Experts Warn Against Ignoring Ocean Environment

June 8, 2021 by Tom Ramstack
NOAA’s ROV Deep Discover examines a collection of deep water corals on the western wall of Oceanographer Canyon

WASHINGTON — Some of America’s best oceanographers made a plea to Congress Monday to protect the oceans from environmental disaster or risk devastating consequences for the human population.

They said global warming was increasing floods and hurricanes, raising sea levels and killing the coral reefs that are the cradle for much of the world’s ocean life.

With better mapping and protection of wildlife, the oceans could become part of the solution that feeds humans and creates jobs for them, the oceanographers said.

“I think it’s just smart business,” said Robert D. Ballard, president of the nonprofit Ocean Exploration Trust.

The hearing coincided with World Oceans Day on June 8, a day the United Nations declared should be set aside to create awareness about the benefits of the oceans and the need to protect them.

It also is being used by members of the House Science, Space, and Technology subcommittee on environment to drum up support for what they call their “oceanshot.”

Much like the moonshot — or landing people on the Moon — was a watershed event in U.S. history, the lawmakers want an oceanshot to map the world’s oceans and figure out better ways to use them to help society.

Ballard, who is best known for finding the sunken wreck of the Titanic, told the subcommittee that “we have better maps of Mars and the far side of our Moon than half of our country [in U.S. coastal waters] and it would cost less to map the world’s oceans than it cost to map Mars.”

He and other oceanographers said ocean maps are needed to improve weather forecasting and to pinpoint undersea pollution that harms the environment. One of them is acidification, which refers to global warming dumping carbon dioxide into the oceans that creates acids and kills off coral reefs.

Oceanshot efforts would be helped by developing better remote technologies, Ballard said.

“I found a glaring absence of use of the innovative telepresence technologies combined with the use of autonomous vehicle systems including uncrewed surface ships,” he said in his testimony.

Ballard also suggested government assistance to develop aquaculture, which refers to farming of fish, crustaceans and other water life under controlled conditions, rather than commercial fishing that harvests wild fish.

The plea for more environmental awareness of the oceans is getting a better reception in the Biden administration than in previous years.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service under President Joe Biden are trying to reverse Trump administration policies that put a lower priority on protecting habitats of endangered plants and animals.

The policy change is partly a response to a United Nations warning that declining biodiversity threatens food systems and parts of the global economy.

Craig McLean, a scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said a main problem for research and development in the oceans was a lack of resources.

“NOAA is a $12 billion agency trapped in a five-and-a-half billion dollar budget,” McLean said.

Only about 19% of the ocean floor has been mapped, he said. Mapping all the oceans would cost about $3 billion and take 10 years.

Lawmakers on the subcommittee joined in statements about the importance of the oceans.

Rep. Mikie Sherrill, D-N.J., who chairs the subcommittee on environment, said, “Human health is inextricably tied to ocean health. But ocean health is under siege.”

In 2020, a record 22 extreme weather events caused more than $1 billion each, she said.

Rep. Stephanie Bice, R-Okla., said better knowledge of the oceans could make offshore oil drilling and wind generation more productive.

“The potential benefits could touch all aspects of society,” Bice said.

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