Oceans Suffer Attention Deficit in Journals, Experts Say

John Roach
for National Geographic News
August 19, 2003

The world's oceans are in crisis. Pollution, overfishing, invasive species, habitat destruction, and a myriad of other human impacts are impeding the oceans' ability to feed us, control the weather, and maintain Earth's chemical balance.

Despite the human race's dependence on the oceans for survival, however, attention to marine conservation science lags far behind that paid to conservation of firm ground, according to Phillip Levin, a marine scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, Washington.

"If you look at conservation biology as a discipline, that discipline is largely non-marine, it is largely terrestrial," he said. "So the approach and theory really are driven by a terrestrial agenda."

Levin and his colleague Beth Kochin, a recent high school graduate and intern as part of the American Fisheries Society's Hutton Junior Fisheries Biology Program, tallied the number of scientific papers published and cited in several research journals and found that papers on marine conservation science account for little more than seven percent of the literature that helps set the world's conservation agenda.

In a correspondence note published in the August 14 issue of the journal Nature, Levin and Kochin urge the research community to put more time and energy into the study of issues that directly affect marine conservation.

"Humans might well focus first on the habitat they themselves inhabit, but it is clearly time for more attention to be directed towards the oceans," they write.

Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence who champions ocean protection, said a better scientific understanding of how the oceans work is essential if humans wish to conserve them.

"Knowledge is power," she said. "Knowledge gives us the insight that enables us to make the right decisions. With knowing the oceans comes caring. If you do know you might not care, but if you don't know you can't care."

Ocean Importance

Earle says that the oceans are the cornerstone of Earth's life-support system. Without them the planet would be a dry, barren wasteland void of people, birds, fish, insects, plants, and everything else that makes Earth unique. The oceans harbor 97 percent of Earth's water and provide 99 percent of the planet's living space.

"It's where most life on Earth resides," she said. "We are in the minority as terrestrial creatures and we have a built-in bias. We are air breathers, we stand on land. We don't get instructed as children or grow an appreciation for how dependent we are on the ocean. It's not just rock and water, it's a live system."

Although the oceans are vital for life on Earth, most scientific research funding is earmarked for terrestrial systems and exploration of outer space. Less than five percent of the world's oceans have been studied or explored, according to Earle.

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