Time flies. It has been 35 years since the Stratton Commission reported to Congress on the state of our oceans. From its conclusions grew measures like the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Act, intended to protect our marine environment and species of immense commercial, recreational, and wilderness value.
In 2000, Congress authorized the Oceans Act, and, as a result President Bush appointed the U.S. Commission for Ocean Policy to provide the first federal update in decades. The commission’s preliminary report is now in the hands of the nation’s governors and soon will be delivered to Congress.
The imperative is clear. Fully half the nation’s gross domestic product derives from its coastal counties. The pressure and cost to our nation’s fisheries and natural resources have been enormous. Isolated examples of success do not compensate for a broad decline in the productivity and health of our oceans. Congress needs to act now and reinforce the brick wall of biodiversity—the one that holds our own species above the abyss—that is the foundation of our economy, too. Carpe diem is not a fish.
But despite the best intent of the commission’s preliminary report, its recommendations to protect marine resources fall short—far short—of addressing the most significant obstacle to sustainability: that is, the long-term consequences of short-term decisions by local legislatures—mostly related to the indirect impacts of zoning—whose net effect is to socialize liability for what leaks from their own back yards.
The main culprits are urban stormwater and toxic agricultural runoff. Stopping this pollution at its sources is an even higher challenge than regulating fisheries, and that is saying a lot. The preliminary U.S. commission report acknowledges non-point source pollution, but the final draft needs recommendations that offer teeth and a bite—or so long, and thanks for the fish.
Florida is a No. 1 candidate for scrutiny, because this is the sunny state where the Bush administrations claim progress in loosening the grip of regulatory authority in service of environmental protection. Examples of what happens when risks are socialized and profits privatized are clear as a winter sky with a Canadian cold front pushing through.
Today, a company called Palm Beach Aggregates is pressuring the sprawling town of Wellington to annex thousands of its acres at the edge of the sugar-cane fields. Neighbors rightly fear that local elected officials are likely to accede to the lure of sprawl.
Elsewhere, in Palm Beach County, other sugar interests are pressuring for changes that will ease the conversion of sugar into sprawl at the same time, in the same place, that the Everglades ecosystem is subject to a $10 billion-plus restoration effort.
This dialogue is bubbling through the back halls of local governments and in Tallahassee. What is missing is any public debate: how protecting coastal fisheries depends on converting wetlands now in sugar to cleansing marshes—on a much wider scale than now planned.
From the perspective of the property owners, cleansing marshes are not the land’s most profitable use. But from the public’s perspective, in both cases—sugar and sprawl—the long-term costs of non-point source pollution have not been allocated in a fair, equitable way to sustain the Everglades, downstream estuaries and marine resources under consideration by the U.S. Commission for Ocean Policy.
Florida’s economy is based on clean waters and marine resources: a $53 billion tourism industry, a $14 billion marine industry and a fishing industry that is worth nearly $7 billion to Florida’s communities. Big Sugar claims its annual contribution to the state’s economic output is $2 billion. Interests representing 3 percent of the state’s economic output are driving public policies on which the survival of our estuaries and economy depends.
In 2003, Gov. Jeb Bush agreed to pay Palm Beach Aggregates—also involved in land development and sugar—a total of $150,000 per acre for one of its rock mines — $139 million, plus an additional $49 million for the bottom 10 feet, plus the right to continue mining under lease to Florida and keeping all the profits. The state of Florida has cast our lot with holes in the ground for water storage, expensive and unproven technologies, implicitly endorsing the transformation of sugar barons into condominium farmers.
Legitimate businesses do only what they are allowed to do by law; the more profitably, the better. That is part and parcel of the American dream. But the American dream also includes wilderness, mountains’ majesties, clear rivers, lakes and oceans filled with life. When local officeholders see state and federal elected officials snapping to the beat of special interests, who can be surprised when they do the same?
At the edge of the Everglades, next time you drive through a new suburb that didn’t exist six months ago, think how close the ocean is and how sharks attacking a whale carcass is not so different from this.