Let's focus on the planet's biggest infrastructure

Let's focus on the planet's biggest infrastructure

As the nation focuses on rebuilding out of the pandemic, all eyes are looking to Washington, D.C., and what will happen with the ongoing effort to pass a robust infrastructure package.

Earlier this week, the Senate passed the bipartisan “hard” infrastructure bill — the latest in a series of attempts that started with a $2.3 trillion price tag now whittled down to $1.2 trillion. This is significant progress in President BidenJoe BidenChina eyes military base on Africa's Atlantic coast: report Biden orders flags be flown at half-staff through Dec. 9 to honor Dole Biden heading to Kansas City to promote infrastructure package MORE’s vision to build back better, but the federal government must keep this momentum going with legislation that addresses the most critical infrastructure in the world: the ocean. 

The ocean makes up over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface; it is the way by which 76 percent of global trade is accomplished, and it produces 50-80 percent of the Earth’s oxygen. Over 94 million Americans live in coastline communities, and millions more rely on the ocean for work, food and enjoyment. Yet, throughout the past few years, the ocean has taken a beating.

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Climate change is one of the greatest threats to the health of the ocean and, in turn, countless Americans. Burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and methane gas is contributing to rising global temperatures, causing extreme drought, deadly fires and devastating hurricanes, and is at the heart of tremendous declines in the health of the ocean and marine life. We must be vigilant in shielding and safeguarding the ocean and people from harm. 

The United Nations’ IPCC report released earlier this month offered us a bleak view of the future. According to the report, ocean levels are projected to rise another 1-2 feet this century — and this is on the moderate side of the projection. The effects this will have on coastal communities will be devastating.

On top of that, we’re continuing to see dead whales wash up on our shores in alarming numbers. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has reported over 487 dead gray whales stranded since New Year’s Day 2019. Researchers are still investigating why this number has ballooned in the past three years, but as history has shown, these strandings are likely telling us something that has implications across all marine life and humans too.

A recent study by our experts at The Marine Mammal Center, where I serve as CEO, and our partners revealed that sea lions are getting cancer at unprecedented rates, thanks to pollution and toxins that were dumped in the ocean years ago. At the center, about 25 percent of adult sea lion deaths we see are due to this one aggressive cancer — a rate that’s among the highest prevalence of a single type of cancer in any mammal, including humans.

The Los Angeles Times reported that the same chemical that is causing this cancer in sea lions — DDT, a chemical compound that was originally developed as an insecticide — is causing significant health threats in the grandchildren of people exposed all the way back in 1959. These pollutants are still wreaking havoc over six decades after they were dumped in the ocean.

What we learn about the health of the ocean is intimately tied to human health. The same waves we are swimming, fishing, surfing and splashing in are those that are the home to those impacted sea lion communities. The same seafood we’re consuming –— now potentially carrying toxins —  is being consumed by marine mammals and us. One thing remains certain: all of this should set off alarms.

A healthy ocean is the best foundation we have as a planet for combating climate change and building a resilient and sustainable future. That’s why the federal government needs to act now and allocate significant funding to protecting the ocean. 

And this ought to be about more than climate change. This is an opportunity to invest in clean jobs and economic growth. The ocean economy is at risk of being overlooked in America’s plan for recovery, but it is critical to future national prosperity. The ocean represents a virtually untapped economic sector, one that can be focused on regenerative industries and strengthen the path towards eliminating our dependency on fossil fuels. 

A robust ocean economy also includes sustainable aquaculture and mariculture, which if done using science-based and best-in-class standards, can provide an environmentally responsible source of seafood, access to locally grown food and jobs across a diverse workforce. We need to seriously promote aquaculture across the nation — not only for its utility but also for its positive impact on the environment. It is a low-impact protein option, which also reduces reliance on global industrial fishing that has negative impacts on marine mammals and other marine wildlife.

Biden’s goal with the massive infrastructure funding was to make America’s economy “more sustainable, resilient, and just,” while combating climate change and creating good-paying jobs. That sure sounds like the ocean economy to me.

It’s not too late for the White House, Congress and state leaders to prioritize the ocean’s health and direct funds to help the planet’s most critical infrastructure. The Ocean-Based Climate Solutions Act is a great place to start. Not only will this provide much-needed relief to the embattled ocean, but it can also expedite America’s road to economic recovery. We cannot forget: the ocean is infrastructure, and it should be the bedrock of a plan to build back better and cleaner.

Dr. Jeff Boehm is the CEO of The Marine Mammal Center, an organization that leads in ocean conservation through marine mammal rescue, veterinary medicine, science and education. Follow them on Twitter @TMMC.