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The Challenge We Face

From our beaches and coastlines to the remotest reaches of the open oceans, human actions are despoiling the sea no less than the land. Scientists have documented the disappearance of species from whale-sized Steller's sea cows (Hydrodamalis gigas) to fingernail-sized eelgrass limpets (Lottia alveus), but this is just the tip of the iceberg. Unaccountable phenomena such as mass die-offs, toxic plankton blooms and coral bleaching episodes seem to be increasing. Off southern California the abundance of zooplankton -- the food source for most marine life -- has decreased 80 percent since 1951, and world fish catches have declined since 1989, despite increased fishing effort. These are indications of something gone terribly wrong.

Underlying these disturbing trends is ignorance. Scientists see manatees dying by the hundreds but cannot say why until it's over. We watch Long Island Sound choke with "brown tide" phytoplankton, but don't know the causal mechanism. We see diseases killing Florida Keys corals in the largest US Marine Sanctuary but cannot explain their etiologies. Given the opportunity to designate marine protected areas, we lack sound theory to decide whether a single large one or several small ones is better.

The pervasive absence of sound scientific theory and facts undermines decision making at all levels. Knowing far too little about causes and consequences of what we do, humankind is eliminating species, disrupting food webs and altering marine biogeochemical cycles. This ignorance is a death sentence for marine life.

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