CHARLESTON, S.C. -- The nation's coastal waters are besieged by too much fishing, pollution from development and the likelihood millions more people will flock to the coast during the next two decades, a top federal regulator warned Thursday.
"Alteration of the environment used to take decades. We have gotten so good at it that it now takes just a few years," Nancy Foster, assistant administrator for the National Ocean Service, told a conference on fisheries and pollution.
There has been "unprecedented deterioration of coastal areas" with fish stocks at historic lows and fewer and fewer beaches accessible to the public, she said.
Almost 140 million people live with 50 miles of the nation's coastlines. That is expected to increase by 26 million during the next two decades, Foster said. Business as usual will not solve the problems and "we must recognize a sense of urgency," she said.
Scientific research must be made available more quickly and regulators must consider long-term impacts of their policies, Foster said.
She said the problems are compounded because no institution has the resources or authority to solve interlocking problems, such as pollution from inland sources.
"What happens in our waters is influenced by events that happen miles away from our coastline," she said.
And when there are problems, she said, people demand quick fixes, as they did when the Pfiesteria piscicida bacteria killed fish and possibly caused 27 people to get sick in rivers feeding the Chesapeake Bay last summer.
"Things happen today and the public demands, `Fix it before the weekend,"' she said.
Regulations for fishing and using other resources must have the support of the public if they are to do any good, agreed Paul Sandifer, director of South Carolina's Natural Resources Department.
"There are not enough law enforcement officers in the Western Hemisphere to enforce the laws" if the public doesn't agree with them, he said.
Sandifer said regulators may have to explore more extensive use of fishing refuges, similar to wildlife refuges on land, where no fish could be harvested.
"People will say `Not in my backyard. Don't take away the resource,"' he said. "If it were not for wildlife refuges a number of our threatened and endangered species would not be threatened or endangered. They would be extinct."
The three-day meeting attended by about 50 marine scientists and government regulators is sponsored by a group of state and federal agencies, a public interest group and a private company.