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Saving the world's coastal waters

Ken Sherman flew to Beijing last month expecting to see environmental officials from 60 countries make final plans to spend $250 million cleaning up the Mediterranean Sea, $650 million on coastal waters in Southeast Asia and $100 million on waters off Africa.

Then the environmental ministers surprised him by announcing plans to spend another billion dollars to reduce pollution and improve fishing in the coastal waters of China.

"That was quite remarkable," Sherman exclaimed.

The same could be said for the way things have been going lately for the indefatigable senior scientist from Rhode Island.

When ministers from three South African countries — Namibia, Angola and South Africa — agreed two months ago to work together to manage the highly productive coastline they share on the Atlantic Ocean, Ken Sherman was there for the unforgettable ceremony. It took place in front of the glass wall of a giant aquarium. Divers jumped in amid sharks and unveiled a celebratory banner.

A few weeks later, environment ministers from 16 nations in West Africa signed a similar, historic agreement. Sherman rushed from a meeting in the Netherlands to attend. One of the governments, Ghana, named a conference hall after him in gratitude.

If Sherman beams with extra pride these days, it's because he and a neighbor created the concept of managing large bodies of coastal waters nearly 25 years ago over cocktails. Their idea was to use sound science to understand and better manage coastal ocean waters that produce most of the world's fish while surrounded by most of the world's pollution.

And now those concepts are taking off around the world.

After years of organizing conferences, writing books and science papers, and socializing with scientists around the globe, they have seen the concepts backed first by the U.S. government, then the World Bank, and now the United Nations and more than 126 countries with expenditures approaching $3 billion.

"Things are really starting to happen now," Sherman said during one of his brief interludes in his office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration laboratory overlooking Narragansett Bay. And when he talks about the dollars being spent on these new programs, he is even more amazed. "It doesn't sound real when I say it."

It's far too early to declare victory. In fact, a recent report in the journal Science warned that if the world continues its present pace, marine ecosystems will unravel and there will be a "global collapse" of all species currently fished, possibly by 2050.

But the concepts created by a handful of Rhode Island scientists do provide an opportunity and a framework for saving the oceans. Twenty-five years ago, Sherman was raking his leaves when Lewis Alexander, his longtime neighbor, stopped by to tease him. Alexander was a University of Rhode Island geographer who frequently worked for the State Department to settle international boundary disputes.

"He was telling me how to rake the leaves, and I told him to come over later for a drink," recalls Sherman.

That's when they fell into the conversation that could change the fate of the world's oceans.

"I asked him if it made sense to manage regions of the ocean on an ecological basis rather than political," Sherman said. At the time, countries were focusing on managing their own coastal waters, often one species at a time, with too little information about the effects from pollution, or over fishing, or activities in neighboring countries.

"He said that really might make sense. He was promoting regional solutions all the time."

They eventually moved to Sherman's office, where they unrolled maps and charts of the world's oceans.

The United States and Canada were negotiating a boundary through the Georges Banks fishing grounds. Sherman and Alexander thought artificial political boundaries made it more difficult to manage a fishery. The fish don't know what country they're in.

Other scientists had done work supporting the concept of regional environmental management. In particular, Sherman said he studied work by Robert Ricklefs, a biologist at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, who had done a lot of work on birds and their relationship to ecological regions.

More than 95 percent of the fish we eat and most of the marine life that supports those fish come from relatively shallow coastal waters. Sherman proposed identifying particular coastal regions that have natural boundaries and share similar water depth, currents, productivity and food chains. He identified the U.S. continental shelf between Canada and Cape Hatteras, for instance, as one such region. Coastal waters from Cape Hatteras to the tip of Florida were another. The Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean Sea are two more. Eventually Sherman and others identified 64 such regions around the world..

Sherman wanted to call the regions Very Large Marine Ecosystems. He said his wife, Roberta, a reading teacher, thought that sounded awkward. So he started calling the regions Large Marine Ecosystems, or LMEs. Google the term today and you'll find nearly 9 million Web sites.

By 1984, Sherman was ready to present the LME concept to the international science community. His target was the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. That year it was in New York City. Sherman knew that some concepts spread faster in informal settings than in scientific presentations so he sought help from John A. Knauss, then the dean of the University of Rhode Island Graduate School of Oceanography, whose campus was next door to his NOAA laboratory.

Through the 1980s and 1990s, the concepts hatched by Sherman and Alexander over cocktails were discussed and expanded at one major science conference after another. Although LMEs are readily accepted now around the world, it took two decades of relentless work by Sherman and others to make that happen.

First, NOAA officially began supporting the program here and abroad.

Then, you could say the world started taking the environment seriously in 1992, when the United Nations Conference on the Environment in Brazil committed $8 billion to cleanups and restoration. Later, the World Summit on Sustainable Development made a commitment to restore the world's fisheries. The Global Environmental Facility, a partner of the United Nations and the World Bank, pledged some $650 million to help developing countries restore the world's LMEs.

Now, at least 126 countries are involved.

"Even to me, I can't get around that," says Sherman. "Things are moving along very nicely because we got high-caliber people to help with the program."

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.