Editor’s Note: Carl Safina is the inaugural holder of the Carl Safina Endowed Research Professorship for Nature and Humanity at Stony Brook University, where he is also founding president of The Safina Center and co-chair of the Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. His latest book, “Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel,” was published by Henry Holt and Company in July. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.
Carl Safina: For millions of Americans flocking to the shore this summer, the sea will be a beautiful backdrop
But for scientists and conservationists, the view of the water brings hope and a reason to feel patriotic
Millions of Americans are flocking to the shore this summer, seeking stunning seascapes and beaches to refresh their hearts and minds. For most, the sea will be a beautiful backdrop.
But for scientists and conservationists, the view of the water brings hope and a reason to feel patriotic. Protections that America has put in place in past decades are a commitment to hope and bearing fruit. Here are some things to look for at the shore on your next trip. We’ll start at the surface and go down:
On the beach and in the sea air, what may simply look like “seagulls” is a wide palette of birds, each with its own story. Scurrying sandpipers 4 inches in length are in the midst of some of the longest migrations in the world, traveling as much as 9,000 miles each year from high Arctic to Patagonia and back. Ospreys – the giant fish-hawks on 6-foot wings – were almost erased by DDT-type pesticides in my youth, but since the pesticides were banned, these birds have recovered and are now quite abundant.
At the surface, seals and whales – whose populations were at serious lows a few decades ago – have made major recoveries, thanks in part to the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972 and the whaling ban. Intellectually, these animals range from being as smart as dogs to possessing the most massive minds on Earth. They strive to stay alive as much as we do.
Sea turtles have benefited greatly from the Endangered Species Act of 1973. And all U.S. fish and shellfish (and seafood lovers) benefit 24/7 from the Clean Water Act of 1972. Together, these promises to a better American future – a better deal with nature that Americans forged in the 1970s – have been working, continually paying dividends as a remarkable rising tide of recovery and health.
Beneath the waves, more recent regulations setting limits on fish catches in U.S. coastal waters have yielded something truly remarkable: recoveries. True, depletion remains problematic in some regions, particularly the Northeast’s cod, Caribbean reefs, and the Northwest’s eternally dammed salmon. But in general, we are the first generation in 500 years to see more fish – rather than fewer –than when we were born.
That’s also, in part, why as a rule of thumb it’s best to eat American seafood. In most other countries, fish are not as well-managed, the waters are more polluted and processed fish may well have been refrozen. In Southeast Asia, it’s recently come to light that much fishing for shrimp is done by slave labor.
Not that everything in the United States is rosy.
Water pollution remains an enormous problem in the United States and around the world, but the challenge here has changed. The danger from hard pesticides such as DDT has been replaced by, among other things, excessive nitrogen from cesspool seepage and farm runoff. Nitrogen is fertilizer. It sparks massive explosions of single-cell algae that sap the waters’ oxygen when they die or can even be toxic to wildlife and humans.
In some areas, still-depleted fish populations may be related to high numbers of jellyfish. Mercury, a byproduct of burning coal, now contaminates almost all fish to some degree. It’s bad for developing fetuses and not so great for the rest of us. The older and larger a fish is, the more mercury it has accumulated. So if you can fit the whole fish on your plate, there’s little worry; if you can’t, don’t eat it too often.
Plastic is increasingly prevalent on beaches. Most seagoing plastic comes from land, not from boats. The United States has a pretty good handle on controlling plastic waste, but other parts of the world, not so much. The United States contributes roughly 0.1 billion pounds of plastic to the ocean each year; China contributes 4.9 billion pounds.
Oil pollution risk is escalating, too, as we drill deeper into offshore sites where we cannot deal as effectively with sudden problems. Oil exploration is coming to the East Coast and the Arctic, which will make those fisheries, beaches and wildlife susceptible to catastrophic spills such as BP’s devastation of the Gulf Coast.
Coinciding with spreading oil exploration will be the development of wind farms. We’ll be watching an offshore race of crucial importance between the last of the filthy energy and the first of the clean. And we will get the kinds of jobs and the future for which we plan.
But even that race underscores the reason for hope. The story of America’s coast and oceans is one of proven restoration whenever and wherever we prioritize conservation and manage the potential for human harm. We know how to do it successfully. And given a chance, nature knows what to do.
Sadly, what the United States and a handful of other countries have accomplished is nearly impossible in most of the world because of poverty, hunger, lack of enforcement capacity and lack of political will.
As we look at the ocean and out to the horizon, we must see opportunity rather than plastic headed our way. It’s the opportunity to refresh the promise for the generation that will follow ours and to share our proven practices that can revitalize nature.
Why? Because human dignity depends on a healthy environment capable of supporting abundant life. That osprey flying overhead at the beach – it’s telling you that your food is safer now.
We’ve already demonstrated the power of hope and commitment in the United States. We must keep generating that power at home and look for ways to export it – with liberty and justice for all.