Trawler on the Bering Sea, photograph by Claudia Mills

Yes, the ocean is vast and over the past 4 billion years it has been quite able to take care of itself, but it is now demonstrating at nearly every turn that humans are overtaxing its resources and ability to recover on the scale of a human generation or two, seemingly the relevant scale to those of us worrying about it. The principle source of the problem is easily illustrated by the summary graph of human population growth below (data from Clive Ponting, 1991, A Green History of the World, Penguin Press, p. 241 and The World Almanac 1996, p. 838). Anyone capable of reading this web page should note that there has been a significant increase in the world population and accompanying resource extraction during your own lifetime. It took all of human history up to 1825 to reach the first billion humans alive at the same time. Since then, the increase in population has been nearly unfathomable:

Overfishing of coastal invertertebrates, fishes, and even algae, is a serious problem almost everywhere in the world. On the open oceans the problem may be even more severe. Along with everyday food fishes, populations of the world's pelagic tunas, sharks and sea turtles are now seriously reduced due to overfishing. The extent of this problem has been greatly exacerbated in the past 15 years, when I would certainly have thought that we knew better than to allow this to happen.

In June 1997, over 1000 conservation biologists met in Victoria , Canada, for the Society of Conservations Biology's annual meeting, which included the first large meeting of marine conservation biologists as part of its program. I attended nearly 3 full days of talks focusing on issues of marine resources and protection. Over and over, the audience was shown what one speaker finally called a general "fish graph", each showing high stocks (of any fish, nearly anywhere in the world) in the 1960s and 1970s, followed by a precipitous decline to very low and stable stock levels today. The overfishing problem is global. The situation is especially desperate in areas of great poverty where the fish are really needed for food and income. I did not hear a single speaker say that things were improving in the world's oceans, at any level. The Second Symposium on Marine Conservation Biology was held in June 2001 in San Francisco. At this meeting, no general improvements in ocean quality were reported; topics such as "Why marine populations don't always recover", "Extinction risks in marine fishes and invertebrates", "The Marine Protected Areas Intitative: challenges and opportunities", "Classification and mapping of marine ecosystems", "Social and ethical perspectives on marine protected areas", and "Jellyfish explosions: dominance shifts and fisheries effects" were explored by a variety of speakers.

I have assembled a chronological set of quotations about the ocean that I think reflect well society's impressions of the changing marine environment over the past few centuries. The ocean has gone from a wild, unknowable place to something defiled at all levels and locations by human activites.

One promising trend for the ocean environment is the increasing establishment of marine reserves, generally known as Marine Protected Areas, or MPAs. In the 1990s, it became fashionable and/or necessary to establish more such protected areas - the global total is now over 1000, and they range from 3 square km to 340,000 square km (the Great Barrier Reef). Nearly all marine protected areas are coastal and the sorts of protection they offer are highly variable, from very good to nearly non-existent. In general, Marine Protected Areas attract visitors, and for these reasons the degradation due to trampling by the very people who want to see protected areas has become a serious concern. Many, many, more well-regulated MPAs are needed to turn things around. If you live near the ocean, think about talking with your local government about establishing a Marine Protected Area with teeth near your home.

In February 2003, several prominent American marine biologists and filmakers launched a campaign called Shifting Baselines to educate the public about "ocean decline", with the assistance of a consortium of governmental and private marine organizations. These scientists and organizations believe that the public just does not understand that the ocean is seriously deteriorating and they have chosen to use the traditional advertising media of television and radio, as well as the internet, to try to get their message across this year, loud and clear. The hope of these scientists is that the public will get concerned and then involved in trying to reverse the trends of deterioration in all the world's oceans. A short, impactful video slide show, reminiscent of the TV commercials, and a couple of short videos are available on their web site.


A global issue - the need for more protection for the open sea:

C.E. Mills and J.T. Carlton (1998) proposed the need to add a system of Open Ocean Reserves, representing all oceans and a variety of biogeographic regimes, to this network of protection. Such reserves could protect species that live in the water column as well as those on the deep ocean floor. The text of a speech about Havens on the High Seas that we delivered on May 7, 1998 for the 25th Anniversary celebration of the University of Washington's School of Marine Affairs is archived on another page here and these further arguments for open ocean reserves have also now been published.

