CORVALLIS, Ore. - In its effort to protect and nurture the ecological health of ocean areas within its territorial boundaries, researchers say the United States could learn valuable lessons from protective measures it has taken in the past century - with considerable success - on the land.

In a new report in the publication Open Spaces, marine researchers at Oregon State University say the time has come for a new "ocean ethic" based philosophically on the same concepts that led to the creation in the U.S. and elsewhere of national parks and wilderness areas, in which multiple plant and animal species have flourished while still providing non-consumptive enjoyment for millions of visitors.

The formation of marine reserves is an important step in this direction, the scientists say, and the debate now under way about such reserves off the coast of Oregon may be followed by people around the nation as they seek to resurrect a marine environment plagued by overfishing, pollution and other threats.

"The current U.S. approach to ocean management is haphazard, piecemeal and ineffective in the face of declining ocean conditions," said Jane Lubchenco, the Wayne and Gladys Valley professor of marine biology at OSU, in the report.

"The time is ripe for better management strategies that should reflect a new ocean ethic," she said. "The goal of this new ethic would be to protect and maintain healthy marine ecosystems . . . the abundance of life, and the productivity, diversity and resilience of ecosystems in the ocean."

Only when that is accomplished, the researchers say, will it be possible to sustain healthy fisheries, vibrant coastal communities, protect a full range of habitats and species, and receive all the goods and services that the ocean can provide.

The oceans that cover 70 percent of the planet provide a wealth of benefits to the Earth and its people, ranging from food, fiber and medicines to recycling of nutrients, detoxification of pollutants, recreation, tourism, and partial regulation of the water cycle, climate and atmosphere.

But many ocean ecosystems are now approaching crisis conditions, the scientists say.

Important fisheries are collapsing due to overfishing, bycatch, pollution and disruption of the ocean food web. Habitat is being lost due to coastal zone development, some fishing practices such as bottom trawling, and aquaculture. Nutrient pollution is causing outbreaks of red tides and harmful algal blooms, and has reached such chronic levels at the mouths of some large rivers that it creates low-oxygen "dead zones." Coral reefs are suffering and new diseases are being introduced, possibly associated with global warming. Invasive species are rampant, and oil spills or other pollution can cause mass mortalities.

"Forty years ago, only 5 percent of major marine fisheries were categorized as fully exploited, overexploited or depleted," Lubchenco said in the report. "Today nearly 70 percent of the global fisheries are in these categories. The conclusion is inescapable. Oceans and their wildlife are insufficiently protected."

A variety of legislative acts and executive orders in the past have attempted, but failed, to protect marine ecosystems, the researchers say. A 26-year-old fisheries conservation act has not achieved its goals, and coastal communities around the nation are reeling from unemployment as a result. Related attempts to protect or set aside some marine sanctuaries are also inadequate - while 5 percent of the nation's land area is protected, less than 1/25 of one percent of U.S. territorial waters are protected, and the other 99.96 percent is in the process of being seriously degraded.

Compared to the oceans, the contrast of ecosystem health in some terrestrial parks and wilderness areas is remarkable, the researchers say - not only in the U.S. but elsewhere around the world. In South Africa at the turn of the 20th century, the land that later became Kruger National Park was home to less than a dozen elephants, only three black rhinoceros, a locally extinct population of the white rhinoceros and a degraded landscape. Today it contains about 8,000 elephants, 300 black rhinoceros, and 2,000 white rhinoceros - along with 336 species of trees, 49 species of fishes, 34 species of amphibians, 114 reptilian species, 507 bird species and 147 species of mammals. In similar fashion, the lands of the U.S. now include numerous national parks and nearly 650 wilderness areas that help protect the land, natural features, botanical richness and wildlife on about 106 million acres for the benefit and enjoyment of all Americans.

The formation of more marine reserves could be an important step in the oceans towards the same type of ecosystem protection that already exists on land, says Lubchenco, who is a distinguished professor of zoology at OSU.

Such reserves could protect habitats and restore populations of species, allowing individuals to grow to the larger sizes that can produce enormous numbers of offspring. "Spillover" of species from healthy reserves often helps to restore depleted fisheries elsewhere, and can work in tandem with enlightened fisheries management in all marine waters to achieve significant improvements.

In these new initiatives, Oregon could be a key player, the scientists say. Both its overall and coastal population are growing faster than the national average, placing ever-increasing pressure on marine resources. And state residents also may appreciate the broader value of an unspoiled natural environment - while commercial fishing and processing in Oregon generated $147 million in income in one recent year, an estimated $5.5 billion was generated from tourist expenditures.

"Other states are watching," Lubchenco said in the report. "If Oregon, long considered a leader in natural resource stewardship in this country, does not take full advantage of what marine reserves can offer, what can we expect from other states in regards to ocean stewardship? What will this mean for our national commitment to marine reserves, to an ocean ethic?"

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Jane Lubchenco, 541-737-5337