On Friday, June 12, 2009, President Barack Obama announced “National Oceans Month.” This was a powerful gesture, and will no doubt serve to increase awareness of our current plight. I applaud the President for making a public statement about this tremendously important issue. Quoting directly from the proclamation: “we celebrate these vast spaces and the myriad ways they sustain life. We also pledge to preserve them and commend all those who are engaged in efforts to meet this end.”
But, alas — I wouldn’t be a blogger if I didn’t use my little cyber-soapbox to pick, prod, and critique. So, in the spirit of constructive criticism, I’d like to point out a minor issue that I feel merits a bit of discussion:
There is no such thing as a “national ocean.”
Now, I can already hear the whistling of the incoming artillery that my snarky little comment has invited. “It’s a month about national recognition for the oceans, not recognition for national oceans,” or “He’s only the President of one country, he can only make national statements.” I know, I know. But bear with me for a minute.
It’s not that I don’t feel that “National Oceans Month” is important. It is. I’m ecstatic that President Obama has taken the time to affix federal letterhead to his views on our planet’s seas. It is, as I opined earlier, a very good thing.
The problem is that oceans are not national. They are the very definition, in fact, of international. And national proclamations won’t fix them.
The reasons behind many of our ocean’s most imposing environmental challenges are international in nature. Ocean acidification, a creeping decrease in pH that spawns from climate change, pollution, and overfishing, is not the fault of any one country, nor can it be solved by any one government. Solving this problem will take the cooperative action of all the world’s nations.
Bluefin tuna, a favorite punching-bag subject of mine, is similar in nature. The bluefin is a migratory, pelagic species. It does not spend its entire life within the exclusive economic zone of any one country. International agreements that are in place to “manage” it continue to fail in any number of ways. For example, ICCAT (the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas) is a multi-state body tasked with managing bluefin tuna stocks in the Mediterranean and surrounding waters. Unfortunately, it has proven to be a toothless paper tiger whose enforcement prowess is somewhere between the Keystone Cops and the guy who sends you to jail in Monopoly.
Pirate fishing in the Southern Ocean, across the South Pacific, and along the African coast is perpetrated by ships from dozens of countries, many flying flags of convenience. These illegal catches are taken from flagging fish stocks and are landed in backwater ports where many strangely well-off harbormasters have a curious amnesia when it comes to remembering to record landings in log books.
Addressing these types of issues through the instrument of national policy will land only a glancing blow at best. If President Obama truly wants to be a leader in the realm of ocean conservation (and I, for one, believe he does), he needs to approach these issues from an international perspective.
Ocean acidification? Get real on climate change. Go to Copenhagen in December willing to make a real commitment. Throw out the ineffectual Waxman-Markey Bill and actually work with the international community to reduce carbon emissions by a meaningful amount.
Bluefin tuna? Sponsor its inclusion under CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). That will tighten our import regulations as well as give the patrols in the Atlantic and the Mediterranean the power and resources they need to save this animal from total extinction.
Pirate fishing? Push for international agreements that require chain-of-custody documentation for the seafood trade. Promote the development of international certification standards that require full transparency. Hold countries like Liberia, the Bahamas, and Panama responsible for the illegal actions of ships that are registered under their flags. And most importantly, lead an international effort to establish no-take zones in spawning grounds and environmentally sensitive areas throughout the world’s oceans.
It’s true, Obama can only speak for one country, not for the world. But addressing ocean conservation this way underscores the unfortunate tendency of the United States government to approach climate change and other mammoth (no pun intended) issues from a unilateral perspective. This indefensible promotion of environmental isolationism is precisely the perspective the White House was employing when Reagan dismissed UNCLOS, not to mention when Bush emasculated Kyoto.
Last time I checked, the United States still carried a pretty big stick in the international arena. If our government got serious about the idea that our globe is in fact global, we could make major changes… we might even be able to heal our oceans.
It’s great to have a National Oceans Month — it’s an important step, and it’s a whole lot better than nothing. But if we’re serious about this, it needs to be International… and it needs to be a Year.