This idea has been echoed by the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in their statement presently being circulated as Troubled Waters: A Call for Action, which calls for protection of 20% of both the Exclusive Economic Zones and the High Seas by the year 2020. We are presently a long way from 20% protection of the area within the EEZs (200 mile limit of every country) and the idea of reserves on the high seas is still too new to have yet made much progress through the diplomatic channels that will be necessary to establish them. A small committee formed by the IUCN-World Conservation Union is studying the concept of protected areas in the high seas.

The Canadian government, as a consortium of Fisheries and Oceans Canada, along with Parks Canada, Environment Canada, and the Province of British Columbia is developing a plan for a network of Marine Protected Areas on Canada's Pacific Coast. As part of this plan, they are working towards designating offshore marine protected areas off British Columbia at both the Bowie Sea Mount (180 kilometres west of the Queen Charlotte Islands in the northeast Pacific; depths of 20-3000 meters) and at the Endeavour Hot Vents area (250 kilometres southwest of Vancouver Island; 2,250 meters deep). Australian scientists have indicated an interest in protecting special offshore seamount habitats (more), and one recently proposed offshore marine protected area in Australia (more) contains some seamount habitat. In both cases, the areas being considered for protection are within each country's 200 mile EEZ limit.


Marine Protected Areas - a local example in San Juan County, WA:

My local government, San Juan County of Washington State, set aside 8 small Bottom Fish Recovery Areas in 1997, which are voluntary no-take (no fishing) zones selected by a board of citizen volunteers, the Marine Resources Committee. The areas chosen all used to be prime fishing spots for territorial bottom-dwelling species such as lingcod and rockfish, but are presently considered to be mostly fished out and unproductive. The program has been endorsed by our Board of County Commissioners, the Puget Sound (Water Quality) Action Team and several other local organizations and is being touted as a wonderful example of local government solving its own problems. Whereas it is certainly a step in the right direction, I am concerned that amongst all of this positive sentiment, we have established a lightweight, feel-good program that is not bold enough to actually save the bottom fish of the San Juan Archipelago.

In 1998, San Juan County's marine reserve program became the basis for a new federal marine conservation management initiative for a 7-county region of NW Washington now known as the Northwest Straits. Each county has now set up its own Marine Resource Committee and each will be designating Marine Protected areas within its boundaries to address conservation issues of local importance. The addition of more protected areas in the region is likely to have a more positive effect in fisheries recovery.

There is also a proposal for a new International Marine Protected Area in the shared waters area around San Juan County between Washington state and British Columbia. The boundaries of such an MPA are still in question, as are the kind of protective regulations that must be agreed upon. Thus the effectiveness of this proposed area can not yet be predicted and the kind of regulations that it might include are not yet clear.

The example after which the San Juan County recovery areas and others will be modeled, is the City of Edmonds Underwater Preserve in central Puget Sound, Washington, which has now been off-limits to fishing for 30 years, since 1972. The fish there are very large, produce huge numbers of eggs and young fishes ("recruits"), and provide the main attraction in a hugely popular underwater park for an estimated 20,000 scuba dives per year. A very limited data set from the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) suggests that bottom fish population recruitment may be enhanced several miles to either side of the Edmonds Underwater Preserve and is very poor elsewhere in Puget Sound.

San Juan County constitutes an archipelago of about 172 islands (many very small), with approximately 400 miles of shoreline. The entire county is considered a marine biological preserve at one level, with no take of biological materials except for food, kelp, and research under the direction of the Director of the Friday Harbor Laboratories. The food fishery is further regulated by the Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife. In spite of this, bottom fish populations are declining rapidly and are now reproducing at levels far below those needed to maintain populations (data from Wayne Palssen of WDFW). Recreational fishing from boats and by scuba divers is a popular pastime in the county and attracts large numbers of both tourists and new residents and fishing derbies are still part of the local culture.

By 1997 we had set aside a total of less than 5 miles of shoreline as voluntary no-fish zones in the Bottom Fish Recovery Program (which can be heavily compromised by a few cheaters). An additional approximately 5 miles of shoreline (there are several ways to "measure" these reserves) is protected in the form of 5 older no-take reserves for bottom fish and shellfish, managed by the University of Washington Friday Harbor Laboratories and Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife - these 5 older reserves were established in 1990. That total of approximately 10 linear miles of no-fishing reserves out of 400 miles of shoreline leaves 97.5% of our shorelines mostly unprotected. (WDFW calculated the amount of shoreline in reserves by a different method and arrived at an estimate that 2% of the nearshore habitat is in reserves, but much less than 1% of reef habitat suitable for rockfish and lingcod is protected.) In spite of the best intentions in a highly politicized arena, these efforts are unlikely to be sufficient to maintain healthy populations of territorial bottom fishes in our waters with the kind of fishing pressure that they are presently exposed to.

