Mother, Mother Ocean
We sailors are in the best position of all to come to her immediate aid.
These currents and upwellings are the driving wheel of world weather. We tamper with them at our peril.
Where history was written, early accounts describe the formative role played by the sea in the physical, cultural, and spiritual lives of the people.
Where traditions were oral, such as in Oceania, we need only look to the amazing feats of sailing and navigation to deduce how central the sea was to the world view of the Pacific islanders.
The history of the sea deserves more space than we have here, so I regretfully fast-forward to the age of the militarization and commercialization of the seas, when they became not only the path toward our myths and adventures but also the arteries of commerce and conquest.
Because the oceans’ very size made them hard to protect as sovereign territory, emerging industrialized nations, including the United States, England, and Japan, initially claimed their adjacent waters out no farther than a cannonball could travel, roughly three miles.
But when valuable resources of new seafood stocks, gas, oil, and rare minerals were discovered and new technologies developed to exploit them, the United Nations implemented in 1994 a 200-mile economic exclusion zone that applied to all coastal nations and permitted each to plant a national flag on even the remotest rock awash.
Now, even a remote rock isn’t required. In 2007, via a submarine, Russia planted a flag on the floor of the Arctic Ocean at the geographic North Pole as the opening salvo in claiming oil-drilling rights over half of the Arctic Basin.
While modern nations, the United States included, are ever eager to claim rights to vast areas of ocean, none have been as eager to claim responsibility for its health and welfare. According to the Pew Oceans Commission, less than 1 percent of the world’s waters are set aside as protected marine reserves. Thus the pervasive global concept has been one of ownership, not stewardship.
So the open ocean is up for grabs, the rules are few and vague, and the enforcement is feeble. Who cares if this year’s tonnage of fish caught is only half of last year’s? The price of fish has doubled, and profits are good. And so it’s gone until now, as we witness the collapse of fisheries once so abundant that we believed them to be infinite.
But worse is that the oceans aren’t respected even as an extractive-resource pool. We use them as a global dumping ground for toxic runoff, household and industrial trash, medical and nuclear waste, and explosive materials.
This dump we thought of as infinite is now showing signs of saturation. We’ve been forced to coin a new lexicon to describe novel problems: pelagic plastic, anaerobic dead zones, trash vortexes.
In the past, we might’ve used ignorance as a defense. But certainly New York City suspected what the effects of decades of hauling massive amounts of garbage on barges into the Atlantic Ocean and simply pushing it overboard would be.
In this year of 2010, how can such a city as Victoria, British Columbia, justify pumping its entire production of raw sewage into the Strait of Juan de Fuca? The government can no longer stand on what I call the “downstream defense,” the attitude that the currents will take the waste away from here and the ocean can absorb it, so where’s the problem?
The answer to that question is everywhere! The Independent World Commission on the Oceans estimates that 44 percent of global marine pollution comes from land-based run-off and 33 percent from atmospheric fallout. The Pew Oceans Commission states that every eight months, 11 million gallons of oil run off U.S. streets and driveways into our seas—an amount that’s the equivalent of the Exxon-Valdez oil spill.