Archive for November, 2008

Troubled waters around the world

Wednesday, November 5th, 2008

The opening session sounded like a meeting of the General Assembly of the United Nations. Through headsets, we listened to the simultaneous translation of the opening address in English, Chinese, and Japanese. Such a convergence of nationalities –– eminent scientists from around the world, distinguished leaders in environmental affairs –– bespoke the grave significance of the problems at hand.

At the 2008 Environmental Management of Enclosed Coastal Seas meeting (EMECS-8) in Shanghai, China last week, scientists from around the globe came to report on the state of their coastal waters and to discuss national and regional attempts to correct problems of pollution, nutrient overload, and rapid development that put intense pressure on rivers and inland seas.

The messages we heard were sobering. What we face in our Chesapeake Bay is happening across the globe – from China to Japan to Iran to Europe to India to Bangladesh. Our struggles with restoration, with the implementation of ecosystem-based approaches to management, with the coordination between local and regional governance resound from country-to-country. Signs of damaged ecosystems also appear everywhere. Jellyfish have grown abundant, where fisheries have declined – such as in the Seto Inland Sea in Japan. And some coastal waters such as Tokyo Bay and Hong Kong Harbor may have already passed the point of no return, according to one study of ports and harbors in the Asian South Pacific.

Climate change will only make matters worse, scientists say. And if we don’t plan for the effects of rising temperatures and rising sea levels as we continue to develop the coastal zone, global water resources and human health could be severely compromised.

Ironically, even as we clean up the water, the legacy of contaminated sediments will live on, according to another study.  Salt marshes, which are so important for trapping sediment and reducing the impact of development-induced erosion, offer conditions that may encourage the accumulation of methyl mercury in the food chain. Methyl mercury, a toxic compound that originates with coal-fired emissions from power plants, is metabolized by sulfur-oxidizing bacteria that are prolific in salt marshes, providing an entry point into an aquatic food web that culminates with our food fish resources.

Unfortunately, walking the streets of Shanghai did little to dispel the messages I was hearing inside the conference venue –– a sense of mounting global environmental doom.  Here, in a city of 18 million people and growing, the environment seems stretched to a breaking point. Air pollution, poor water quality, lack of green space, mind-boggling traffic, and an infrastructure bursting at the seams. This city, so proud of its recent economic surge, appears balanced at a precipice. If growth continues at the current rate, it seems impossible that the environment will be able sustain the resource needs of its burgeoning population.  Sobering indeed.

Though global environmental problems loom large, the EMECS conference was not without a silver lining. The note of optimism comes from the common chord on how restoring the environment should be approached.  The idea of treating the whole system, not just constituent parts, resounded widely. The term “ecosystem-based management,” new not so long ago, had clearly become well entrenched in the dialogue of scientists and managers throughout the world. The dedication of conference organizers and participants, including the articulate and passionate student delegation, offered a beacon of hope. With political will and motivated leaders, the path to ecosystem recovery does lie within our grasp

The Chesapeake region will host the next EMECS conference in 2011, planned for Baltimore, Maryland. When this globally diverse group of talented researchers and managers next meets, I hope that we will hear reports of notable strides toward a more sustainable future for our coastal zones.