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George J. Mitchell

Selected Speeches

Excerpts from: Statement of Senator George Mitchell Bowdoin College Bicentennial Environmental Institute Conference April 6, 1994


Bowdoin has played a significant role in the development of Maine and the nation. Its alumni include one President, more than forty members of the Congress, authors of distinction like Nathaniel Hawthorne, and men of such character and achievement that they can only be called heroes, like Joshua Chamberlain, the civil war general and Bowdoin president.

Bowdoin's student body today is drawn from across the nation and the world, as well as Maine. Its focus on the challenges of the contemporary world, such as the environment, make Bowdoin a continuously relevant institution among the nation's colleges.

I owe a great deal to my experience at Bowdoin.

It was a chance to grow and to learn. I know today's students feel the same way.

I wish the college continued success as it undertakes its third century of teaching, challenging, and creating a community where students and faculty can learn about the world together.

Learning to live with the natural world is a lifetime process. Our scientific knowledge is still in its infancy. And each piece of information we learn reveals the many pieces we do not know.

The world's oceans contain about 97 percent of all the water on our planet. They cover three-quarters of the earth's surface. Their surface temperatures change the temperatures of the air above them and so affect the climate of the world.

One third of the world's population lives within 37 miles of a coastline. Many millions more live within an easy day's travel of coastlines. The majority of the earth's 5.5 billion people live around the coastal fringes of the continents.

Coastal environments, whether they are tropical mangrove swamps, tidal flats, marshes or estuaries are the biologically richest parts of the oceans.

They are feeding and nursery grounds for more than ninety percent of fish, including fish which spend their adult lives in the open seas. Almost ninety-nine percent of commercially valuable fish are caught within 200 miles of a coastline. Coastal environments are enormous sanctuaries for migratory birds. They are catchment areas for river sediments which would be dispersed in the oceans if they were not trapped by marsh grasses and other plants.

From the earliest times of known human settlements, coasts, marshes, and river deltas have been the locus of human settlement.

Human settlement and its density has already taken a toll on our planet's coasts. Many of the world's large coastal cities don't have wastewater treatment, and spill raw sewage directly into the oceans.

Men and some women have wrested a living from [the] sea for centuries. If they are going to keep on doing so, we will have to pay more attention to the oceans than we have in the past.

Paying attention to the oceans means paying attention to the entire environment because the oceans are a huge and integral part of the world's environment.

Here in the United States, attention has focused on our coastlines only sporadically as we have worked to clean up polluted air, rivers and lakes. But I'm pleased to say that one of the places where the process of study, pollution control, and abatement is taking place is the Gulf of Maine.

The Gulf of Maine covers a vast area that includes open ocean as well as islands, bays, harbors and estuarine environments. It has historically been a rich fishery and therefore a richly diverse biological environment. It has also been subjected to the kinds of u[n]managed development that have taken a toll on all the world's coastal regions.

Compared with other waters, the Gulf of Maine appears to be one of the better quality bodies of water in the world. But we should not wait until permanent damage occurs before we act. And we have plenty of advance knowledge of potential damage.

The Gulf of Maine is a microcosm which mirrors in smaller detail most of the problems reflected in the wider world's experience of oceanic degradation.

We should not wait until the seas off our coasts are as filthy as the Mediterranean or as toxic as the Sea of Azov before we take steps to monitor and correct the problems. We should not be trapped by superficial geographical differences into the belief that because the Gulf isn't an inland sea, it can't be seriously contaminated. We know it can be. We should make sure it won't be. The way to do that is to act, not to wait.

What's needed is an approach that crosses manmade political boundaries to bring together the needs the Gulf serves for the communities which live along its shores.

We must allow citizens to manage the resources to which their lives are linked.

We need an environmental policy which factors human beings in, not out. Maine fishermen have been working our seas for generations. Sons have learned from fathers about the seas and the fish. We must use and analyze this practical knowledge.

We ought to be sharing with our fishermen the predictive abilities science has given us about sustainable fisheries. But we should be listening as well to the experience of those who work the fishery.

I've often been told in response that "anecdotal" information isn't scientifically useful. I respond, with all respect, that when our overall scientific understanding is as thinly based as our knowledge of the oceans is today, a more appropriate stance would be to say that all information is potentially useful.

The value of human knowledge rests in the use human beings can make of it. Scientific management of our fishery which leaves out the people whose lives depend upon it isn't scientific. And it's destined to fail.

It is my vision that we should seek a Gulf of Maine environment that is naturally healthy, sustainable and one from which people can make a livelihood.

I believe in an environment which includes the work and existence of human beings. I believe human beings and their demands can be potentially as sympathetic to the environment as the demands of nesting falcons or spawning salmon.

I believe it is within the bounds of possibility, working with nature and not against it, to achieve that goal in our lifetimes. I cannot think of a more worthwhile goal to which we could dedicate our time and our effort.


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