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The Future of the Oceans

Kathleen Sullivan

May 25, 1995 – Washington DC


After many years in the Astronaut Corps, I realized I didn’t want to just observe from the sidelines. Like many of you, I wanted to contribute in a more direct way, in my case, to the scientific efforts to understand complex ocean systems, and to the social efforts to address and solve them. So I left the astronaut program and these broad vistas, to come back and work on the human scale.

In the US, nearly half of the population lives in the 10 percent of our land that is considered coastal. Coastal population continues to grow faster than inland population. And similar trends exist worldwide. In a recent speech, the prime minister of Norway cited projections that by the year 2030, 70 percent of the nearly-doubled world population will live within five miles of the coast. Coastal zones host myriad human activities. Individuals use the sea for recreation and relaxation ranging from lolling on the beach to clamming in a marsh. Many industries and communities locate by the sea both for proximity to transportation and for the ease of waste disposal. Almost 95 percent of the world’s trade–$465 billion in the US in 1990 alone–is transported by ship, through coastal waters. Off-shore mining and oil production are crucial elements of many economies. Fishermen, professional and amateur alike, take their living or their pleasure from the sea. And about 75 percent of their catch, depends, at some stage of its life, on coastal habitat.

In the US, in sum, the coasts support fully 34 percent of national employment. Land use and population growth are changing the character not only of our shorelines, but also of the coastal nation itself. Every nation, every region, every estuary has a different mix of land-based sources of pollution, from municipal sewage outflows, to radioactive waste.

There are many sources of contamination to the coastal zone. Among coastal point sources, we find industrial and municipal waste streams. Nonpoint sources include urban run-off from streets, lawns and parking lots. They also include run-off from farmland, feed lots, and tree harvesting, as well as groundwater seepage from landfills, septic tanks and hazardous waste sites. The ramifications of these contaminants are widespread. The public health effects include contaminated seafood and closed beaches.

One objective of monitoring campaigns is clearly to provide public safety and regulatory authorities with scientific data upon which to base their decisions. Another more general one is to learn how to develop coasts with less or minimal damage to coastal ecosystems. Fish stock assessments track the health and abundance of marine life. Local health officials test for e coli bacteria in bathing beaches.

Managers are trying more and more to use understanding of marine natural processes to guide decision-making. Municipalities and industries, for example, cannot place out falls and marine areas until extensive studies are done on circulation patterns, chemistry, and the ecosystems of the area, in order to ensure that wastes don’t end up on the beach or in seafood.

These studies are possible only because of progress in recent years by academic and government scientists on estuarine and coastal physical oceanography, chemistry and biology. These ongoing studies may explain and help managers prevent other effects of human activities. As an example, let me discuss the recent deterioration of water quality–hypoxia, or eutrophication–in the Gulf of Mexico. When a body or layer of water has insufficient oxygen to support its normal ecology, that water is turned hypoxic, and the ecosystem as a whole is called eutrophic. Hypoxia can be caused in coastal waters by blooms of microscopic plants in the surface layers, phytoplankton. The plankton die and settle to the bottom, where they decompose and consume oxygen in the process. Since the bottom layer is cut off from the atmosphere, and has no oxygen source, it remains depleted in oxygen. And the shrimp, worms, and fish that live on the bottom can no longer survive.

Routine monitoring of water quality in the Gulf Mexico revealed, about eight years ago, that the occurrence and extent of hypoxia in the bottom waters was increasing covering vast areas of the coastal ocean. Scientists sponsored by NOAA’s nutrient enhanced coastal ocean productivity program began to collect data and develop a model relating the hypoxia to chemical inputs from rivers nearby.

They determined that in the Gulf of Mexico, the element which limits plant growth in surface layers is nitrogen. Fertilizer run-off from the Mississippi River enriches the surface waters in nitrogen, causing large plankton blooms and, ultimately, hypoxia. Fertilizer used along the Mississippi River has risen steadily since 1930, and the bottom layer of oxygen-depleted coastal waters in the Gulf of Mexico has grown increasingly.

Scientists are now conducting studies to determine what effect this might have on fishing and shrimping. Ultimately, fisheries officials in this case will find they need to work with coastal managers and land use planners to find the solution. This is, in short, a classic example of a habitat related fisheries problem–one which cannot be solved by the independent action of just the fisheries managers, nor the uninformed action of land use managers.

