What I Did on My Summer Vacation

Michael Conathan explains why, despite what we see on the surface, the oceans are not OK.

Part of a Series
Coast Guard Beach is shown in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. (AP/Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, Margo Tabb)
Coast Guard Beach is shown in Cape Cod, Massachusetts. (AP/Cape Cod Chamber of Commerce, Margo Tabb)

The political parties in Congress have retreated to their respective corners while they wait for the bell to ring and another round to start in the pitched battle over our country’s financial future. Meanwhile, Americans are streaming to the oceans and beaches in droves. As regular readers will have noted, this column missed its last edition while I joined my fellow beachgoers to take advantage of cool ocean breezes and escape the torrents of hot air cascading down from Capitol Hill.

What stood out to me during my “research” on Cape Cod and at Saquish Beach off the south shore of Massachusetts was that on its surface, the ocean looks pretty good. I taught my son to build drip castles in the surf—the sand and water were clean. We went swimming at night and when we dove in, the surface exploded in underwater fireworks of bioluminescence. My neighbor pulled his boat up on the sand early one morning after a 90-minute fishing trip and hopped out with a 34-inch striped bass and stories of the three other keepers he had caught and released because he only needed the one for supper.

While all this made for a spectacular vacation, it revealed, somewhat counterintuitively, that the ocean has an image problem. Only it’s not a problem in the typical sense. When we think “image problem,” we think Charlie Sheen. Or high fructose corn syrup. Or Congress. (The remarkable thing isn’t that Congress has a 14 percent approval rating; it’s that 14 percent of Americans actually think it’s doing a good job.)

The ocean’s image problem, however, is of the opposite kind. When we go down to the shore and look out at the waves, do a bit of bodysurfing, maybe watch a blazing orange and pink sunset, then swing by the fish market and pick up a fresh, local, sustainable filet of something white and flaky to bring home and fry up in the pan, we don’t see what’s really taking place beneath the surface. We don’t notice the decades of habitat degradation from coastal development and polluted runoff. We don’t see the microscopic organisms struggling to build their shells and skeletons in acidified water that dissolves them almost as quickly as they grow. We can’t comprehend that the populations of fish and marine life we experience today are such a far cry from the teeming ecosystems considered normal by even our parents and grandparents.

All the scientific analyses and drumbeats of overfishing and climate change notwithstanding, it’s hard to ask people to develop a different perception than what they see with their own eyes. If a picture is worth a thousand words, an experience must be worth a billion. Particularly in this era of economic turmoil, when our focus is on big economic issues at all levels—from individuals to localities to the federal government—people are paying attention to what affects them most immediately. And an abstractly unhealthy ocean typically isn’t going to be it. Yet sometimes we must believe in the things we cannot see.

On August 10 the Center for American Progress hosted an event, "Life in Our Oceans: Art, Science, Sustenance, and Soul," with four esteemed authors and ocean advocates who are fighting to raise awareness that the ocean’s beauty is only skin deep. Journalist Juliet Eilperin (Demon Fish: Travels Through the Hidden World of Sharks), marine biologist Nancy Knowlton (Citizens of the Sea), chef Barton Seaver (For Cod and Country), and National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry (Ocean Soul) helped explore the state of life in our oceans and how we can spread the message that our marine Edens are mostly mirages. While the authors’ presentations during the event had their moments of doom and gloom, each was ultimately able to find some good news.

Eilperin, who is also the environment reporter for The Washington Post, has seen an increasing dedication among coastal nations and U.S. states that are passing laws and instituting bans to reduce incidents of shark finning—catching a shark; slicing off its fins, which are the most valuable part of the animal; and tossing the rest of the carcass back into the sea. This wasteful practice is driven by increasing demand for shark fin soup, a culinary status symbol that is resoundingly thought to have no gustatory merit, yet is largely responsible for the rapid decline of the ocean’s top predators.

Tired of writing one death notice after another about the calamities befalling our oceans, Knowlton, along with her husband, Jeremy Jackson, created a project called “Beyond the Obituaries” to tell the success stories of ocean conservation. And in addition to serving as Sant Chair for Marine Science at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, Knowlton serves as a co-director of the Census of Marine Life. The Census carried out a decade-long search for new species in our oceans and came up with more than 6,000 new denizens of the deep. Nearly two brand new species were found per day, every day for 10 years. Knowlton describes as "conservative" estimates that there are at least another quarter-million species in our oceans no human has ever encountered.

At the other end of the food chain, chef Seaver advocates for a move beyond sustainability to what he calls a “restorative” seafood agenda. “It’s about better utilizing the resources that we already have access to,” said Seaver. “If chefs have the power to destroy, it is inherent that we also have the power to restore. Sustainable basically means do no harm, but restorative means to actually give back, actually to do something more to help actually bring back stocks."

And Brian Skerry, who has made undersea images throughout a career exceeding three decades, has been as amazed by the ocean’s resilience as he has been dismayed by its degradation. Some of his photographs show the restorative power of marine protected areas and no-take zones that protect some of today’s most pristine remaining sea habitats. “There’s almost this arms race occurring with countries now trying to protect more and more of their oceans,” said Skerry of efforts to cordon off large swaths of ocean, as President George H. W. Bush did with the northwest Hawaiian Islands. Skerry talks about marine reserves in the south Pacific as being "like going back in time," adding, "I’d like to be hopeful and think that the combination of good science and good journalism, good awareness will help raise everybody’s attention and this trend with continue for conservation and better management.”

For such efforts to catch on at a time when Congress is implementing historic reductions in domestic spending, marine advocates have to make a concerted effort to convince and continually remind Americans that despite what they see on vacation, the oceans are not OK. To put it in terms Washington can understand today, healthy oceans mean healthy economies. And if we ignore the warnings the ocean is trying to send, we risk losing more than just our vacation spots.

Whether you’re a scientist, a fisherman, an amateur wave rider, or a sunbaked builder of drip castles, or even if you’ve never laid eyes on the ocean, we are all invested in the survival of the mysterious, churning frontier that feeds the world, generates the very oxygen we breathe, and carries the commerce that sustains our own species. These are the stakes, and while it’s not yet too late, the time to act is running out.

Michael Conathan is the Director of Ocean Policy at American Progress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Michael Conathan

Director, Ocean Policy

Explore The Series


Just released!

Interactive: Mapping access to abortion by congressional district

Click here