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Science: Our Oceans' Future

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Juliet Eilperin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, June 19, 2006; 12:00 PM

Washington Post science writer Juliet Eilperin was online Monday, June 19 at Noon ET to discuss the future of the earth's oceans and answer other questions you may have about the Earth's environmental future.

She will also take questions about her recent story on President Bush's plan to create the world's largest marine reserve in Hawaii.

A transcript follows .

About this series: Beyond the Future is a weeklong series of live Web chats with noted experts and Washington Post reporters examining the kinds of technological advancements the world could see in 20, 50 or even 100 years. Related news on the subject can be found on the Science and Tech Frontier pages of washingtonpost.com.

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Washington, D.C.: Some people feel that the President's failure to address global warming greatly undermines his newly announced "protection" of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. Do you have any thoughts on this?

Juliet Eilperin: That's a very good point. While Bush's decision to make the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands a national monument will protect the reefs and marine life from overfishing and the damage associated with those activities it will not protect them from the warmer and more acidic ocean that stems from increased carbon dioxide pollution. So that's a serious problem we will confront over the next century.

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Washington, D.C.: Hi Juliet. Given the current state of the world's oceans, it's clear that some major human behavior changes will have to take place in order for ocean health to be restored and to persist. How do you think we can create / promote / inspire this behavior change? How can we make the general public recognize the importance of healthy oceans and understand how this relates to our individual actions? Thanks!

Juliet Eilperin: A number of groups have recently published seafood cards that give consumers a sense of what types of fish are either caught unsustainably or unhealthy because of mercury and PCB pollution. People concerned about the future of the seas will have to make some sacrifices, whether it's cutting back on shrimp caught by trawling or giving up toro sushi because blue-fin tuna are overfished. It might help to think about it in terms of self-interest-if you care about having decent fish to eat, to say nothing of having marine mammals survive, it means adopting a new attitude towards the ocean.

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Reston, Va.: Science fiction has speculated for years on the possibility of bubble-enclosed cities built on the ocean floor. Is there any potential for this ever becoming feasible? If so, would there be any advantage to it? Is it possible to give a serious answer to this somewhat off-the-wall question?

Juliet Eilperin: I haven't heard anything about the idea of having ocean cities. I would imagine that if it was feasible, that would be a long way off. Researchers are still pondering how best to sequester carbon dioxide beneath the ocean to say nothing of creating a sort of biosphere.

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Eastern Market, D.C.: Juliet,

Having just seen "An Inconvenient Truth," I am more than ever convinced that the unprecedented (and therefore unpredictable) melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps present a clear and present ("present" here means possible within a decade, or a year!) danger to the world's coastal cities. I would like to find out more on this, specifically on the models used to predict the sea level rise and the way it would actually play out on the continental margins. What's a good, succinct source?

Juliet Eilperin: One of the scientists I talk to regularly who has studied this question is Michael Oppenheimer at Princeton University-he has written on the West Antarctic ice sheet and I'm sure you can find his work at www.princeton.edu. Konrad Steffan at the University of Colorado at Boulder is a Greenland ice sheet expert, so you can google him to look at his research. And you're right, both these ice sheets could transform the planet if they melted.

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Washington, D.C.: The announcement of the new "preserve" in the Pacific is tempered by the fact that the pro-whaling nations seem about to win their 20-year battle to reopen commercial whaling (scientific and small- to mid-scale commercial whaling were never banned). The "whales are plentiful" argument which Japan, Norway and Iceland have advanced seems to have been purchased with grant-payments to smaller countries in the Whaling Commission. Two questions:

1. Why has there been no press attention to the agonizing inhumanity of whaling (i.e., the animal takes several hours to die, during which time it is live-butchered, fully conscious), as opposed to mere availability statistics?

2. Will Japan, Norway and Iceland win?

Juliet Eilperin: It's interesting you asked about whaling-I just wrote a long piece about this a couple of weeks ago that ran on A3, and I will be writing about it again once the negotiations wrap up in St. Kitts tomorrow. So far we've seen a mixed message out of the International Whaling Commission: they voted against a move to secret ballots (which would have helped the pro-whaling camp) and in favor of a declaration backing the idea of returning the commission to the idea of a body that regulates commercial whaling. So stay tuned this week and I can give you a better idea in a couple of days of what's happening on this.