Likewise, loss of wetlands and estuaries will affect fisheries. Recall that 75 percent of commercial species spend some time in coastal waters during their lifecycle. These are ecosystems that grade almost seamlessly from land to sea, from fresh water to marine. Clearly, effective management here will depend on sound understandings of the systems and processes in all of these domains.

Let’s turn now to consider the living ocean. I’m sure many of you have seen headlines such as these: “New England Fisheries Close;” “Worldwide Production of Fish Falling;” “Nations Negotiating Contentiously to Divide Fishing Rights;” “Armed Confrontations at Sea.” And all of this at a time when more and more of the world’s population relies on fish for crucial dietary protein.

A recent study suggests that by the year 2010, the worldwide demand for food fish will rise by 28 percent from the present 70 million tons to 90 million tons. How severe are these problems? What elements are man-caused? What parts reflect natural variability? What can be done about these?

A few statistics give the general outline of the problem. According to the UN food and agricultural organization, 69 percent of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, overfished, or in the process of rebuilding. Similar percentages show 83 percent for US fisheries. The major factors behind the stress on fish populations are well-characterized: open access, uncertain information, habitat degradation, and extreme waste.

Major fishing grounds have now been closed in hopes that these stocks will recover. And meanwhile, the fishing communities are struggling to survive, despite the severe dislocations. To learn how to encourage the recovery of commercial species, and hopefully to prevent a recurrence of this tragic cycle, once the fish return, NOAA, in partnership with the National Science Foundation and the academic community, has invested some of the resources of an important experiment, known as the Global Ocean Ecosystems Dynamics Experiment (GLOBEC) in the study of Georges Bank.

Today, of course, it seems like El Niño is in everyone’s vocabulary. But that’s because long-term investments and research today are demonstrating so clearly the importance of this blue ocean to open ocean basins beyond the coastal zone, and the daily importance of its effects on human populations through its relationship to our planet’s climate system. The economic importance of understanding climate is illustrated yearly.

Abnormally heavy rains in California this winter resulted in over $3 billion in damage to homes, businesses, and transportation infrastructure. And the damage to crops has raised prices nationwide. The Midwest draught in 1988 cost $5.5 billion in commodity disaster payments and disaster assistance. The Midwest floods of 1993 resulted in $4.9 billion in disaster assistance and flood insurance. The floods and draughts associated with an earlier El Niño, the 1982 to ’83 event, resulted in worldwide economic losses of over $13 billion.

Increased understanding of the El Niño phenomenon and its relation to climate has permitted NOAA to institute an operational El Niño forecast. And the agency is working now with agricultural, tourism and other sector planners to maximize the economic benefits of this understanding. Obviously, the ability to forecast these natural events does not prevent them. But a six to nine month warning allows plans to be made to mitigate the damage.

The worldwide benefits of this work are already becoming clear. El Niño predictions paid off in Brazil since 1992. The numerical data shows the consequences back in 1987 of not having forecast capability, and in 1992 and subsequent years of having the benefits of El Niño forecast. Let me just recap briefly. In a mean year, the grain production of Sella Province of Brazil is 650,000 tons. In 1987, rainfall declined by 30 percent, as an El Niño year; and the grain production fell to only 15 percent of its normal level, down to 100,000 tons.

In 1992, the precipitation level was quite similar, almost a 30 percent reduction. But taking advantage of the El Niño forecast, and adjusting the crop rotation decisions accordingly, 530,000 tons, or 82 percent of the normal mean yield were recouped. El Niño-induced floods and draughts can impact agriculture, energy availability, transportation, water supplies, insurance costs, and public health and safety.

Through the seasonal to interannual climate prediction program, NOAA is leading an international effort to improve climate forecasts and promote their use for societal benefit. One NOAA funded study, in the July issue of the Journal of Contemporary Economics, states that these forecasts can have a $100 million to $125 million economic benefit per year, just in the agricultural sector, just in the Southeastern United States.

These are challenging times of very great change. One thing we have in common is that each of us, in our different venues, our different arenas, grapple to find answers and wrestle to find solutions to problems as diverse as the declining fisheries, intensifying coastal development, forecasting climate. The question of importance of the ocean to mankind’s affairs is not a partisan question; it’s not even a national question. I would remind you, having had such brilliant and stunning evidence of it myself, directly, we live on an ocean planet.



Copyright 1995 by Kathleen Sullivan. All rights reserved.