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Signature-Series-3-David-Rockefeller-Jr-2-27-2024

Our Town by William Kelly: Healthy oceans are vital for humans and the earth, speaker tells Civic Association audience

Rising water temperatures. Overfishing. Offshore mining for oil and natural gas. Pollution from agricultural nutrient runoff and trash that includes pervasive single-use plastics.

The world’s oceans are in jeopardy. But, despite serious threats, there’s hope for saving them, a lifelong sailor and ocean conservationist said at a Palm Beach Civic Association program on Tuesday.

David Rockefeller Jr. told an audience of more than 150 people at The Beach Club how his own love of the oceans evolved into a quest to help rescue them.

Rockefeller is a prominent businessman, philanthropist and environmentalist who founded the non-profit Sailors for the Sea. That operation became part of Oceana, an international organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the oceans.

Apart from the beauty, recreation, and adventure they offer, the oceans are a vital food source for much of humanity and provide other important functions such as trapping carbon in their silty bottoms, Rockefeller said.

Yet there is still much to learn about them.

“Scientists have been slow to catch up with the chemistry, biology and physical dynamics of marine systems, even though the human species has been setting sail for well more than 1,000 years,” he said.

For most of his life, Rockefeller said, his knowledge of the oceans didn’t run much deeper than the surface.

“As a lifelong sailor, I thought of myself as a lover of the oceans – the challenge, the mystery, the beauty and changing weather,” he said. “Not until I was nearly 60 years old did I truly realize how little I knew about what was beneath the keel of my boat.”

Rockefeller said he was fortunate enough to serve three years on the Pew Oceans Commission, which issued a comprehensive report on the health of U.S. marine waters in June 2003. He described that eye-opening experience as a “graduate course in ocean biology, chemistry and physics.”

He was among 15 commissioners who visited a dozen fishing ports from Maine to Alaska, and from the Great Lakes to Florida, and heard testimony from academics, politicians, scientists, and fishermen.

“There was much that we found that was disturbing,” he said.

The commission found that:

  • Coastal development was threatening the health of wetlands and estuaries that serve as nurseries for valuable fish species.
  • Sixty percent of U.S. coastal rivers and bays were seriously degraded by nutrient runoff originating from farms and private lawns. This was leading to nearby algal blooms and damaging coral reefs.
  • Many commercially crucial fish species on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts were being overfished, some to the point of extinction.
  • Invasive species were invading our coastal waters, altering habitat and degrading food sources.

“Perhaps most notably and shockingly, we learned that 90 percent of the large pelagic fish had been removed by human effort from the oceans in the 50-year period prior to the millennium,” Rockefeller said.

Ocean Conservation

In 2004, Rockefeller founded Sailors of the Sea, a small non-profit operation aimed at educating sailors of all ages about the challenges to ocean health. Meanwhile, Rockefeller’s wife, Susan, had joined the much larger Oceana conservation organization. The couple began to strategize about how the two might complement each other.

Oceana’s board of 25 directors help to raise nearly $50 million a year to help promote the health and sustainability of fisheries across the globe. Oceana also uses satellites to identify the location and activity of fishing boats throughout the oceans.

The organization’s motto is “save the oceans, feed the world.”

The oceans produce wild-caught protein without requiring the fresh water, soil and fertilizers needed for terrestrial cultivation, Rockefeller noted.

“More than a billion people worldwide depend upon seafood as their principal source of protein,” he said. “Many of them are living at the poverty level.”

Oceana’s work has benefited Florida’s coastline in at least two ways, he said. One was to work with local allies to initiate 22 bans throughout the state of polystyrene, balloons, and single-use plastic water bottles. The other was a state moratorium on offshore drilling for oil and gas, adopted in 2020.

“We led a successful effort … supported by 100 Florida municipalities and 6,000 businesses statewide who were concerned that the risks to Florida’s tourism industry outweighed the foregone oil and gas revenues,” Rockefeller said.

Sailors for the Sea continues to function as a component of Oceana. Sailors for the Sea’s goal was to educate and activate at least 10 percent of American sailors to become ocean conservationists, Rockefeller said.

“We’re well on our way,” he said.

Rockefeller cited several examples of how education and legal protections are yielding positive results for the oceans and marine life:

  •  Because of a strong nationwide fisheries law, 50 species of fish have been rebuilt since the turn of the century.
  •  The rate of manatee deaths has dropped for three consecutive years. Just 17 percent of manatee fatalities in 2023 were attributable to watercraft strikes.
  •  Nesting counts for sea turtles, most notably the green and loggerhead species, had a record year in 2023. “Protection efforts in Florida are making a difference,” Rockefeller said.

Challenges

But enormous hurdles remain.

Global sea-surface temperatures have increased by about 1 degree Fahrenheit in the last 20 years.

“In July of last year, shallow waters off Florida topped 100 degrees – a level normally associated with hot tubs,” Rockefeller said. “Such spikes in sea temperatures, if prolonged, can be devastating for coastal ecosystems.”

At least 25 percent of the world’s corals are bleached and dying because of a combination of rising marine temperatures and pollution from ships and land-based activities, he said.

“Coral reefs are among the most magnificent manifestations of natural processes the oceans have ever supported,” he said. “They are the nurseries for thousands of species of sea life and certainly a highly prized destination for divers around the globe.”

The sea level has risen a modest eight inches since 1950 but is estimated to have climbed one inch for every three years during the last decade, he said.

“The rate of acceleration is clearly stimulated by a warming globe, especially in the polar zones where land-based glaciers are sliding into the oceans at an increasing rate of speed,” Rockefeller said.

Agriculture, when pursued without proper regard for the impacts of nutrient runoff into the rivers, can pose an equal threat to ocean health, Rockefeller said.

The increase in the frequency of red tides on Florida’s gulf beaches, and of large sargassum seaweed patches washing up on its Atlantic beaches, is also attributable to nutrient pollution and rising temperatures, he said.

Despite all the damage caused to them by human activities, the oceans are resilient and remain a dynamic and beneficial part of life on earth, Rockefeller said.

“Whether you are a beachcomber, surfer, a diver, boater or, as I am, a sailor, you surely know how much pleasure and emotional buoyancy the ocean environment can deliver,” he said.

Tuesday marked the last of three Civic Association Signature Series programs for 2024. All three were sponsored by the Stanley M. Rumbough, Jr. Legacy Society, named for the late former Civic Association co-chairman and CEO.

Civic Association Chairman and CEO Michael Pucillo called Rockefeller’s report on ocean health a matter of great global interest.

“But it’s also a matter of local interest,” Pucillo said. “As a 13-mile barrier island, the ocean is at our doorstep.”

 

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