San Juan County is very well off by any global standard. Few people fish to keep from starving or even to make a living -- most recreational fishers here pay far more per pound for fish they catch than for fish or meat that they buy. The sport fishing community in San Juan County needs to seriously ask themselves what they like about fishing. It is my guess that most people's reasons for fishing include being out on the water, hunting for fish, and catching fish, and that eating fish is not at the very top of the list. If that is the case, fishers throughout the county should be actively petitioning the County Commissioners, Marine Resources Committee, and Washington State Department of Fish and Wildlife for serious measures that can really protect our fish, while at the same time protecting fishing as a community-santioned activity. Time may be running out for the bottom fish in San Juan County. Fishing in fewer places would be a lot more fun than not fishing at all.

We may need to reserve 1/4 to 1/2 of the coastline as no-take areas, for fish protection. Although this may seem preposterous to many, it is much less dire than closure of all recreational fishing for months or years at a time. Bottom fish in the San Juans are not an inexhaustible resource and the recreational fishing community needs to become far more active in protecting the fish they love. If you aren't out fishing to save money and provide inexpensive food for your family, there is something else that you highly value about fishing. Overexploitation threatens to take all of that away. It is easy for fishers to delude themselves that there are still plenty of fish and that the people who don't catch fish just don't know how, but it used to be that anyone could catch fish, from a simple rowboat, without high-tech fishfinders and with little specialized knowledge. Please think about it -- if fishing is one of your favorite activities, ask yourself what you like about it and what you should be doing to be sure that you can keep fishing for years to come. Painless measures are probably not sufficient.

San Juan County activists continue to be concerned about the level of protection for local fishes and other marine organisms. The SeaDoc Society, a marine ecosystem health program, is actively funding research on the San Juan Archipelago ecosystem and the effectiveness of the Marine Protected Areas in San Juan County. Classes at the University of Washington Friday Harbor Laboratories have addressed MPA policy issues and larval fish recruitment questions for the past several years. Nevertheless, by 2002-2003, in spite of seemingly endless discussion and research efforts on the subject, there has been no increase in the amount of coastline protected in the region in the past five years -- we are still at the 1%-2% protection level. Numbers of fish continue to fall - by the time new areas are actually designated, it may well be too little and too late. If we can't effect protection here, in a relatively unpopulated area full of concerned scientists and activists, I see little hope for the kind of changes needed to clean up the oceans globally.


Jellyfish and marine conservation - examples of systems out of balance that have experienced large increases in jellies

There is some evidence that as parts of the oceans become increasingly disturbed and overfished, energy that used to go into production of fishes can be switched over to production of jellyfishes. I first examined this issue in a scientific paper called Mills (1995) "Medusae, siphonophores, and ctenophores as planktivorous predators in changing global ecosystems". In light of growing interest and possible further environmental change, I reviewed the topic of jellyfish blooms in a second paper Mills (2001) "Jellyfish blooms: are populations increasing globally in response to changing ocean conditions?" - published in a year 2001 issue of the journal Hydrobiologia.

The most graphic example to date of a highly productive ecosystem that has converted from supporting a number of valuable commercial fisheries to having few fishes and high numbers of "jellyfishes" is the Black Sea (east of the Mediterranean) and its adjacent Sea of Azov. In the 1970s (by which time pollution and general alteration of the natural environment, including removal of large amounts of incoming fresh water for irrigation thus raising the salinity, had begun to take a serious toll) the scyphomedusa Aurelia aurita "bloomed" in the Black Sea, peaking in the late 1980s with a biomass estimated at 300-500 million tons. Aurelia was estimated to be eating 62% of the annual production of the Black Sea zooplankton, most of which had previously been feeding commercial fishes. The Aurelia population did not run a natural course, as a government decision to increase fresh water inflow to the Black Sea in the 1980s resulted in unfavorably low salinity for Aurelia and its numbers declined. About the same time, however, the Atlantic American (found from New England to Argentina) ctenophore Mnemiopsis leidyi was accidentally introduced in the Black Sea (probably via ballast water from a grain ship), and the ctenophore was not adversely affected by the lower salinity. Mnemiopsis populations seem to have peaked in 1991 with an estimated biomass of over a billion tons, although estimates in the late 1990s implied that the biomass of ctenophores may periodically reach nearly that high again. In the 1990s, years with high numbers of Mnemiopsis seemed to alternate with years dominated by the jellyish Aurelia. Nearly all of the zooplankton production in the Black Sea appears to have gone from feeding fishes to feeding ctenophores and jellyfishes during the worst years of this "jelly" infestation, and commercial fisheries in the Black Sea became nearly non-existent. It is worth mentioning that historically the Black Sea and Sea of Azov were incredibly productive areas, where several early civilizations fluorished. The modern Black Sea situation is reviewed in the book Biological Diversity in the Black Sea: a Study of Change and Decline (1997) by Yu. Zaitsev and V. Mamaev (United Nations Publications, New York). Since that time, an American predatory ctenophore, Beroe, has entered the Black Sea and is beginning to control the Mnemiopsis population. The anchovy fishery is slightly on the comeback, but the overall future of this marine ecosystem is still very unclear.

