This summer, 60 million Americans will head to the seaside to enjoy majestic waves and salty breezes. It all seems reassuringly familiar. But the oceans, which cover 70 percent of the earth and control the climate, the water cycle, and 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe, are approaching a dangerous tipping point. The Arctic is melting faster than at any time in the past 1,500 years and may be free of ice in 30 years. Coral reefs are bleaching. Fish stocks are depleted. A giant plastic garbage patch four times the size of California is floating in the Pacific.
Oblivious to all this, the Trump administration is waging what some have dubbed a “war on oceans.” The president has opened 90 percent of coastal waters to oil and gas drilling and watered down or rescinded dozens of regulations and standards that protect marine ecosystems and the coastal habitat. Like a colonial explorer, his ambition is to exploit the resources of the sea, which means promoting more offshore drilling, shipping, mining, fishing, wind farms, and maritime trade. His latest executive order, issued in June (National Oceans Month), rescinded President Obama’s previous executive order creating a national ocean policy. The Obama directive set up a National Ocean Council in response to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill – the worst in history. The council will be replaced by a much more business-focused committee.
Trump’s about-turn shows the folly of using executive orders — rather than legislation — to enact complex long-term policy. But the fact is, Congress has dragged its feet for decades on spending money to promote sustainable oceans. There is no national equivalent of the Clean Air Act or the Clean Water Act when it comes to the sea. Federal grants to help states and cities prevent coastal flooding and restore habitat add up to a meager $70 million spread out across the country.
Moreover, the United States is one of a handful of countries that has failed to ratify the UN International Law of the Sea treaty, adopted more than 30 years ago and now signed by 167 countries, including China and Russia. Despite strong support from Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, the US military, the business community, and environmentalists, Congress has consistently failed to muster the required two-thirds vote, largely because some senators dislike international UN-sponsored agreements in general.
President Trump says he wants to “grow the ocean economy,” but his approach is likely to achieve precisely the opposite. Pollution of coastal zones degrades beaches, reduces property values, and destroys jobs. The Deepwater Horizon spill, for example, released 200 million gallons of oil into the Gulf Coast, spoiling 1,300 miles of coastline, killing 800,000 birds, and putting 12,000 people out of work. Moreover, the warming of the oceans is increasing the frequency and intensity of super storms. Last year, Hurricane Harvey killed 107 people and flooded hundreds of thousands of homes. The economic damage across the Houston area totaled some $125 billion.
Closer to home, in New England, our tourism, recreational boating, and fishing industries are vulnerable as warmer ocean water forces fish to migrate north, threatening the cod and shrimp trade. Temperatures in the waters off the Gulf of Maine are rising more rapidly than almost anywhere on the planet. Combined with overfishing, this shift has already reduced the population of the iconic New England cod fish by 75 percent over the past 10 years. Instead of helping New England adjust to these changes, the Trump administration is boosting the use of fossil fuels like coal, which will cause sea temperatures to rise faster. And Last week, House Republicans voted to weaken one of the few successful congressional efforts — the 40-year old Magnuson-Stevens Act, which aims to replenish fisheries.
The actions we can take at the individual level are valuable, but modest — such as relying less on plastic straws and cutlery (the US dumps 500 million straws into the oceans each year); eating fish that is raised sustainably; and using less fertilizer (which causes toxic algae blooms) and harsh chemical cleaners.
But unlike immigration, health care, or even the Supreme Court, the reckless abuse of the oceans is not reversible. The sea has adapted to changes for millennia, but there are only a few ways to preserve it in a condition that supports human life. Harvard biologist E.O. Wilson, the father of biodiversity, has called for protecting half the ocean; the consensus among those who study the ocean is that we need to set aside at least 30 percent.
Today we are far from that goal. Only 4 percent of the world’s oceans have any protections, far less than the amount of land zoned as national parks. As the oceanographer Jacques Cousteau said, “The sea, the great unifier, is man’s only hope. Now, as never before, the old phrase has a literal meaning: We are all in the same boat.”
Linda J. Bilmes, a senior lecturer at Harvard University, served as assistant secretary of the US Department of Commerce, which includes the National Oceanic and Atmopheric Administration. She served on the US Department of Interior National Parks Advisory Board from 2008 to 2018.