Even Alaskans who make a living on the sea and know it well understand that we don't know it well enough. Mysteries confront us: What caused the crash of king crab stocks? Is the decline of the Steller sea lion a consequence of overfishing or part of a natural cycle? Or do both forces play a part?
We don't know.
That's part of what the Pew Oceans Commission, headed by former Clinton chief of staff Leon Panetta and including Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, wants to stress. What we don't know, we need to know.
''America tends to take our oceans for granted -- the ocean's a big place, and it can kind of take care of itself,'' Mr. Panetta said. ''People need to understand that there are consequences to that.''
Fisheries have been cleaned out off the U.S. Atlantic coast. Dead zones have been created in the Gulf of Mexico by nitrogen runoff from the Mississippi Delta. Scientists are still learning about how fishing and weather affect decades-long oscillations of anchovy and sardine populations in the Pacific.
''If you're interested in fishing, then you're interested in the system they live in,'' said Charles Kennel, director of the Scripps Institute for Oceanography. Understanding those systems will help nations and international groups better manage activities on the oceans.
The commission has divided its work into four fields: pollution, coastline development, fisheries and governance. The commission aims to recommend action by the fall of 2002 that will safeguard and clean up the seas. Members want to work closely with senators, congressmen and policy makers to improve their understanding of complex marine systems. As Mr. Kennel pointed out, their work will do no good unless they can pass on fundamental learning into the decision-making process.
''At least they'll argue about the realities,'' he said.
Cooperation is vital if the United States and the rest of the world are to act effectively on the knowledge we gain.
Mr. Panetta cited the Chesapeake Bay Plan on the country's mid-Atlantic coast as a model, multistate consortium of agencies and interests working together to maintain fisheries and cut pollution.
In Alaska, the commission saw some models of fisheries well-managed. Alaska qualifies as one of those places that Mr. Kennel had in mind when he said part of the commission's brief is to keep the rich ocean environments rich. Commissioners also noted Alaska's recently passed cruise-ship pollution bill as a step in the right direction.
We can't keep making those steps without good information. That's where Alaska's congressional delegation plays a key role in providing money for research and studies. Sen. Ted Stevens' work in gaining another $40 million for Steller sea lion research in 2001 is an example. Ignorance leaves us with open questions about the survival of both the sea lion and the pollock fishery. Answers to those questions are vital to wise management decisions -- and to ensure the health and bounty of the seas.
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