In the late 1990s. I joined a group of scientists working on Alaska pollock fisheries for NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), to look at the increasing numbers of scyphozoan jellyfish Chrysaora melanaster on the eastern shelf of the Bering Sea. Like the Black Sea (above), the Bering Sea is a very productive region, accounting for up to 5% of the world's total fishery production and 56% of the US fishery production (fish and shellfish). (Reference for these numbers = The Bering Sea Ecosystem, National Research Council, 1996.) Numbers of Chrysaora and other large jellyfish have been estimated in NOAA trawl samples from 1979 to 1999, and after a gradual increase throughout the 1980s, the biomass has increased more than 10-fold during the 1990s. There is some public debate at the moment over whether or not the Bering Sea is being overfished, with no consensus in sight. The dramatic increase in Chrysaora melanaster is very likely in exchange for some other member(s) of the ecosystem, but it is not known at this time which element is facilitating the jellyfish increase. There is also some intriguing data that imply a correlation with a recent climate shift in the area around 1990, the period when the jellyfish population really took off. A full scientific paper on this topic has been published in Fisheries Oceanography, in the last issue of 1999.

The data is much less complete, but it appears that there has been a similar increase in a related scyphozoan jellyfish, Chrysaora hysoscella, in the Benguela Current off South Africa and Namibia in the past two to three decades. Like the Bering Sea, the Benguela Current is a rich and important fishing area of global importance, and the relatively new dominance of large jellyfish in this region should be viewed with some alarm. Scientists in Africa are presently seeking to better understand trends in this area, but they lack the historic data set that helped define the situation in the Bering Sea.

There are also peculiar "jellyfish" imbalances in the pelagic waters over Georges Bank, off New England, where the cod fishery has declined precipitously. I found unexpectedly high numbers of siphonophores (small colonial jellyfish-like animals) in these waters during a series of scientific submarine dives in 1993. The following year, a group of scientists found bits of hydroid, the benthic part of a jellyfish life cycle, in huge numbers in the water column. The same hydroid reappeared in large numbers in the late 1990s and might be competing with fish larvae for food. The intriguing question of whether these bits of usually-bottom-living animals have been broken up and taken up residence in the water column as a result of trawling activities on the bottom remains unanswered, but there is little question that numbers of "jellies" have increased in these important, but now decimated fishing grounds.

An international scientific conference on Jellyfish Blooms was held January 12-14, 2000 in coastal Alabama. Considering all of the papers presented, some light was shed on whether or not the jellyfish bloom phenomenon is actually increasing over time, although it is still very difficult to reach a clear conclusion. Papers presented at the meeting have been published together as a special volume of the scientific journal Hydrobiologia, in mid-2001. I wrote a review paper entitled "Jellyfish blooms: are populations increasing globally in respsonse to changing ocean conditions?" for that volume. Within seven months of that meeting, a bloom of large, nonindigenous Indo-Pacific jellyfish had invaded the same Alabama coastline where the meeting took place, effectively closing the shrimp fishery because the jellyfish were so numerous that their weight and mucus damaged the shrimp nets.

A special symposium titled "Jellyfish explosions: Dominance Shifts and Fisheries Effects" was held on Sunday, June 24, 2001 at the Second Symposium on Marine Conservation Biology (June 21-26, 2001), at San Francisco State University in California.

By the summers of 2001 and 2002, the press's interest had been captured concerning possible increases of jellyfish populations worldwide, and a number of stories have explored the topic, but with few new insights.


