My Turn: A turning point in the health of world's oceansTurn

Posted: Thursday, December 08, 2005

Alaska depends on its oceans - and what is happening to them is truly alarming.

Although Alaska still has one of the healthiest fisheries, other fish populations have crashed, marine birds and mammals are almost everywhere in decline, and scientists report that two-thirds of the planet's coral reefs are now dead or dying. Last summer, scientists discovered that huge parts of the ocean bottom - where nutrients essential to humans are produced - are covered with layers of plastic bags. The Ocean Marina in Pacifica, Calif., reports that 90 percent of the total fish mass is gone, due to overfishing of large fish. In 1998, a special report to the United Nations, featured on ABC and NBC, found that the oceans may be dying. Scientists have identified 150 "dead zones" - the largest 45,000 square miles - in which almost nothing can live. Newspapers around the world report thousands of whales and other marine mammals beaching themselves, dying of cancer and other human disease. Some could meet the legal definition of toxic dumps.

Well-known oceanographer Sylvia Earle states that up to 85 percent of the world's oxygen comes from single-celled plants and animals that live in its depths and, if the oceans were to die, nothing - not even a cactus - could survive.

We are at a turning point. Those that are aware of the monumental emergencies facing the planet often feel overwhelmed and helpless before the ongoing destruction. There are, in fact, many things ordinary citizens can do. We are each a part of the problem. We can each be part of the solution.

Here is one contributing factor that all of us can do something about: The world uses more than 200 billion plastic bags every year - killing ocean birds and mammals and suffocating its life support systems. Plastic bags have been in existence about 25 years. We don't need them. Returning to cloth or string bags is a very small lifestyle change that would go a long way towards slowing the ocean's decline. In 1998 Galena successfully banned plastic bags from village stores. Forty villages followed. The Juneau Alaska Youth for Environmental Action at JDHS is mobilizing and planning to talk with local grocery stores about a plastic bag phase-out. Let's support them. These bags are unnecessary and have a terrible impact.

Carlos Yaipen-Llanos, a Peruvian environmentalist visiting Juneau this week, is inviting Alaska performers to take part in a February Lima music festival via the Internet to raise awareness about the state of the ocean. Llanos founded ORCCAMM - Organizacion Cientifica para Conservacion de Animales: Mamiferos Marines (Scientific Organization for the Conservation of Marine Animals) - and is in Juneau brainstorming possible joint projects with local scientists and activists.

The health of the ocean is inextricably linked to that of the planet, its communities and ourselves. Please consider joining Alaska youth in ridding Juneau of plastic bags and being a part of local or international grassroots movements such as ORCCAMM that work to reverse the downward slide of the oceans. All need and welcome volunteers, funds and support. Those of us privileged to live within sight of the sea could be reminded every day that we can - and must - make a difference.

• Dixie Belcher is a local activist and choral director who is with a new nonprofit, Turning the Tides.

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