The Beacon: Andy Sharpless's blog

Exxon Redux: 20 Years On

Korean holding oily duck

In the minutes after midnight on March 24, 1989, the Exxon Valdez poured 10.8 million gallons of oil into Alaska’s Prince William Sound. The spill turned pristine spruce-lined waters into a sticky death trap for countless animals, including a quarter of a million birds. Yet two decades later, the lessons of Exxon Valdez have not been learned. Our oceans and wildlife are no safer from catastrophic oil spills at a time when fossil fuel-based energy makes less sense than ever.

After Exxon Valdez, President George H.W. Bush enacted moratoria on new drilling on the outer continental shelf of the lower 48 states. An earlier Congressional moratorium on the outer continental shelf lapsed in 2008, and the second President Bush lifted the executive moratorium. This left the coasts of the Lower 48 unprotected from oil exploration.

In addition, previously inaccessible Arctic waters have proven irresistible to oil and gas speculators.

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A Locke for Commerce?

gary locke and obama

This week, President Obama offered his third choice for Commerce Secretary: former Washington Governor Gary Locke.

If this selection sticks, we will have a knowledgeable voice as the secretary who oversees much of the nation’s oceans management, including fisheries. Coming from a coastal state, Governor Locke should appreciate the importance of our oceans to the people of the United States and the health of our nation’s economy. The port of Seattle is home to one of the largest and most profitable fishing fleets in the world, and the majority of Washingtonians live along the beautiful Puget Sound, where people enjoy scuba diving in kelp beds, fishing for salmon and watching killer whales.

As Governor, Locke supported ecosystem-based management of our oceans, the protection of sensitive ocean habitat areas and emphasized the need for scientific information to form the foundation for management decisions. He successfully dealt with complex ocean management decisions during his critical work on the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada, and was a champion for ocean funding for the protection of marine animals including killer whales and salmon.

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Gregg Gets Commerce Nod

What’s everyone talking about in Washington, DC? Jobs, jobs, jobs. But it’s not about the jobs that we all hope the economy will be able to provide—it’s about the jobs being filled in the new Obama Administration. And, as I wrote to you in the fall, the cabinet job ocean advocates care the most about is Secretary of Commerce.

This week, President Obama announced a surprise choice for Commerce Secretary—Republican Senator Judd Gregg from New Hampshire. Since neither the President’s introduction nor Gregg’s remarks yesterday mentioned the words “ocean” or “fish,” all of us who care about the oceans and their fishes are wondering what Senator Gregg’s appointment means for NOAA—the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, the agency that makes up 60% of the Department of Commerce’s budget, and the agency that manages the nation’s federal fisheries, from the cod of New England to the pollock of Alaska.

Usually the problem with new Commerce Secretaries is that they don’t even know that NOAA is part of their department. That won’t be the problem with Senator Gregg—he chaired the Senate subcommittee responsible for NOAA’s budget for several years, and he’s from a coastal state.

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Arctic Freeze

arctic fishing closure

Today was a watershed day for Arctic conservation.

Facing dramatic evidence of climate change in the Arctic, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously on Thursday to prevent the expansion of industrial fishing into all U.S. waters north of the Bering Strait. There are no large-scale commercial fisheries currently operating in the U.S. Arctic, and now there won’t be.

Nearly 200,000 square miles – that’s bigger than California – of pristine Arctic waters will remain untouched by the extensive fishing nets, miles of hooked longlines and destructive bottom trawls of industrial fishing. This means that the unknown but crucial fish species such as Arctic cod will stay put as the heart of the ecosystem.

The decision, which follows years of work by conservation groups including Oceana, Audubon Alaska, Ocean Conservancy and the Pew Environment Group, is precedent-setting: It’s one of the largest precautionary measures in fisheries history.

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President Bush Goes Deep

President Bush deserves congratulations for his announcement yesterday of protections for an area of the American Pacific equal in size to Spain. Setting this area off limits to fishing and to oil and mineral exploitation is a vivid example of how a country can use its national laws to ensure the long-term abundance of huge areas of the sea. We also congratulate the conservation organizations that worked hard for this result, especially The Pew Environment Group (which also helped found Oceana).

This burst of ocean news follows a terrific in-depth report in this week’s issue of The Economist. We thought you would be interested in reading it. At sixteen pages, Troubled Waters delivers plenty of information on the unfolding collapse of marine environments: fishery mismanagement, ocean acidification, dead zones, and poorly managed aquaculture.

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Oceans of Praise

maps of protected areas in Pacific

President Bush deserves praise from ocean lovers for his creation of three new marine national monuments in the Pacific Ocean. This action protects some of the few remaining pristine coral reefs in the world by prohibiting all forms of commercial fishing and severely restricting recreational fishing.

These are among the last places on the planet where you can still see sharks and other top predators in something like a healthy state. President Bush – and the Pew Environment Group, Marine Conservation Biology Institute and Environmental Defense Fund, who worked so hard for these monuments – can be justifiably proud of the results.

It’s easy to point out that the protected areas around the 10 islands could have been 16 times larger if Bush had included the full 200 mile exclusive economic zone in the monuments.

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NOAA's New Chief Will Be Busy

President-elect Barack Obama’s appointment of Jane Lubchenco, an Oregon State University marine biologist, to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could be a major, positive step for protecting America’s fisheries.

In recent years, NOAA has, too often, ignored scientists’ advice when it comes to setting quotas for some of our most vulnerable fish species, favoring commercial interests over conservation. With a scientist like Lubchenco in charge, I hope that NOAA will start to take a more scientific tack in its management.

Lubchenco, a well-regarded researcher and professor, will have her hands full. America’s fisheries are among the best-managed in the world, but that’s just because there’s not much competition.

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Be Wary of This Love Boat

fishing boats

I’m not sure what the marine equivalent of a bandwagon is (a love boat?), but there’s one headed our way. I’m talking about the movement called “individual fishing quotas,” as described in a recent LA Times article. The original theory is straight out of the free market school of economics: give people the ownership of something, and they’ll be good stewards. As I’ve written before, this isn’t necessarily so.

Indeed, as the article points out, such programs can’t work unless there are restrictions on overall catches. And they also can’t work unless there are mechanisms to limit and reduce bycatch and discards of other species, including coverage by scientific observers. And they can’t neglect dealing with fishing gear impacts on bottom habitat.

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Obama and the Oceans

Obama acceptance

In its feature “
">Stocking the Cabinet,” Grist speculated on Barack Obama’s potential nominees for the “top environmental jobs” in his administration.

For the oceans, however, the most pertinent post isn’t the head of the EPA, or the secretary of agriculture, energy or interior, all of which were included in Grist’s guessing game. Guess what is?

Hint: The position is currently filled by a man who made his fortune selling Froot Loops and Frosted Flakes.

Give up?

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Cruise Control

The International Maritime Organization’s recent decision to adopt tighter emission rules for the global shipping fleet is a step in the right direction in an industry where emissions have been practically unregulated. Ship emissions are blamed for 60,000 deaths worldwide each year – a sincere public health threat.

The new rules, however, only address sulfur and nitrogen oxide emissions. Meanwhile, carbon dioxide emissions from the same ships remain a major, and often overlooked, contributor to global warming.

The world’s shipping fleet comprises 300,000 ships, each a city block in length, and transports 90 percent of the world’s trade. In 2007, the fleet emitted nearly twice as much carbon dioxide as all of America’s cars combined. If the fleet were a country, it’d be ranked as the sixth largest producer of CO2, between Japan and Germany.

Not to mention that these ships use the dirtiest fuel available, creating a high percentage of unusable sludge that must be burned.

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