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America's Oceans in Crisis

the Pew Oceans Commission


Without reform, our daily actions will increasingly jeopardize American oceans, which are already suffering from:

  • coastal development and expansion
  • depletion of fisheries and other marine life
  • degradation from pollution and runoff
  • invasive species
  • and other human-induced hazards

June 2003

America’s oceans are in crisis and the stakes could not be higher. Marine life and vital coastal habitats are straining under the increasing pressure of our use.


A shipping route on the Georgia, USA coast. America’s oceans are in crisis. Photo: Oksana Hlodan.

  • More than half the U.S. population lives in coastal counties.
  • The resident population in this area is expected to increase by 25 million people by 2015.
  • More than 180 million people visit the shore for recreation every year.
The economy, as well as quality of life, depends on healthy oceans.

Though a price tag has never been assigned to our coastal economy, it is clear that it contributes significantly to the nation’s overall economic activity. Tens of thousands of jobs in fishing, recreation, and tourism depend on healthy, functioning coastal ecosystems. Now, thousands of jobs and billions of dollars of investment have either been lost or are jeopardized by collapsing fisheries. Pollution and sprawl threaten ocean-related tourism and recreation, far and away the largest component of the coastal economy.

But more than jobs are at stake. All Americans depend on the oceans and affect the oceans, regardless of where they live. Ocean currents circulate the energy and water that regulate the Earth’s climate and weather and, thus, affect every aspect of the human experience. Our very dependence on and use of ocean resources are exposing limits in natural systems once viewed as too vast and inexhaustible to be harmed by human activity. Without reform, our daily actions will increasingly jeopardize a valuable natural resource and an invaluable aspect of our national heritage.

So far, successful solutions to coastal problems are the exception and not the rule.

In the midst of crisis, there are expressions of hope and signs of success. Striped bass, severely depleted along our Atlantic shores, made a striking comeback when given a chance. North Atlantic swordfish recently did the same in response to lower catch limits and closed nursery areas. Seabirds, kelp beds, and fish communities returned to the coastal waters off Los Angeles after waste discharges were reduced. Proven, workable solutions to the crisis in our oceans exist but such successes will remain the exception rather than the rule until we chart a new course for ocean management.

The evidence

We are at a crossroads — the oceans may not be able to sustain us much longer.

The evidence that our oceans face a greater array of problems than ever before in our nation’s history surrounds us. Marine life and vital coastal habitats are straining under the increasing pressure of our use. We have reached a crossroads where the cumulative effect of what we take from, and put into, the ocean substantially reduces the ability of marine ecosystems to produce the economic and ecological goods and services that we desire and need. What we once considered inexhaustible and resilient is, in fact, finite and fragile.

The crisis confronting our oceans has many dimensions.

Over 10 million gallons of oil find their way to the ocean every 8 months.
  • Coastal development and associated sprawl destroy and endanger coastal wetlands and estuaries that serve as nurseries for many valuable fishery species. More than 20,000 acres of these sensitive habitats disappear each year. Paved surfaces have created expressways for oil, grease, and toxic pollutants into coastal waters. Every eight months, nearly 11 million gallons of oil run off our streets and driveways into our waters — the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez oil spill.
A dead zone appears in the Gulf of Mexico every summer.
  • More than 60 percent of our coastal rivers and bays are moderately to severely degraded by nutrient runoff. This runoff creates harmful algal blooms and leads to the degradation or loss of seagrass and kelp beds as well as coral reefs that are important spawning and nursery grounds for fish. Each summer, nutrient pollution creates a dead zone the size of Massachusetts in the Gulf of Mexico. These types of problems occur in almost every coastal state and the trends are not favorable. If current practices continue, nitrogen inputs to U.S. coastal waters in 2030 may be as much as 30 percent higher than at present and more than twice what they were in 1960.
As fisheries are depleted, the marine food web changes.
  • Many ecologically and commercially crucial fish species, including groundfish and salmon populations along the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts, face overfishing and numerous other threats. Thirty percent of the fish populations that have been assessed are overfished or are being fished unsustainably. An increasing number of these species are being driven toward extinction. Already depleted sea turtle, marine mammal, seabird, and noncommercial fish populations are endangered by incidental capture in fishing gear. Destructive fishing practices are damaging vital habitat upon which fish and other living resources depend. Combined, these aspects of fishing are changing relationships among species in food webs and altering the functioning of marine ecosystems.
San Francisco Bay is home to 175 invasive species.
  • Invasive species are establishing themselves in our coastal waters, often crowding out native species and altering habitat and food webs. More than 175 introduced species thrive in San Francisco Bay alone. Nearly one million Atlantic salmon escaped from farm pens on the western coast of North America in the last 15 years. The species is now successfully reproducing in British Columbia rivers and diluting the gene pool of native species by hybridizing with Pacific salmon. New species are regularly finding a home around our coastlines as hitchhikers in ship ballast water or on ship hulls, escapees from fish farms, and even as discarded home aquarium plants and animals. Of the 374 documented invasive species in U.S. waters, 150 have arrived since 1970.

