Last week, two marine science conservation organizations at the forefront of ocean protection published the first in-depth quantitative analysis of how coastal US states rank in protecting coastal waters. The Marine Conservation Institute and Mission Blue jointly released a report titled, “SeaStates: How Well Does Your State Protect Your Coastal Waters?” The report makes disturbing reading demonstrating that most states have shortcomings in safeguarding the national treasure of US marine life, seafood and the nation’s coasts.
Founded in 1996 by Marine Ecologist Dr. Elliott Norse, the Marine Conservation Institute (MCI) is a non-profit organization intended to protect the ocean’s most important places both in North America and around the globe. The Marine Conservation Institute works with scientists, governments, businesses and other conservation organizations to restore the health of the oceans and marine ecosystems to the benefit of current and future generations.
Mission Blue is a more recent global initiative enjoying support from more than 60 ocean conservation groups and similar organizations. It has its roots in Dr. Sylvia Earle’s 2009 TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Prize wish to “ignite public support for a global network of marine protected areas called Hope Spots large enough to save and restore the blue heart of the planet.” Earle is currently President of Mission Blue and is perhaps best known for her pioneering scuba and deep-sea submarine explorations. She is also a National Geographic explorer-in-residence and served as chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) under former president George H.W. Bush.
The SeaStates report reveals failure to protect the oceans has a disproportionate effect when it comes to the nation’s economic well-being. In matters financial, marine conservation may not be the first thing that springs to mind, but as figures from the Center for the Blue Economy demonstrate, oceans have a crucial part to play in ensuring a healthy economy. Of the United States’ lower 48 states, coastal counties comprise a mere 5.71 percent of continental area. In contrast, these same coastal states generate a remarkable 35.54 percent of Gross Domestic Product (GDP). Comparing coastal counties with another major engine of economic activity around the Great Lakes tells the same story with the report demonstrating that US coastal counties generate $7,992 more GDP per person than counties inland and those with shorelines on the Great Lakes.
As the nation’s infrastructure deteriorates and President Obama contemplates introducing major public works projects to stimulate economic growth, a case can certainly be made from this latest report to include marine conservation measures in any public works program. Not only would such measures aid marine conservation but, as Dr. Lance Morgan, president of the Marine Conservation Institute (MCI), argues, there would also be a benefit to public health.
The methodology proposed by the SeaStates report is unlikely to find favor with advocates of red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism as a generator of economic recovery. In the analysis, SeaStates measured the percentage of each state’s waters currently considered to be “strongly protected.” That means no fishing, no oil drilling, no mineral extraction — in essence, “no take” zones. The report argues that an absence of such activities allows marine life to recover to former levels. A by-product of re-establishing such marine ecosystems is that marine animal populations and plant life, regenerated to their former glory, maintains the health of the oceans and, with that, public health.
But how can constituting “no-take” zones — banning some economic activities — possibly aid economic growth? The report’s answer is that the radical step of introducing “no-takes” to conserve stocks is a far more effective protection than limits, quotas and other weaker protections. Where “no-takes” have been put in place, the SeaStates report says it often results in marine life “overflowing” from such total protection zones, finding new habits and replenishing stocks in surrounding areas. Nor would “no-take” measures require wholesale bans. The recommendation is that states designate just 20 percent of state waters as no-take areas to ensure continued ocean health.
The states’ marine conservation report card — must try harder
As matters stand, if coastal states were a school class, almost without exception, the report cards would make disturbing reading. Earle put it starkly in a quote on blog.marine-conservation.org: “Whether you love our oceans for their beauty, for their fishes and marine mammals or for generating half of the oxygen we breathe, you should want them to be strongly protected. But most states in this report get a score of zero and only a handful are protecting even 1 percent. That’s not good enough when our oceans are facing grave threats like overfishing and pollution. America’s oceans and people deserve better. The United States has a long way to go if we want to be a world-leader in marine conservation.”
Naming and shaming
According to SeaStates, 15 coastal states out of 23 have zero no-take areas (*detailed at foot of article). Six states — Florida, Oregon, Washington, North Carolina, Virginia and Maine — are in the kindergarten of designating no-take areas having earmarked 1 percent or significantly less of coastal areas as no-take zones. A mere two states have protection measures in place for more than five percent of coastal waters. Hawaii comes top for ocean protection with 22.9 percent of coastal waters fully protected while California is runner-up at 8.7 percent.
The figures speak for themselves but as Morgan put it in a conservation blog, “SeaStates shows that very few places are getting the protection they need and most states are doing a very poor job of safeguarding your oceans. It’s time for that to change. Seabirds, whales, groupers and deep sea corals all need refuges where we do everything possible to protect them.”
*Coastal States with zero “no-take” protected areas: Alabama, Alaska, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Texas.