Our oceans and the rich marine ecosystems they sustain are in deep trouble, and the evidence is just about everywhere you turn. In the Gulf of Maine, cod stocks are in steep decline. In the Chesapeake, where striped bass spawn, populations of young fish have dwindled alarmingly.
This week the federal government announced that twenty types of coral found from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans would be placed on a list of threatened species.
Marine scientists around the world, including at the preeminent institutions in Woods Hole, are furiously studying these problems, which are as complex as the oceans themselves. Much is still not known, although there is broad belief that climate change and fishing practices are key culprits in the precipitous decline of marine ecosystems around the world.
Earlier this month, a group interested in bringing attention to the issues announced an effort to create three marine protected areas in waters south of the Vineyard.
The project was spearheaded by renowned oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle and her nonprofit Mission Blue, which in simple terms is a worldwide call to action to raise awareness about the environmental crisis taking place deep in our oceans. As one of its objectives, Mission Blue aims to establish marine protected areas around the globe called Hope Spots.
Locally, the effort has been joined by Bob and Sarah Nixon of Chilmark, and a group of fishermen that includes the well-known charter captain Buddy Vanderhoop of Aquinnah.
The project moved a little closer to reality when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently began allowing community groups to propose what are called marine protected areas for local waters.
The Vineyard group plans to spend a year doing underwater surveys and mapping of the areas identified as part of its application to NOAA. To be considered for designation, a nominated area must either contribute to the ecological and biological productivity of the area, support economic uses, have public use, or be a submerged maritime heritage resource site. The application must also include management practices with an emphasis on community support for the initiative.
A story in the Gazette two weeks ago about the project sparked online reader comments that demonstrate even further just how complicated and emotional the issue is.
The health of our oceans and fisheries is a matter that everyone, not simply those who make their living from the sea, should be concerned with, and we applaud the Nixons, Ms. Earle and the fishermen for focusing attention on a critical issue. In the months ahead it will be important to bring in key stakeholders — lobstermen and small draggers, for sure, but also other members of our Island community — because we all have an interest in making sure our marine heritage survives.