N ow that the wider world has finally recognized the extent to which human activities are altering the Earth’s climate, maybe we can also begin to grasp the fact that our oceans, too, are in dire straits.

Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, and they provide food, work and recreation for billions of people. They are also the lifeline of our global economy: Ships carry around 90 percent of all the goods that are transported internationally.

But hundreds of years of use and abuse since the 18th-century Industrial Revolution have taken their toll. From soaking up human sewage and the runoff from agricultural chemicals, to the blight of overfishing, oceans have for hundreds of years been bearing the brunt of our consume-and-dispose global culture.

Perhaps we had to comprehend the vastness of climate change before we could begin to accept that our oceans, too, are not boundless.

Whatever the reason, though, in the past month a flurry of reports have surfaced, documenting the degraded state of the oceans and the serious threats now posed to marine ecosystems.

One report released last Friday, titled “In Dead Water,” from the U.N. Environment Programme (UNEP), outlines the impacts of pollution, overexploitation, alien infestations and climate change on seas and oceans.

Several other reports also surfaced prior to the World Conservation Union (IUCN) meeting on Fisheries and Corruption hosted by the World Bank in Washington at the end of January. More on those later.

Still another document, released earlier this month, notes that human activities — including commercial fishing, runoff from agriculture and development, industrial pollution, and oil and gas extraction — have “strongly affected” 41 percent of our oceans. Only frigid waters near the poles (representing a mere 3.7 percent of our oceans) remain relatively untouched, according to the report from the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis at the University of California, Santa Barbara.

All of these should be setting off alarm bells in Japan.

As an island nation dependent on the oceans for food and shipments of goods and energy, marine conservation should be a top national-security priority in Japan. So far, however, the country has done nothing to lead global efforts to protect the seas.

In fact, whether justified or not, recent media coverage has portrayed Japan’s marine policies as bobbing somewhere between senseless and criminal.

In early February, the global media ran pictures of two dead minke whales being winched aboard a Japanese whaling ship in waters off Antarctica. One whale was an adult, the other a small calf less than a quarter the adult’s size.

Commentators and environmentalists had a field day with the calf-killing — once again condemning Japan’s claims that whaling is being done for scientific “research” purposes.

A week later, CNN International covered the herding, trapping and slaughter of frenzied dolphins by Japanese fishermen in Taiji, Wakayama Prefecture (which The Japan Times has been highlighting for more than four years). Seeing aquamarine waters running red with blood further undermined Japan’s marine credentials.

And just last Wednesday, renowned naturalist Mark Brazil wrote on this page about observing a fisherman shoot a Steller’s sea lion in waters off the Shiretoko Peninsula, a World Heritage Site in northern Hokkaido. Brazil was saddened to see the killing of a species that is internationally classified as “endangered,” and is protected elsewhere — but not in Japan.

Here, fishermen, bureaucrats and politicians claim that these three species need culling because they are gobbling up fish and other creatures that are rightfully the property of Japanese fishermen — a stance they maintain despite science to the contrary (see this column December 2007).

Nevertheless, one area of marine policy where Japan could begin to garner much-needed respect would be in the fight against corruption in the global fishing industry. Corruption is a primary cause of overfishing that has decimated fish stocks worldwide, particularly stocks of tuna.

As the prime consumer of marine resources, Japan can help promote greater transparency and accountability in the industry and, in turn, create a valuable model for managing other human activities that threaten the planet’s oceans.

But of course, putting a stop to the abuse of our oceans will take a concerted, international effort. However, in much the same way that U.S. leadership is demanded on greenhouse-gas reduction policies, because America emits more carbon dioxide than any other nation, Japan’s central role in shipping — and as a top consumer of seafood — puts the onus on it to take action.

And just as the U.S. has promoted individual car ownership as a global passion — helping to usher in all the ills that entails — Japan has contributed to soaring demand by making sushi, particularly tuna, a must-eat phenomena worldwide.

Now, with global tuna stocks being over-fished legally and illegally, Japan — as the world’s top tuna buyer, has a logistic advantage and an ethical responsibility to take the lead in ending tuna fisheries’ corruption.

The IUCN meeting on fisheries and corruption last month offered a good place to begin understanding this corruption — and its solutions.

In their IUCN briefing paper, titled “When Bad Gets Worse: Corruption and Fisheries,” Ussif Rashid Sumaila and Jennifer Jacquet noted that corruption in fisheries occurs on three levels: internationally, nationally and regionally, among fishermen themselves.

At the international level, it is seen when nations fail to comply with limits set by international agreements, or it involves the bribing of government officials when a rich country is negotiating for access to the territorial fish stocks of a poor country.

At the national and regional levels, corruption usually involves the fudging of statistics or the bribing of officials. Processors, distributors and retailers also engage in corrupt practices, renaming and mislabeling fish to evade laws, explain Sumaila and Jacquet.

There is corruption on the waves, too.

Fishermen go over their fishing quotas through illegal, unreported and unregulated (IUU) fishing; they discard perfectly good, but none-target species; they smuggle catches; they “transship” by passing their catches to other boats at sea; they mislabel catches; they steal catches from others; and they harass onboard observers there to prevent these abuses, according to the researchers.

In another IUCN briefing paper, Cathy Roheim of the Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics at the University of Rhode Island, notes that the problem of IUU fishing has both environmental and economic costs.

“This is a significant problem globally, with the estimated value of IUU catches being between $4-9 billion per year,” she reports.

“There are many factors which facilitate the pervasive nature of IUU fishing. There are often inadequate national laws, or insufficient funds for implementation. Regional governance is only as effective as the collective will of individual governments.

“Surveillance and enforcement in fisheries is difficult. There may be a need to rely on technology, which may be inadequate, tampered with, or costly. In many cases, there are weak port controls and weak trade measures,” Roheim explains.

She also gives special attention to China’s role as a third-country processor. “A growing and significant amount of fish is exported to China post-harvest, processed, then re-exported around the globe. This has significant implications for IUU fish, in particular, [because] if one is successful in getting illegal fish into China, the product is essentially laundered, as it re-emerges as a legal ‘product of China,’ if it does not remain in the domestic market for consumption there,” she explains.

To deal with corruption, Roheim recommends better supply-chain management to ensure more trans- parency and accountability. In particular, she suggests eco-labeling by third-party independent certifiers, such as the Marine Stewardship Council, which verifies that fish and fish products meet certain standards. She also notes that “electronic catch documentation” can reduce forgery and manipulation of invoices.

Last autumn, Greenpeace also had some suggestions for safeguarding tuna stocks. In a report titled “Taking Tuna out of the Can: Rescue Plan for the World’s Favourite Fish,” Greenpeace called on Japan to support coastal and island states in developing their own sustainable fisheries based on more domestic, small-scale fishing and more domestic handling and processing.

More to the point, Greenpeace called for a 50 percent cut in tuna catches worldwide until stocks rebound to sustainable levels — a bleak proposal, but probably inevitable.

Now it’s up to Japan and the rest of the world to decide whether we care enough about our oceans and their mysteries to save them.

Or will we resort to Blu-ray and virtual environments when our grandchildren ask us what it was like before the tuna, and the oceans, died?

Stephen Hesse welcomes readers’ comments or questions at stevehesse@hotmail.com

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