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A New Ocean Ethic

We have a particularly wet section for you this week with oceans, ice sheets, and even a little lake water thrown in.

This is the Year of the Ocean. And on this blue planet of ours - three-quarters covered by water - conquering the ocean depths has become the newest "final frontier."

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Yet it's a troubled quest.

One Canadian deep-sea explorer, while diving in the Arctic Ocean far from any human settlement, found a soda can 40 feet below the ice, nestled in a kelp plant. In those temperatures, he says, it is likely to "outlast the pyramids."

Probably tossed from some passing ship, the can, like the oil platforms, giant factory ships, and agricultural runoff, is altering the marine landscape before scientists fully understand the interplay of this underwater world.

In recent years, fisheries have collapsed, marine-mammal populations declined, and large stretches of once brilliantly colored coral are turning a bland, dying white. (Take a look at Colin Woodard's story at right.)

In fact, this newest "final frontier" is as much a battleground for environmentalists as a research opportunity for scientists.

Just as air pollution is now forever linked in public thought to that gaping hole in the ozone, the Year of the Ocean is a consciousness-raising exercise. The world's seas may not have infinite resilience. And respect may be the first step to recovery.

What we need is a new ocean ethic to forestall us from doing to the seas what we've already done to large tracts of land.

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In that, Lord Byron's poetic vision may have passed its prime:

"Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean - roll!/ Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;/

Man marks the earth with ruin - his control/ Stops with the shore..."

Along with the new ethic, perhaps we need a new poem, too.

* Susan Llewelyn Leach is the assistant Ideas editor. Comments or questions? Write to Ideas Editor, One Norway Street, Boston, MA 02115, or e-mail:

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