The Blue Frontier

And I have loved thee, Ocean! and my joy
Of youthful sports was on thy breast to be
Borne, like thy bubbles, onward; from a boy
I wantoned with thy breakers, -- they to me
Were a delight; and if the freshening sea
Made them a terror, 'twas a pleasing fear.
-- Lord Byron, 1818

Catch a wave and you're sitting on top of the world.
-- The Beach Boys, 1963
Back in 1890, just a year after the Oklahoma Land Rush, the US Census Bureau ended a key chapter in American history by declaring the nation's frontier closed. But on March 10, 1983 President Ronald Reagan, in one of the most significant and least noted acts of his administration, opened up 3.4 million square nautical miles of new territory, extending US sovereignty over a wet frontier six times the size of the Louisiana Purchase and 30 percent larger than the entire land-base of the United States -- an oceanic domain that stretches from New England's Georges Bank to beyond the outer reefs of Guam, from Dutch Harbor, Alaska to St. Croix, Virgin Islands.

But unlike our last frontier, the creation of this new blue one, our Exclusive Economic Zone (or EEZ), as Reagan called it, has failed to spark the public imagination, to inspire grand plans and visions or even to resolve the ongoing competition and struggle over our nation's maritime resources. That conflict, however, could lead either to the protection and sustainable use of America's greatest natural treasure or condemn our oceans to a final industrial onslaught of destruction.

But it's best we start with the given and the known about this, our final physical frontier. The seas cover 71 percent of the earth's surface, giving our ocean planet its blue marble appearance. While the tropical rain forests have been called the lungs of the world, the oceans actually absorb far greater amounts of carbon dioxide. Microscopic phytoplankton in the top layer of the sea act as a biological pump extracting some 2.5 billion tons of organic carbon out of the atmosphere annually (replacing it with 70 percent of the life-giving oxygen we need to survive). The top two feet of sea water contain as much heat as the entire atmosphere. Scientists who recently have come to recognize ocean currents as key to the creation of climate, clouds and weather still don't know enough about the internal workings of the sea (or have the historic records) to fully incorporate the ocean's thermodynamics into computer models of global warming. More is known about the dark side of the moon than about the depths of the oceans.

Until just over 20 years ago, photosynthesis of carbon dioxide by plankton and terrestrial plants was thought to be the basis of all organic life. Back then, in 1977, scientists aboard a deep-diving submarine off the Galapagos Islands discovered sulfurous hot water vents 8,000 feet below the surface of the sea colonized by giant tube worms, clams, white crabs and other animals that contain sulfur-burning bacteria that provide an alternative basis for sustaining life. Now NASA scientists believe similar "chemosynthetic" life-forms might exist around volcanic deep-ocean vents beneath the icy crust of the Jupiter moon Europa.

For millions of years the ocean has maintained a fecundity of life unmatched on land, an enthralling variety of creatures and wealth of protein that has in the last half century jumped from a 20 to a 90 million metric ton annual harvest for human consumption (about 16 percent of the animal protein we consume). This biomass is equal in weight to more than 900 fully armed aircraft carriers being dredged up from the world's oceans every year (as opposed to the dozen US carriers that actually sail the seas). With the technologies provided by the military, including radar, sonar, improved navigation and communications systems, satellite surveillance, stronger marine engines, nylon for netting and strengthened steel and fiberglass hulls, the world's fishing fleets have been waging a highly efficient market-driven war of extermination on a growing list of fish species and marine creatures.

As a result, the late 1990s saw a precipitous decline in the world's catch with some 70 percent of commercial fisheries now fully exploited, overexploited or at risk of collapse, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization.

This unsustainable killing occurs despite the fact that along with its practical role in maintaining the tides of life, our ocean planet also holds a spiritual resonance for our species, calling us back to a common waterborne birth state we've all experienced on both an individual and evolutionary basis. Our bodies, like the planet are 71 percent saltwater, our blood exactly as salty as the sea. This may explain why it's easier to fall asleep to the sound of the ocean. The rhythm of the waves is like our mother's heartbeat.

The ocean frontier still has a greater biodiversity of life than the richest terrestrial habitats on earth, including rain forests. Disrupting any part of this oceanic ecosystem, the humble spiny urchin as well as the magnificent bluefin tuna, can effect the whole in ways we still don't fully understand. Our actions on land -- over-fertilizing corn fields in Iowa or golf courses in St. Louis, running factory farms in Maryland and Alabama, dripping hydraulic fluid on LA freeways -- can (by way of watersheds, rivers and storm drains) create massive nutrient fed algal blooms and anoxic (oxygen depleted) dead zones in our coastal waters as has already occurred in the Gulf of Mexico. This is why there is a desperate need to develop and expand not only our biological knowledge of the seas, but also an active and educated political constituency to protect the oceans' living resources.