These are just some of the signs that our interactions with the oceans are unsustainable. Our activities, from those that release pollutants into rivers and bays to the overfishing of the seas, are altering and threatening the structure and functioning of marine ecosystems — from which all marine life springs and upon which all living things, including humans, depend.

Seeds of crisis

The root cause of this crisis is a failure of both perspective and governance.

We have been slow to realize the value of and our dependence on oceans.
  • We have failed to conceive of the oceans as our largest public domain, to be managed holistically for the greater public good in perpetuity. Our oceans span nearly 4.5 million square miles, an area 23 percent larger than the nation’s land area.

  • Similarly, we have only begun to recognize how vital our oceans and coasts are to our economy as well as to the cultural heritage of our nation.

  • Finally, we have come too slowly to recognize the interdependence of land and sea and how easily activities far inland can disrupt the many benefits provided by coastal ecosystems.

The foundation of U.S. ocean policy was laid in a very different context than exists today. The principal laws to protect our coastal zones, endangered marine mammals, ocean waters, and fisheries were enacted 30 years ago, on a crisis-by-crisis, sector-by-sector basis. Much of what exists of an ocean governance system in this country can be traced to recommendations of the Stratton Commission — the nation’s first review of ocean policy in 1969. Driven by the need to ensure the full and wise use of the marine environment, Stratton focused on oceans as a frontier with vast resources, and largely recommended policies to coordinate the development of ocean resources.

The last time the U.S. forged an oceans policy was 30 years ago.

More than 30 years after the Stratton Commission issued its recommendations, the state of our oceans and coasts is vastly altered. Our perspective on ocean resources and policy has also changed over 30 years. We are increasingly aware that development activities can change marine environments. We are learning more about complex interactions in marine ecosystems and the need to maintain the diversity and resilience of those complex and adaptive natural systems. Today, there is a clear sense that we must do a better job of protecting the oceans if we hope to continue to enjoy their benefits.

Conclusions and recommendations

The fundamental conclusion of the Pew Oceans Commission is that this nation needs to ensure healthy, productive, and resilient marine ecosystems for present and future generations. In the long term, economic sustainability depends on ecological sustainability. To achieve and maintain healthy ecosystems requires that we change our perspective and extend an ethic of stewardship and responsibility toward the oceans. Most importantly, we must treat our oceans as a public trust. The oceans are a vast public domain that is vitally important to our environmental and economic security as a nation.

To embrace these reforms and achieve our goal, the nation must realize five priority objectives:

A new policy should include resource protection and management.
  1. Declare a principled, unified national ocean policy based on protecting ecosystem health and requiring sustainable use of ocean resources.

  2. Encourage comprehensive and coordinated governance of ocean resources and uses at scales appropriate to the problems to be solved.

  3. Restructure fishery management institutions and reorient fisheries policy to protect and sustain the ecosystems on which our fisheries depend.

  4. Protect important habitat and manage coastal development to minimize habitat damage and water quality impairment.

  5. Control sources of pollution, particularly nutrients, that are harming marine ecosystems.

Conclusion: If properly executed, a new policy will ensure abundant living ocean resources for centuries ahead.

This nation must decide how it will choose to meet the crisis in our oceans. Fundamentally, this is not a decision about us. It is about our children, and actions we must take to bequeath them thriving oceans and healthy coastlines.

This is our challenge. To meet this challenge, the nation must substantially increase its investment in understanding and managing its oceans. We need a much greater financial commitment to strengthen governance and management infrastructure, to improve our scientific understanding of marine ecosystems and human impacts, and to educate all Americans about the oceans.

If properly executed, this investment will be paid back manyfold in the form of abundant living ocean resources for centuries ahead. Without this investment, we risk further decline in ocean ecosystem health and serious consequences for human well-being far into the future.

The Pew Oceans Commission was created to chart a new course for the U.S.’s ocean policy. The bipartisan, independent group was also charged with raising public awareness of the principal threats to marine biodiversity and of the importance of ocean and coastal resources to the U.S. economy. For its 2003 report, America’s Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change, the Commission brought together a diverse group of American leaders from the worlds of science, fishing, conservation, government, education, business, and philanthropy.

America's Oceans in Crisis

America’s Living Oceans

Read the complete report America’s Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change (2003) by the Pew Oceans Commission. You can also view charts & figures and download fact sheets. content_type_id=8&issue_name=Protecting ocean life&issue=16&page=8&name=Grantee Reports

Podcast about the health of oceans

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Pew Oceans Commission

The Commission provides various reports for online reading or downloading on the subject of oceans and its resources. of Reports and Publications&issue=16

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“Shifting Baselines: Slow-Motion Disaster in the Sea” by Randy Olson, Ph.D.
“Global Warming & Rising Oceans” by Jeffrey Chanton, Ph.D.
“Bringing Coastal Dead Zones Back to Life” by Robert Howarth, Ph.D.

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