KEY WEST, Fla. -- Every year in late July, about 30,000 boats descend on this tourist mecca carrying tens of thousands of scuba divers who scour the coral reefs in search of tasty spiny lobsters to catch and eat.
Government officials say the two-day frenzy nearly doubled the monthly reports of boats ramming fragile coral heads or grounding on delicate sea grass compared with the month before. And while no one has an exact figure, researchers estimate the fishing fest took 80 percent of the legal-size lobsters in several Keys habitats.
A spiny lobster sticks out from below live coral off Key West, Fla. Scuba divers descending on the area in late July for a massive lobster catch often damage the fragile, slow-growing coral.
(C. Mark Eakin -- Noaa)
"It's a consumptive ritual," Phil Frank, project leader for the Key West National Wildlife Refuge, said of the underwater wreckage.
The fate of the slow-growing corals in the Keys is just one small example of the pervasive damage being done to the world's oceans, damage that has been documented by a rapidly accumulating library of studies and reports. The reports -- from governmental, private and academic sources -- all say the same thing: The seas are much worse off than they were just a few decades ago. Oceans across the globe are showing signs of strain in dramatic ways, including declining fish stocks and polluted waters.
Inside and outside the government, a conviction is taking hold that policymakers need to act quickly to avert the looming crisis. Bush administration officials and lawmakers are drafting new rules and changes to the federal bureaucracy to protect fish species, improve water quality and restore coral reefs. Some of these plans were unveiled last month when the presidentially appointed U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy issued its final report to Congress.
"Ocean conservation is poised to become the next global warming issue," said Gerry Leape, who runs the marine conservation network for the National Environmental Trust. "The science is settled. The debate can move on from whether or not there is a crisis to what to do about it."
Scientists and policymakers point to a variety of ominous signs. Ninety percent of the world's large predator fish -- those at the top of the food chain -- have disappeared over the past 50 years, two Canadian scientists reported last year in a widely publicized study. At least a third of the fish stocks that the federal government monitors are overfished, officials say, and the status of hundreds of other species is unknown. The motor oil dropped on American streets ends up in the oceans at the rate of 10.9 million gallons every eight months -- the equivalent of the Exxon Valdez spill. And the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico -- an area the size of Connecticut where high nitrogen levels kill all marine life -- expanded again this summer.
"There is a consensus that our oceans are in crisis and that reforms are essential," a massive study funded by the Pew Charitable Trusts concluded last year.
James L. Connaughton, who is President Bush's top environmental adviser as head of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, said the seas sustain "our economy, our environment and our society."
"Restoration, wise use and conservation of the oceans has come to the forefront of environmental priorities, not just for the nation, but for the world," Connaughton said. "There's a massive bipartisan and regional consensus toward embarking on a new generation of progress."
For centuries, the various studies note, Americans have treated coastal waters as theirs for the taking, seeking bounty with little government oversight. Fishing boats trawled and trapped at will, oil companies built huge rigs to tap offshore resources, and cruise ships crisscrossed sensitive habitats so tourists could gawk at marine life.
"It cannot be viewed as the Wild West anymore," said retired Vice Adm. Conrad C. Lautenbacher Jr., who heads the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. "There need to be some sort of property rights. That sort of cultural change is very hard."
He and others note that U.S. territorial waters are the country's largest public domain: Spanning nearly 4.5 million square miles, they are 23 percent larger than the nation's land area. Commercial and recreational saltwater fishing is worth $48 billion a year, and weather- and climate-sensitive industries, which are heavily influenced by the ocean, account for $3 trillion, or more than one-quarter of the country's gross domestic product.
Yet the seas command relatively little attention. Ninety-five percent of the globe's oceans remain unexplored below the surface, and donations to environmental groups that focus on marine issues are 5 percent of the amounts that go their terrestrial counterparts. The nation has marine sanctuaries, the rough equivalent of national parks on land, but most Americans have never heard of them.