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Conserving Our Oceans: An Overview

a hole in the ground

When we think about oxygen production, plankton is not often the first thing that comes to mind. Maybe it should though; plankton produces between 70-80% of the oxygen we breathe (Hall 2011). Conserving our oceans is a critical multinational effort that is often undervalued. If precautionary steps are not taken to conserve the seas, in addition to constituting sustainable practices, the entire planet is at risk. Luckily, there are many organizations that are involved in the conservation and management of our waterways, and there are ways you can participate too.

Globally, most officials are aware of the conservation crisis at hand. Such raised awareness prompted the United Nations (UN) to hold their first Ocean Conference in 2017. During this conference, experts from around the globe discussed management practices, sustainable fishing, and waste management (UN 2018). June 8th was designated as World Oceans Day and countries within the intergovernmental organization began raising more awareness of the steps they were taking to save the seas.

Antecedently, in October of 1972, the 92nd U.S. Congress agreed upon and put into active legislation, the Coastal Zone Management Act (CZMA) (NOAA 2017). The Act’s stated mission was to “Preserve, protect, develop, and where possible, to restore or enhance the resources of the nation’s coastal zone (16 U.S.C. § 1451)”.  Four years later, in 1976, the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (MSFCMA) passed as well. Piggybacking off CZMA, the primary purpose of MSFCMA was to begin generating and enforcing sustainable fishing practices within 200 miles of the United States’ shores (NOAA West Coast 2012).

Today, New Jersey is subject to both of these conservation-based acts given its 1,792 miles of coastline (NOAA/PA71046 1975), along with the 33 other states designated as having a coastline. Both CZMA and MSFCMA are federally run, but while NOAA, the administrator, has the authority to designate coastal zones and programs, leaves majority of the CZMA dictation to the individual state and leaves MSFCMA control to the Regional Fishery Management Councils (NOAA 2018). This gives New Jersey the power to organize marine debris clean-ups, generate and enforce on and off-shore fishing laws and bylaws, and secure protected areas such as the Jacques Cousteau Estuary.

            A prominent and recent example of the federal and state cooperation, and an example for the UN Oceans Committee, is NOAA’s recent change to the minimum size limit for shortfin mako sharks, a species of shark that is the often the poster boy for tournaments both off the Jersey coast and the eastern seaboard as a whole. The new 83” forklength limit has made it more difficult for fisherman to keep their catch, but has also ensured the species has more time to reproduce given their unique life history (NOAA 2018). Previously, the minimum forklength was 53”, and this size increase has changed the way tournaments are run. Mako Fever, a tournament run off the New Jersey shore, is now allowing thresher sharks to be weighed in place of makos, while still maintaining a mako first policy (Radel 2018). It is hoped by many conservationists that other tournaments follow suit given the popularity of shark tournaments on the east coast. While NOAA’s fleet can monitor tournaments such as Mako Fever, it ultimately falls to the New Jersey Fish and Wildlife Commission to enforce all conditions of such tournaments, and up to fishermen to follow them.

Enforcement by NJ officials has also led to lower mortality rates among released sharks, as indicated by preliminary research conducted by Keith Dunton out of Monmouth University (Warren 2018). The enforcement of circle hooks, pictured above, has led to cleaner billfish and shark catches (NOAA 2018); i.e., the fish are not able to swallow the hooks as frequently as when standard J-hooks are utilized, leading to less internal injury. Photo by Rebecca Wright

Nationally, CZMA and MSFCMA are not the only Acts that designate ocean conservation. Under CZMA alone, there are three other programs – the National Coastal Zone Program, Coastal and Estuarine Land Conservation Program, and the National Estuarine Research Reserve System (16 U.S.C. § 1451). The Coral Reef Conservation Act (16 U.S.C. § 6403), the Endangered Species Act (16 U.S.C. § 1533), and other programs like The Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuaries Act of 1972 (33 U.S.C. § 1401) and even the Invasive Species Act (16 U.S.C. § 4701), all work to keep our oceans healthy.

On a smaller scale, both the Department of Environmental Protection and the Department of Fish and Wildlife work to ensure healthy environmental conditions are met, working in conjunction with NGO’s and civilians with an interest in conservation. These state level agencies monitor fishing regulations and help in managing pollution and bylaws (NJ Fish and Wildlife 2018). Both state departments are controlled by NJ state electives and can changes based on the state’s current administration. Aside from voting for conservation-conscientious officials though, civilians can get involved in conservation as well.

Every year, there is one week that encourages people throughout the nation to watch nature documentaries. Discovery Channel’s Shark Week. It amazes, terrifies, and replaces negative stereotypes with facts gathered through years of hard research. Most importantly though, Shark Week raises awareness – something anyone can do. Many studies have demonstrated a decrease in numbers of this apex predator (Robbins et al. 2006) and the world knows thanks to publicity. Social media is one of the best ways to promote awareness of an issue while evoking action. From knowledge, it is hoped that civilians begin to think about their actions while also taking part in programs greater than themselves, such as anti-pollution groups like 4Ocean, research teams like OCEARCH, IGOs and national organizations like NOAA, or NGOs such as Green Peace. Any effort by any party to better ocean conservation is welcomed and appreciated. In the meantime, picking up litter, adhering to safe and rightful fishing practices, and being aware of how individual actions can affect the bigger picture already puts humans on the path to a more sustainable relationship with the ocean. If we the people take action, there is a light at the end of the tunnel and conservation efforts will begin seeing real results.

Rebecca Wright, The Pennsylvania State University

Intern at Cape May Whale Watch and Research Center