Unfortunately, today's politicians and national leaders seem to be suffering anoxia of the brain when it comes to understanding the value of our living blue frontier. In 1995, the right-wing "revolutionaries" of the 104th Congress abolished the House Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee after 107 years of operation. Noted for its bipartisan commitment to marine issues, some of its oceanic responsibilities were shunted off to a subcommittee of the House Resources Committee (formerly the Natural Resources Committee).Under the Chairmanship of Congressman Don Young of Alaska, this committee was packed with Western Republicans from places like Nevada, Utah, Wyoming and Idaho, who spent more time railing against the reintroduction of wolves into Yellowstone then considering the plight of America's vast seas.

They also attempted to abolish the Department of Commerce without realizing that its largest division, some 8,000 people, worked for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), America's lead agency on the blue frontier. Today the Secretary of Commerce, and the man responsible for most of America's oceans policies, is Don Evans, a Texas oilman and Republican fundraiser.

For several years -- 1997, '98 and '99 -- Congress also refused to pass an "American Oceans Act" that would establish a national blue-ribbon commission to consider the plight of America's Blue Frontier. The American Petroleum Institute, not wanting to jeopardize their position of power in Washington, lobbied hard against the measure on the Hill. Navy officials, worried about new environmental players interfering in their national security projects, also quietly let it be known they didn't much like the idea.

And so the Oceans Act floundered on the shoals of commerce and defense. It finally passed last summer with a 16-member commission to be named by George W. Bush this spring. If this commission is able to take a fair and balanced view of our blue frontier, it will likely find that the fencing off of the American seas, like the fencing off of our prairies more than a century ago, has failed to slow a process of chaotic and rapacious development.

Instead of Buffalo hunters and cattlemen killing off native animals and replacing them with cows that overgraze the range and trample the rivers, we now have giant factory trawlers and draggers over-harvesting our seas and destroying bottom habitat.

In place of army forts and anti-Indian campaigns we have a post-Cold War Navy moving from blue water to brown, looking at the continental shallows and beachfront littoral, the areas where our living resources are most at risk, as their next staging area for war-fighting, extended combat exercises and coastal bombing practice.

Just as the 7th Cavalry opened up Dakota's Black Hills to profit-hungry gold miners, today's coastal real-estate developers are being given special dispensations by the Army Corps of Engineers to fill in wetlands and mangrove swamps that act as the nurseries and filters of the sea, undermining the Clean Water Act in their rush to accommodate more high priced "gold coasts."

And where once a corrupt Congress sold off the public lands to the railroad trusts for pennies on the dollar, today's Mineral Management Service holds fire-sales of off-shore oil and gas leases while Congress declares royalty holidays and tax-breaks for their friends in the offshore industry.

Still, despite today's wide-open frontier activity, the declaration of an EEZ has also provided Americans with an opportunity for a new approach to ocean stewardship: the recognition that when you claim sovereign rights over large parts of the sea, you're also taking on a higher level or responsibility for the sea's protection. It's a mission that growing numbers of coastal citizens, local governments and waterfront communities are no longer waiting patiently for Washington or even their State houses to assume.

They have begun not a grassroots campaign but a seaweed rebellion, and like the giant kelp plant, once it has found a holdfast this movement has the potential to grow at a terrific rate. It's a rebellion that can be seen from the web pages of Surfer activists, "No way Dude! We don't want your Crude!" to the clean-up, rediscovery and celebration of historic waterfronts in Portsmouth, Boston, Baltimore, Jacksonville, Galveston, San Diego, Monterey, Seattle, Seward, Hilo and hundreds of other maritime communities large and small.

It's sometimes angry environmental protests at public hearings on development and off-shore oil or fun but messy restoration projects that can aid the ocean's healing -- be they of a muddy duck pond in Rhode Island, a coastal river in Oregon or the Everglades of south Florida. It's coalitions of fishermen and conservationists, marine scientists and urban planners in the Northwest fighting to restore the wild salmon and protect its damaged habitat from rural Idaho to urban Seattle and on out to sea. It's thousands of outraged letters and newspaper editorials when the former governor of California tried to fire the conservation-oriented director of that state's Coastal Commission, and the "Vote the Coast" coalition that helped elect a more ocean-friendly administration. It's a little girl sleeping snuggled up against her stuffed dolphin or squealing with delight when her father holds her in a wave. It's the future.

For now it's an uncertain future based on a largely inchoate rebellion, not effectively organized to take the fight to every coastal state house, the halls of Congress or beyond. Still, like green phosphorescence sparkling in a wine dark sea, it's more than an illusion, more like a reconciliation of the soul among tens of millions of Americans, who have come to recognize the limitless possibilities of the living sea.

It's a damp and salty uprising aimed at nothing less than the recovery of our maritime culture and heritage, nothing less than the renewal of our journey home to the American sea.

David Helvarg is an investigative journalist, bodysurfer and diver. This article is adapted from "Blue Frontier: Saving America's Living Seas" (W. H. Freeman, April 2001).
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