Calling the ocean an "irreplaceable resource in dire trouble," leaders at three major Bay Area institutions announced Wednesday they will establish the Center for Ocean Solutions, an organization geared toward protecting the world's oceans.

Stanford University, the Monterey Bay Aquarium and the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute are joining forces not only to find solutions to the key problems threatening the marine environment -- global warming, pollution and overfishing -- but to ensure they are implemented.

The center is believed to be the first in the world to partner scientists with policymakers, business leaders and legal experts to bring about change for the planet's ailing waters.

A $25 million grant from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation, will launch the effort which environmentalists applauded as a huge step for ocean ecosystems.

"Here is something that demonstrates hope," said Warner Chabot, vice president of the Washington-based Ocean Conservancy. "I would expect the center to be able to bring the best and brightest experts together to address ocean issues."

Scientists believe the world's oceans are at a crossroads and that drastic changes are needed -- and fast -- to protect everything from coral reefs to marine animals.

Studies suggest that unless global warming is quickly brought under control, most of the world's commercial fisheries will collapse within 50 years.

Polar bears and other wildlife might face extinction, and rising sea levels could cause widespread flooding of islands and some low-lying areas, including parts of the Bay Area.

"Now is the time to invest in doing the right thing," said Julie Packard, a trustee of the Packard Foundation. "Oceans make up over 70 percent of the planet, and yet, there's very little attention being paid to them."

The center will be established near the Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Meg Caldwell, an attorney and former chairwoman of the powerful California Coastal Commission, will serve as interim director.

Center leaders expect to spend the next six to eight months identifying not only the most important challenges facing the oceans but the issues the agency can most immediately address.

The concept is somewhat revolutionary in scientific circles, said Caldwell, with the center being neither a research institute nor a think tank, but a combination of both.

"It's a tradition of science to not get involved in the messiness of policymaking," Caldwell explained. "But we want to make sure that the work we're doing within the center and across these institutions is not only offering up practical solutions but also helping to bring them to fruition."

"What's so unique about this center is science and policy will be on equal footing," agreed Michael Sutton, vice president of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Although the center will be based in California, and managed by Stanford's Woods Institute for the Environment, leaders say they will be addressing problems affecting oceans worldwide. Ultimately scientists from all over the world will be brought in to assist in research and policy making.

Packard, who also serves as executive director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, said that while some of the ocean's problems may sound insurmountable, conservation efforts can make-- and already have made -- a difference throughout the world.

"We have seen some fish populations recover. We have protected altered marine areas. We have taken species off the endangered species list," said Packard. "We have plenty of victories to celebrate. We just need to take it all to the next level."

The $25 million grant is a "darn good start" to solving some of the ocean's problems, Chabot said.

"But would I have liked this center to exist a decade ago?" he asked. "Of course."

Reach Julie Sevrens Lyons at 408-920-5989 or jlyons@mercurynews.com.

Ocean facts

  • Almost 3/4 of our planet is ocean.

  • Of all the living matter on Earth, 95 percent is in the ocean.

  • About 90 percent of the world's oxygen comes from the ocean.

  • Almost all of Earth's rainfall is evaporated ocean water.

  • Oceans absorb more than 80 percent of the excessive heat produced by global warming, causing ice caps to melt, sea levels to rise and storms and hurricanes to become more intense.

  • The Northern Pacific Ocean has grown 30 percent more acidic due to increased carbon dioxide in the air, which threatens the existence of some marine animals and will likely wipe out most of the world's corals by the end of this century.

  • Two-thirds of the world's fisheries are over-exploited, and 90 percent of the world's biggest fish are gone.

  • With global warming expected to raise sea levels by up to 3 feet by 2100, flooding could become a problem in low-lying coastal regions, including the San Francisco Bay Area.

    Source: National Weather Service; Ocean Conservancy