While overfishing, pollution, and global warming continue to threaten our oceans, there is some good news about the world's seas. Some Pacific island countries are protecting their reefs, while haddock and scallops are recovering in New England waters. And humpback and some gray and right whales are slowly making a comeback.
The positive news was announced at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in February. According to Jeremy C. B. Jackson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Australia has successfully protected large parts of the Great Barrier Reef, and areas of the Northern Line Islands in the Pacific have retained healthy reefs supporting large populations of living coral. Andrew A. Rosenberg of the University of New Hampshire said scallops and haddock in New England waters have recovered dramatically and are currently being sustainably harvested.
Growth in the number of national marine sanctuaries has helped contribute to cleaner, safer waters worldwide. The National Marine Sanctuary System consists of 14 marine protected areas that encompass more than 150,000 square miles of ocean and Great Lake waters from Washington State to the Florida Keys, and from Lake Huron to American Samoa. The system includes 13 national marine sanctuaries and the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument. The sanctuaries vary in their levels of protection and have had mixed success in preserving sensitive ecosystems.
Former President George W. Bush signed a law in 2006 designating the Northwest Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) as the largest protected marine reserved in the world, more than 140,000 square miles (362,000 square kilometers) of reefs, atolls, and shallow seas. The region, just larger than the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, is home to more than 7,000 marine species, some of which are found nowhere else on earth. These remote, uninhabited islands and seas are breeding grounds for sea turtles and the only remaining population of the endangered Hawaiian monk seal. National monument status gives NWHI more protection from commercial and sport fishing than other marine sanctuaries. Damage caused by discarded fishing gear and other debris has been a problem in the area; at least 155 Hawaiian monk seals were reportedly entangled in debris since 1982. According to the Ocean Conservancy, tourism to the Hawaiian Islands adds additional noise and pollution, including discharges from cruise ships and the threat of the introduction of non-native species.
In another positive move for our oceans, in response to a petition and threatened litigation by the Center for Biodiversity, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in February agreed to review how ocean acidification should be addressed under the federal Clean Water Act.
Ocean acidification results from the ocean's absorption of excess CO2 in the atmosphere, resulting in increased acidity and changes in the seawater chemistry which in turn can hinder the ability of marine animals to build and maintain their protective shells and skeletons. The Center has asked the EPA to impose stricter pH standards for ocean water quality as well as publish guidelines to help states protect U.S. waters.
The EPA's formal response to the petition sets out a public process to evaluate ocean acidification's impact on water quality, as well as determining whether the current water quality criterion for pH should be modified to address these new concerns. The EPA also agreed to develop biological assessment tools and other technical guidance with regard to evaluating the health of coral reefs that are specifically threatened by ocean acidification.
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