Until about ten years ago, most of us thought the oceans were indestructible. If asked, we probably would have agreed with the English poet Byron, who wrote in the early 1800's that "man marks the earth with ruin, but his control stops with the shore." A number of recent studies and reports from around the world demonstrate that this view is mistaken. In fact, the oceans are overfished and polluted, and our coastlines are being overrun with developments that ruin wetlands and harm coastal and ocean ecosystems. I'm glad to be part of the Earthjustice effort to ensure that we become better stewards of our oceans and coasts.
Growing up in north Florida not far from the Gulf of Mexico, for much of my life I took the ocean for granted. Our family enjoyed periodic outings to Alligator Point and Dog Island -- where we usually were the only ones on the beach. And there was one memorable fishing trip on a small boat out into the Gulf in heavy weather that featured close encounters with waterspouts, seasickness, and a monster fish. He snatched the bait with such force that he ripped the fishing pole overboard, and then jumped so high out of the foaming water in our wake that he jerked the flailing pole up into the air behind him before crashing back into the waves.
Like most of the oceans and coasts in this country, my childhood slice of the world has seen great changes. The vacant Gulf beaches I visited as a boy are being developed at an astonishing rate; an island that was nearly uninhabited forty years ago, (except for the occasional Scouting Jamboree) is now jammed with condominiums. Pollution from this kind of development is threatening the quality of the famous oysters from Apalachicola Bay. And overfishing has decimated a number of fish species in the Gulf, especially reef fish like snapper and grouper. At last count, red snapper in the Gulf were hovering at about 7 percent of a healthy population level.
During my youth, I remained largely clueless about damage to the environment. However, just out of college, two events caught my attention. In 1971, south of Tampa, Florida, the Cities Service Company killed most every living thing in the lower Peace River and part of Charlotte Harbor with a huge spill from a phosphate slimes holding pond. And, at about the same time, the Census Bureau distributed maps predicting that virtually the entire east and southwest coasts of Florida would shortly be paved over.
That was enough for me. With some vague idea that lawyers could make a difference in terms of pollution control and development planning, I headed off to Duke. There I met and married a brilliant and fetching young woman who now specializes in the law of nonprofit organizations. She and I have raised two wonderful children, the older of whom is currently busy saving furry animals, while the other is finishing college.
Fresh out of law school, I joined a small firm in Washington and spent the next decade or so litigating against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and other government agencies that were pursuing environmentally destructive projects. I represented Florida Defenders of the Environment in a challenge to the Corps' misguided attempt to construct the Cross-Florida Barge Canal, traveled throughout the South conducting discovery on various Corps plans to excavate the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway through northeastern Mississippi and southwestern Alabama (a $2 billion dollar boondoggle), canoed the crystal waters of the lower Apalachicola River investigating a Corps dredging project that threatened the water quality of the Bay, and defended the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund's Buck Parker in a deposition taken during a case challenging a government plan to use Missouri River water in a coal-slurry pipeline designed to run from Wyoming to Louisiana.
My work protecting rivers finally carried me downstream to the oceans and coasts. After a short time as counsel to United States Senator John Chafee, where I devoted attention to a variety of environmental issues, I returned to private practice and eventually became the director of the Ocean Law Project at Earthjustice in 1998. Funded largely by the Pew Charitable Trusts, this project filed a series of suits against the federal government that have compelled the government to do a better job of preventing overfishing, protecting essential fish habitat, and minimizing the incidental killing of fish.
From Washington, DC, I work with Earthjustice lawyers from the Honolulu, Tallahassee, and Juneau offices; we've won notable victories over the past few years that protect ocean resources. Paul Achitoff in Honolulu closed a significant portion of the Pacific to destructive longlining that kills endangered sea turtles. Eric Jorgensen and his legal team in Juneau have prevailed in a string of court rulings that forced the government to regulate groundfishing in the North Pacific with a closer eye on protecting the endangered Steller sea lion. David Guest in Tallahassee has protected critical sea turtle coastal habitat and helped save manatees from extinction.
The battle to conserve the oceans and coasts continues, both in this country and elsewhere. Currently, Earthjustice lawyers are working to minimize the killing of sea turtles in fishing operations in Central America, seeking tighter restrictions on fishing for bluefin tuna in the Gulf of Mexico, and fighting to preserve existing ocean resource protections in federal law. We look to stay busy in the years ahead.
Steve Roady is an attorney at Earthjustice's Washington, D.C. office. He received his B.A. from Davidson College with honors in 1971, and his law degree from Duke University in 1976. He practiced environmental law in Washington, D.C. from 1976 to 1989, then joined the United States Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works as counsel to Committee Chairman John H. Chafee. After helping draft the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990, Mr. Roady returned to private practice before launching the Ocean Law Project at Earthjustice in 1998. During 2001 and 2002, Mr. Roady was the first president of Oceana, an international ocean conservation organization; he rejoined Earthjustice in 2002. He has handled cases under the National Environmental Policy Act, the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the Clean Air Act, and other statutes. He has served as an adjunct professor at the law schools of American University and the University of Hawai'i, as a senior lecturing fellow at Duke Law School, and as a visiting scholar at Duke's Nicholas School of the Environment, where he recently won an award for his teaching. Harvard Law School named Steve a Wasserstein Public Interest Fellow for 2007-2008.