Sonoma County group seeks to protect ocean resources
Published: Thursday, September 20, 2012 at 6:55 p.m.
Last Modified: Thursday, September 20, 2012 at 6:55 p.m.
From a small office next to a Nepalese-Indian restaurant in Glen Ellen, Lance Morgan plots a response to the world's overwhelming appetite for seafood.
About 4.4 million fishing vessels ply the world's oceans, hauling in about 90 million tons of seafood a year and providing the human race with one-sixth of its animal protein.
The numbers are staggering, and marine conservation biologists like Morgan say the expansion of global fishing grounds -- by an area nearly twice the size of Alaska per year during the 1980s and '90s -- is unsustainable.
"There aren't many more fish populations to go out there and exploit," said Morgan, who was named president and CEO of the Marine Conservation Institute in June.
The nonprofit organization, founded in 1996, maintains a staff of 20 people -- mostly scientists -- at offices in Seattle, Washington D.C., and Glen Ellen.
They are largely engaged in "biogeography," the identification of ocean tracts to be protected from fishing, and the more ticklish task of convincing governments around the world to protect them.
In 2006, the United States established the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument, covering 140,000 square miles of the Hawaiian archipelago, home to 7,000 marine species including green turtles and monk seals, in a conservation area larger than all the country's national parks combined.
It will take about 100 Papahanaumokuakeas to meet the goal -- set by international treaty in 1992 -- of protecting 10 percent of the world's oceans by 2020, so the remaining waters can continue to feed and support a world in which fisheries provide $63 billion in household income.
"We have a lot of work to do," said Morgan, a former Southern California surfer whose teenage love of the ocean led to a 25-year scientific career defending it.
Morgan, who joined the Marine Conservation Institute as a post-doctoral fellow in 2000, has seen the damage done by commercial fishing with his own eyes, piloting a one-person submarine off the coast of British Columbia in 2009.
Fishing trawlers dragging large weighted nets with heavy metal doors across the ocean floor demolished centuries-old deep-sea corals, turning vibrant reefs into lifeless fields of rubble, he said.
In 1994, he worked for nearly two weeks in a research habitat on a coral reef 60 feet below the surface off the Florida coast.
Morgan, who earned his doctorate in ecology at the UC Davis Bodega Marine Laboratory on the Sonoma coast in 1997, wears jeans and flip-flops at work, his blonde hair reaching past the collar of a button-down shirt.
"Lance is the real deal," said Sylvia Earle, a renowned oceanographer and Marine Institute board member.
Experts say 20 percent of land and water should be set aside to sustain biological health. Twelve percent of land is in parks and other protected areas. But only 1 percent of the ocean, which covers 70 percent of the planet, is protected, Morgan said.
The global ocean harvest swelled from 18.5 million tons in 1950 to a peak of 95 million tons in 1996, and has since subsided slightly. But 87 percent of the world's fish populations are fully exploited or overexploited, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization said.
Fisheries for the most sought-after species, such as orange roughy, Chilean sea bass and bluefin tuna, have collapsed. A 2006 study predicted that if fishing rates continue apace, all the world's fisheries will have collapsed by 2048.
"We no longer know what a healthy ocean looks like," Morgan said.
While overfishing is the oceans' No. 1 threat, experts are increasingly concerned about acidification, a change in seawater chemistry caused by absorbing excess carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels.
More acidic water diminishes the ability of marine organisms, such as oysters and plankton, to form calcium-based shells and skeletons.
Oyster-spawning operations in Oregon and Washington are already seeing die-offs attributed to acidic water, Morgan said.
He's also part of a working group that includes scientists and the shipping industry seeking ways to reduce fatal collisions between endangered blue whales and large ships moving in and out of San Francisco Bay.
As many as seven to 10 whale deaths are documented a year, and many more may sink after being struck by a ship, Morgan said. One problem is the 100-foot blue whale, the largest animal ever to live on Earth, is unlikely to perceive any threat as it feeds along the California coast.
"They probably have no reason to be scared of anything," Morgan said.
You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 521-5457 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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