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washingtonpost.com: Whaling Agency Faces a Possible Shift , June 2, 2006

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Washington, D.C.: What do you believe are the most serious short-term threats to the ocean's health and what, if anything, can the average person do about them? thanks.

Juliet Eilperin: Overfishing is the most serious short-term threat to the oceans. Boris Worm, a professor at Canada's Dalhousie University, recently published a paper with several other researchers in which he wrote about the "roving banditry" of commerical fishing fleets, which rely on modern technology to just fish a population to collapse and then move onto the next target. This is not to say all commercial fishermen are irresponsible: many care about sustaining their livelihoods over the long term. The industry in Alaska, for example, has done a much better job of regulating itself than the New England fishing industry. So that's the most serious immediate problem (global warming is the most serious long-term threat). And the best thing ordinary consumers can do is eat fish that's sustainably caught, or get involved in the legislation that's currently pending before Congress, the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens Act. This is the law that regulates fishing in the United States.

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Washington, D.C.: Could you explain this statement "sequester carbon dioxide beneath the ocean"? Plants use carbon dioxide and produce oxigen, without carbon dioxide there would be no sea vegetation, and last I read we get most of our oxygen from the sea.

Juliet Eilperin: Many scientists are trying to figure out how we can capture the carbon dioxide we emit from power plants and automobiles and then store it so it won't affect the atmosphere. Terrestrial sequestration often involves planting trees, for example. Some researchers are trying to focus on how you could contain this pollution under the ocean.

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Norfolk, Va.: Is there any indication that Bush will budget funds to properly manage the vast areas included?

Juliet Eilperin: I assume you're talking about the Hawaiian national monument. That's a good question-it's unclear at this moment. I asked the White House last week how much money it would take to maintain the monument, and I didn't get a specific answer to that question.

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Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: How does the U.S. intend to protect the new marine reserve? You can't do it with soundbites, it takes resources like USCG cutters, public concern, and admiralty courts.

After all, the Asians have showed the world they'll eat anything and everything - including our new marine reserve. Without 24/7 vigilant enforcement, the latest environmental law will just be another smiley-face political stunt.

And I've seen far too many of these in my lifetime.

Thanks much. Registered Professional Engineer

Juliet Eilperin: They're still working out the logistics of how they'll maintain the reserve in Hawaii. It's true that a number of fishing vessels traverse the Pacific, but it's also important to keep in mind this is a very remote area, so there's some hope people will steer clear of it now that it's protected. Much may depend on how local Hawaiians police the area.

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Washington, D.C.: Coral bleaching was a big problem in the Caribbean last year. Will there be more bleaching this year?

Juliet Eilperin: It's hard to predict what will happen this year, but it's true that last fall was devastating for Carribean coral reefs because sea temperatures were so high. I would expect we would have more coral bleaching there, given the recent temperature trends worldwide.

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Fairfax, Va.: Me thinks you are a little too one sided on the globel warming issue. I suggest you read Peter Huber "Hard Green: Saving the Environment from the Envirormentalist" and Bjorn Lomborg "The Skeptical Environmentalist".

Juliet Eilperin: I know "The Skeptical Environmentalist," and I've heard of the other book but haven't read it. I've generally gotten good feedback from readers and experts on my coverage, with some on the left saying I don't go far enough and some on the right saying I go too far. I think it's worth noting that President Bush is on record saying the earth is warming and humans play a role in that-he just questions to what extent human activity is warming the planet, and he opposes curbing carbon dioxide pollution through regulation.

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Washington, D.C.: Who will manage the new Northwest Hawaiian Islands Sanctuary? Normally the Park Service handles national >monuments, but doesn't NOAA handle marine sanctuaries? How long will it take to end all fishing there?

Juliet Eilperin: NOAA does manage marine sanctuaries, so I believe they will manage it. In terms of ending fishing, the administration has declared all fishing must end in five years but it may stop sooner because a coalition of environmental groups is raising funds to buy out the eight remaining fishing permits in the region.

