it urban pollution as it races downstream, as well as fertilizer, agricultural runoff and sewage discharge. The nutrient imbalance created by these incidental inputs has spawned immense algal blooms, which feed off the added nitrogen. As these blooms die, the decomposition creates conditions of hypoxia. Entire areas of the bay are now “dead zones” because the lack of oxygenated water prevents any species, flora or fauna, from surviving.

Sixteen million people live within the Chesapeake watershed area. We fish in order to feed these people, not the markets or distribution networks. Yet as these fisheries collapse, the markets move on to other waters leaving millions without the natural resources necessary for survival. The watermen, the original stewards of this great resource, who rely solely on the bay for their livelihood, have nothing left. This is the case with the 1,000 remaining watermen who work on the bay, as they may find themselves out of a job after the current crab season. At this point the problem isn’t with the fish, but rather with politics and economics.

The Chesapeake Bay provides but one example of this issue. The bay sits in the backyard of Washington, DC, the most powerful city in the world, but if our policies and ethics have allowed the collapse of the most productive marine environment in the world, what does this bode for the rest of our fisheries? The vast majority of our oceans fall under no jurisdiction, and are vulnerable due to the lack of regulatory constraints.

For too long we have operated under a dangerous cultural misunderstanding of our relationship with natural resources. We continue to use the word harvest when referring to fishermen and their catches — this implies that we put something into the ocean when in fact all we ever do is take from it. Our global fisheries are nearing collapse while two billion people rely on the ocean as their sole source of protein. Fisheries and the management of resources are not only environmental issues but, more importantly, a humanitarian crisis.

Both industry and environmentalists have their biased theories on how to fix the problem, but they have found it difficult to work together, as it seems their approaches are incompatible. It is hard to fault the fishermen for doing what they can do to feed their families and pay their mortgages. It is also hard to fault the environmentalists for wanting to preserve every last fish in the sea. But the bottom line is we fish to feed people, and we must fish to feed our ever-growing population. As our global fish stocks continue to decline and our population increases, we find ourselves in a tough situation. We have evolved our agricultural technology so as to feed ourselves season after season, enabling the exponential growth of our population, yet we still apply a hunter/gatherer mentality to our oceans, with no thought to the ramifications of our actions.

What we need to do is change the current practices that have led us into such decline. We need to initiate regenerative ideas that position our industries so they are aware of their impact. Both wild fisheries and the blossoming aquaculture industry are absolutely necessary if we hope to feed the world’s growing population. It is time we do more than sustain what remains. We must begin to restore and replenish current stocks. At times it seems as though we are in control of the oceans, yet we are but one part of the complex natural system. In our efforts to restore the ocean’s resiliency, we must first be humbled to our position within this predicament.

If we ever hope to shift our parasitic relationship with our resources, we must take into serious consideration our relationship with the environment and understand that what we do now will determine the future health and continuance of our species. We must value aquatic life on this planet not as something we are obliged to use but, rather, as an integral part of our own ability to survive. Fish are useful to us when they are swimming in the ocean — perhaps even more useful than when they lay in rest as dinner.

While the majority of people who read this article may not be fishermen or directly rely on the ocean for their livelihood, everyone has the ability to make a difference. If we could better appreciate our natural resources, we would understand the importance of protecting them. It all begins with asking questions.

The essential characteristic of sustainability is flexibility. It must be an ever-changing concept as we continue to learn more about the complexities of ecosystem management. The change we seek relates to an ideology and, therefore, cannot simply be regulated into effect.

Global markets need to diversify in order to use products that can supply our current needs while ensuring the demand of future generations will be met. It also entails a sociological commitment to improving the conditions of those involved and a responsibility to act with the well-being of the entire ecosystem in mind.




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