May 11, 2010

EPW Subcommittees Examine Threats to Oceans’ Health

Hearing Chaired by Senator Whitehouse Features Testimony from Law and Order Star, Among Others

Washington, DC– With ocean temperatures rising throughout the world and waters becoming increasingly toxic to fish and wildlife populations, U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) today chaired a joint hearing along with U.S. Senator Benjamin L. Cardin (D-MD) to examine threats to our oceans’ health presented by chemical pollution and ocean acidification. The joint hearing of the Environment and Public Works (EPW) Subcommittees on Oversight and on Water and Wildlife featured testimony from Sam Waterston, a member of the Board of Directors for Oceana and star of NBC’s Law and Order series, and Dr. Roger Payne, founder and President of the Ocean Alliance.

“For too long, we have taken our oceans for granted,” said Whitehouse. “We dump trash in the ocean, allow sewage to overflow into our coastal beaches, and fail to curb toxic run off. Our unchecked carbon pollution, absorbed by the ocean, changes the very chemistry of the ocean ecosystem.”

“The ocean is so vast that for too long we did not believe that our actions could harm it. And even today — with all the scientific knowledge and investigative techniques we possess — the oceans and their marine ecosystems remain in large part a mystery to us. Each passing day we become increasingly aware of the importance of these growing threats to the oceans’ health,” Cardin said.

One major threat to oceans discussed at today’s hearing was ocean acidification. Oceans remove more carbon from the atmosphere than all other natural systems combined, but they can only absorb so much carbon dioxide before their PH levels drop and the water becomes more acidic. This can cause coral reefs to die and crumble, and impede the ability of critical algae to multiply.

“Research over the last 10 years indicates that the implications of CO2 for ocean and coastal marine ecosystems are potentially very serious,” said EPA officials Nancy Stoner and James Jones at today’s hearing. “…changes in ocean chemistry due to ocean acidification are likely to make marine ecosystems less resilient to further change in ocean chemistry and more vulnerable to other environmental impacts, including climate change.”

Witness testimony also touched on the high concentration of toxics, such as flame retardants, found in marine mammals. In Rhode Island, for example, whales that wash ashore every summer can be so contaminated that they may present a threat to public health. Dr. Roger Payne, who testified at the hearing, recently completed a report based on a five and half year survey around the globe showing an alarmingly high concentration of toxins in sperm whales. “We discovered that our samples contain some of the highest levels of pollutants ever found in any free-ranging animal-the very highest readings were from whales we sampled in some of the remotest regions we visited. In short, the oceans are polluted to a far worse degree than anyone had imagined,” said Payne.

Other witnesses at today’s hearing included Dr. Carys Mitchelmore, Associate Professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, and Dr. John T. Everett, President of Ocean Associates, Inc.


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