05/19/2010 12:03 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Oceans 9-1-1

I know you can't help but watch with alarm as the oil spill tragedy unfolds in the Gulf of Mexico. The impacts are serious, both to people and ocean wildlife. Yet as dramatic and disastrous as the spill may be, it's not the greatest environmental threat facing the oceans today.

The oceans are dialing 9-1-1, and it's our obligation to answer the call.

For marine life, the unprecedented Gulf spill comes at the absolutely worst possible time: peak spawning season for species including endangered Atlantic bluefin tuna and many species of sea turtles, as well as migratory birds and commercially valuable species like shrimp and blue crabs.

(Studies by the Tuna Research and Conservation Center, in which the Monterey Bay Aquarium is a partner, show that the spill affects spawning grounds used by Atlantic bluefin tuna.)

The first critical task is to cap the gushing oil while rescuing birds, sea turtles, marine mammals and other wildlife affected by the spill. Aquarium staff is ready and available to assist in these efforts, as we did for Alaskan sea otters in 1989, following the Exxon Valdez spill, and seabirds in San Francisco Bay following the Cosco Busan spill. We're part of California's Oiled Wildlife Care Network, which is sharing its expertise -- and expert help -- with colleagues in the Gulf.

Of course, countless smaller organisms -- indeed, the entire ocean food web -- are being affected by the spill, leading to even larger impacts that will unfold with time.

There's no way to predict how widespread the spill's impacts will be, but suffice it to say that the effects will be felt for decades. Aquarium scientists are still monitoring the long-term impacts of the Exxon Valdez spill on the Alaskan sea otter population.

While it's easy to blame industry and the government for the spill, the underlying culprit is our collective reliance on fossil fuels. Hopefully this disaster will lead to tougher safety measures and stricter oversight of offshore oil development, reducing the risk to both humans and the environment.

But the real answer is to reduce our dependence on these high-risk energy sources. That's why it's encouraging to see major private investment in renewables, as well as recent federal approval of new projects like offshore wind farms.

These are positive steps toward addressing what I believe is the single gravest threat facing the oceans today: the "unseen" carbon pollution that's warming our oceans and making seawater more acidic. Carbon pollution threatens ocean wildlife in ways that dwarf any damage that the Gulf spill could possibly contribute.

That's why we opened a special exhibition in March to explore how carbon pollution is affecting our oceans. As we raise awareness of the issue, we're also showing how people around the world -- as individuals and in our communities -- are taking action to turn the tide.

The aquarium is also actively supporting efforts to create a national ocean policy that will safeguard critical habitats essential for ocean life. And we're working to establish marine protected areas -- including fully protected marine reserves -- to set aside places for wildlife to recover and repopulate surrounding waters after catastrophes like this one.

I hope there's comfort in knowing that passionate individuals and organizations like the Monterey Bay Aquarium are working to win better environmental safeguards for the future and -- most importantly -- raising public awareness of the need to protect our oceans for the future.

I'm confident that, together, we will answer the call.