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Jim Ayers, vice-president of Oceana and former director of the Exxon Valdez cleanup, explains why we need a comprehensive oceans policy, and what Oceana intends to do about it.

By Jim Ayers

LAST WEEK, representatives of the many Californians that live and work along the coast met in the Monterey Bay area to discuss practical ways of protecting the health of the ocean while allowing for sustainable economic growth. This Mayors' Ocean Summit, the first of its kind in California, included the mayors, city managers and councilmembers from 14 California cities including Santa Cruz, as well as Congressmember Sam Farr and Assemblymember Bill Monning. Many of these leaders have had success mitigating our impacts on the ocean, including ways to eliminate the use of polystyrene and single-use plastic bags. Such containers kill hundreds of thousands of seabirds, marine mammals and turtles a year through ingestion and entanglement. They are an eyesore and a detriment to human health. Plastic bag cleanup alone costs Californians some $25 million a year. As the executive director of the United Nations Environment Program Achim Steiner notes, single-use plastic bags "should be banned or phased out rapidly everywhere. There is simply zero justification for manufacturing them anymore, anywhere."

The Mayors' Summit was about more than just plastic litter. It was about recognizing that we all have a shared past and future dependent on healthy oceans, and that efforts to protect them are now paramount in the face of climate change and ocean acidification. The multiple threats of pollution, unsustainable fishing and habitat destruction reduce the natural resilience of ocean ecosystems, undermining their natural ability to buffer the effects of a warming, CO2-heavy atmosphere.

We do not yet fully understand the magnitude of change we're likely to see with climate change and ocean acidification, though many effects are already on our doorstep. The Arctic Ocean is among the first to feel these effects, seen in a drastically reduced sea ice extent that threatens wildlife and the very livelihoods of indigenous communities. As the ice melts, more dark ocean is revealed. The darker surface absorbs more solar energy than the reflective ice, leading to an ever-increasing positive feedback loop that will likely impact a far greater area than the Arctic alone. In California, winter storm tracks and precipitation patterns may change, sea level could rise if the Greenland ice shelf melt accelerates, and wildlife migration patterns such as those of the California gray whale could alter.

In addition to regional efforts like those of our mayors and representatives in Congress and the Legislature, efforts must be taken by the Obama Administration to set this nation on a path of sustainable living through scientifically sound, responsible management of our ocean resources, and continuing a stewardship ethic based on reason and wisdom, with this and future generations in mind. The administration is currently gathering public comments on just such an Ocean Policy. The California hearing is on Sept. 17 in San Francisco. Oceana has recommended they implement a comprehensive ocean policy based on science that will protect, maintain and restore the health of our ocean, coastal and Great Lakes ecosystems. We urge all Californians to add your voices to the discussion. Time is running out for our oceans, but it is not too late. For the sake of the next generation, we all need to make waves now.

Jim Ayers is vice president of Oceana and was a presenter at the Mayors' Ocean Summit. Based in Juneau, Alaska, he previously served as chief of staff to Gov. Tony Knowles and headed the Exxon Valdez cleanup.

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