Marine ecologist Jane Lubchenco, administrator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, spoke in March at the National Museum of Natural History on restoring the bounty of the world’s oceans. The magazine’s Erica Hendry caught up with her.
Has the way we view oceans changed?
Oh yes. We’ve truly begun to appreciate how vulnerable and valuable ocean ecosystems are. They’re so vast, so immense, that people previously assumed they were infinitely bountiful and infinitely resilient. We also now realize the full extent to which we depend upon oceans for our own well-being. Seafood is the sole or primary source of protein for more than a billion people worldwide. Half of Americans live in coastal areas. I’ve spoken with people all around the country, asking them, “What do you want from oceans, and what do you think we need from oceans?” Their answers boil down to: clean beaches, healthy seafood, abundant wildlife, vibrant coastal communities, stable fisheries, great recreational options, clean energy and good jobs. There are many other benefits that oceans provide—oxygen, for example, that we breathe, or protection of coasts from storms. But the full extent to which human well-being is dependent on healthy oceans is something most people haven’t appreciated. I would suggest that what we’re seeing globally is a very significant depletion and disruption of ocean ecosystems, but it is not hopeless.
We’ve also learned that ocean protection and restoration can work if they are implemented before an ecosystem is totally degraded.
You've spent the last 30 years with your colleagues at Oregon State building a database about the state's coast. How can that information help take better care of the oceans?
Information about what’s there and how it changes through time is invaluable in providing a baseline from which to document changes and begin to understand the causes of the changes. When I began studying marine biology a lot of the sites I was studying began to change dramatically: Abalones plummeted on the shores of California Islands that I was studying; the rich, vibrant coral reefs of Jamaica became wastelands; and one fishery after another crashed. So over time my research evolved from simply trying to understand what causes basic patterns in the ocean, to trying to understand how people can be better stewards of the ocean riches we need and want. Some changes are natural, such as El Niño events. Others, such as climate change or pollution, are not natural—they are caused by human activities, even though they are usually caused inadvertently. Knowing which changes are natural and which are human-caused really helps us guide actions to remedy the problem.
You and your colleagues have discovered “dead zones” off the coasts of Oregon and Washington—where the oxygen content is so low that most marine life dies. Are these zones getting bigger or more common?
Those dead zones have appeared regularly every summer since 2002, varying in size from one year to another. Prior to 2002, they did not exist, as far as anyone can tell. So something has changed. We believe they are caused by climate-related changes in coastal winds and the ocean. We don’t know what the long-term consequences will be, though we’ve seen very vivid images of massive devastation on the sea floor. The key takeaway is that even an ecological system that seems very rich and very productive can be susceptible to catastrophic shifts in a relatively rapid period of time. As climate change continues, we should expect surprise like one.
You’ve mentioned “holistic approaches.” What do you mean by that?
The way we typically manage activity in the ocean—as well as on coasts—is sector-by-sector, issue-by-issue. One agency regulates water quality, another regulates fishing, another regulates energy extraction and another regulates shipping. We need a cohesive national policy and a mechanism for integrating activities across the different branches of government.
The holistic approach also entails aligning conservation with economic incentives. New approaches—such as dividing up the total allowable catch among fisherman into shares—provide incentives to reduce wasteful practices that harm the environment and reduce profits.
There’s a lot of new information from both the practical world as well as the scientific world that is coming together. I think there’s an emerging appreciation that healthy oceans matter and that we all have a responsibility to protect and restore the oceans so that we can continue to benefit from their bounty as well as their beauty.