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Greenbelt, Md.: There seems to be a big debate about the location of potential windfarms in nearshore waters and perhaps not surprisingly, the NIMBY (Not In My BackYard) attitude has surfaced in even the most environmentally aware senators, Edward Kennedy. Critics of these offshore windpower facilities cite all sorts of environmental and safety issues for trying to block them. Are there strong arguements for a preference to basing these facilities on land versus at sea and speaking of energy from the sea, whatever happened to OTEC? By the way, your stories are great!

Juliet Eilperin: Thanks for the compliment. I think experts see benefits to having wind farms both near the sea and on land where there's a lot of wind (think South Dakota), so I don't think it's an either/or question. You're right that putting giant windmills near idyllic seascapes causes plenty of controversy. I would imagine wind farms will be more successful in states such as Texas, where residents are used to looking at oil rigs.

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Berkeley, Calif.: In answers to your questions on Lomborg, et al, it's important to point out that if skeptics could get their arguments together coherently enough to submit their challenges through peer-reviewed publications, that would make their arguments "of interest". Direct appeals to the public without this critical step keep their arguments in the "of no interest" category for all scientists.

Because the media is less discriminating, Lomborg et al get much more attention than their lack of labor should. Scientists who reviewed Lomborg read both him and his sources, only to discover that in many cases, he had not read his own sources.

Juliet Eilperin: I always try to interview peer-reviewed scientists, whether they are on the left or right, since they tend to be more credible.

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Gaithersburg, Md.: Hi Juliet, I've enjoyed your coverage for many years.

I wanted to ask a question about the status of fisheries subsidies negotiations in the WTO?

The subsidies paid by governments that encourage overfishing must be stopped and the WTO would seem to be logical venue to fix the problem. Oceana says that these subsidies amount to over 20 percent of the value of the world catch and eliminating them is the biggest thing that can be done immediately to help the oceans.

Any news on this?

Thanks,

ed

Juliet Eilperin: Thanks, I'm trying to get an answer on this right now. My understanding is that both the Bush administration and environmental groups like Oceana have been trying to cut the fishing subsidies other countries dole out, but they have yet to achieve their goal. They encountered a lot of resistance from foreign countries when they raised this issue in the most recent round of WTO talks.

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Rockville, Md.: Mr. Toles presented the idea that the Ocean Reserve is doomed in ten years from global warming. How likely is he to be correct?

washingtonpost.com: Tom Tole's Editorial Cartoon on Hawaiian Marine Preserve , June 16, 2006

Juliet Eilperin: First, I'd like to say I think Tom Toles is a fabulous cartoonist, and The Washington Post is very lucky to have him on staff.

I don't think climate change will destroy the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands in 10 years. Most scientists I've interviewed have said global warming could have profound effects by the end of the century, though the actions humans take in the next decade or two could have a profound affect on what happens to the climate over the long term.

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Herndon, Va.: Given that catching wild fish has inevitable impacts on ecosystems (overfishing, bycatch, etc.), do you think it's wise for seafood production to shift towards a focus on aquaculture? Do you think aquaculture should be the seafood production method of the future?

Juliet Eilperin: I wrote a front-page piece on this in January 2005. Many experts see aquaculture as a way to compensate for the overfishing we now witness, and I would expect fish farming to expand exponentially in the coming decades. Aquaculture does have some environmental impacts, including the fact that many of the most popular farmed fish are carnivores that eat food made from smaller fish, and the fact that these fish release a lot of waste into the oceans. The Bush administration and a number of researchers have devoted a great deal of time and expense into studying how we can raise fish in farms without harming the environment too much.

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washingtonpost.com: Fish Farming's Bounty Isn't Without Barbs , Jan. 24, 2005

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Washington, D.C.: Can you think of any specific examples of a commercial fishery which has been properly managed in such a way as to have ALL parties satisfied with the results, including maintaining a healthy, sustainable fish stock?

Juliet Eilperin: Alaska has enjoyed the most success in terms of conducting its fishery. The industry there is very invested in maintaining fish stocks-they even fund NOAA observers on all large fishing vessels. Also, some fisheries, such as halibut, have an individual fishing quota where fishermen have a sort of private property right to catch a specific amount of fish, and that has cut down on overfishing. So that's one instance where you have environmentalists and industry working together to maintain the ocean.

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