Jellyfish and marine conservation - an example of population declines due to habitat loss:

The growing problem of marine habitat loss as a result of coastal development is sadly exemplified by a group of large, charismatic hydrozoan jellyfish (also known as medusae), which comprise the family Polyorchidae. This family consists of 5 species of easily recognized jellyfish that historically have inhabited many, if not most, protected bays and inlets between about 30° and 55° N Latitude on both sides of the Pacific. On the Asian side of the Pacific, two species have non-overlapping distributions: Spirocodon saltator (which gets up to 8 cm tall) used to be commonly found from southern Kyushu Island to the top of Honshu Island, Japan, and Polyorchis karafutoensis (which gets up to 10 cm tall) occurs from Hokkaido, Japan to north Sakhalin Island (Russia). On the west coast of North America, Polyorchis penicillatus (which gets up to 6 cm tall) has been collected from the northern Gulf of California and San Diego to the Aleutian Islands, Alaska; it is joined by Polyorchis haplus ( to 2 cm tall) and Scrippsia pacifica (to 10 cm tall) only in California.

All of these medusae seem to play the same ecological role, spending most of their time perched on their tentacles on the bottom of shallow bays and feeding on a combination of small benthic and planktonic organisms. All have a polyp form of their life cycle that is presumably benthic, but in no case has it been amenable to laboratory culture. The polyp is probably the most vulnerable part of the life cycle of these lovely jellyfishes, yet we know nothing about it. What we do know is that Spirocodon now seems to be uncommon or rare in most of its range in Japan and Polyorchis penicillatus (shown here) is much less abundant in California and in some Washington and British Columbian bays than it was only a couple of decades ago. There is too little information about the remaining 3 species to speculate on the robustness of their present populations.

These medusae used to be well known in shallow bays along 1500 linear miles of coastlines on both sides of the North Pacific Ocean. The general urbanization of most bays, accompanied by dredging and filling, and construction of marinas and tourist facilities along most of this range has all contributed to a vast degradation of their habitat. Both Spirocodon and Polyorchis penicillatus have been used fairly extensively as research animals. These very large hydrozoan jellyfish produce thousands of eggs each night for perhaps 100 days or more. I have a nagging feeling that something about the life cycle of these species is sufficiently fragile that an enormous numbers of eggs are necessary to keep the populations in robust condition and it is possible that collection of what has seemed "reasonable" numbers by researchers has removed more adult specimens than the populations could bear.

Polyorchis and Spirocodon (known as "kamikurage" in Japan) are among the very few species of jellyfish likely to be recognized by non-specialists. The image of Polyorchis has been reproduced in logos, t-shirts and other publications all up and down the west coast, a tribute to its general popularity. One wonders how long into the next millenium these semi-benthic medusae will manage to persist.


For further information on conservation biology or marine conservation, you might want to visit some of the following sites:

Shifting Baselines .org -- educational adventure launched February 2003 to educate the public about marine environmental degradation by using traditional television and radio advertising, as well as the internet.

Society for Conservation Biology -- international academic society

Ecology and Society -- electronic peer-reviewed scientific journal

The Ocean Conservancy -- promotes protection of ocean environments and diversity of marine life through science-based advocacy

Surfrider Foundation -- dedicated to protecting our oceans, waves and beaches; frequently partners with other marine advocate groups.

Marine Conservation Biology Institute -- dedicated to safeguarding life in the sea by providing information crucial for informed decision making

The Seadoc Society -- a privately-funded research program for marine ecosystem health, founded in 1999 by concerned citizens who recognized that the Inland waters of the Pacific Northwest (USA) are experiencing an unprecedented health crisis. This unique ecosystem is now surrounded by 6 million human inhabitants and is no longer resilient enough to simply purge itself of our impacts.

Friends of the San Juans -- committed to preserving the quality of life in San Juan County (composed entirely of islands and the fastest growing county in Washington State, USA) by protecting the land, water, and marine environment of the San Juan Islands and Northwest Straits through science, education, citizen action, and environmental law.

People for Puget Sound -- citizen-based organization concerned with water and habitat quality around Puget Sound, Washington.

Puget Sound Action Team -- Washington state governmental agency mandated to protect Puget Sound's water quality and resources. Extensive web site about Puget Sound.

At-Sea Processors Association, formerly known as the American Factory Trawler Association -- believes that the vitality of the Bering Sea groundfish industry is wholly dependent on sound stewardship of the marine resources; their goal is to ensure the continued health of the environment and of the coastal communities who rely on it.

This site is maintained by C. E. Mills and all photographs are copyrighted by the author.
** This page was established March 1998; text last updated 8 May 2003, links updated 28 August 2005 **

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