The Beacon: Andy Sharpless's blog

CEO Note: Mercury Bill Clears Major Hurdle

Great news – we’re one giant step closer to ending needless mercury pollution from chlorine plants in the United States.

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What are the Oceans Telling Us?

Recently, I read about a professor at Columbia who teaches a course about the signs of the apocalypse. With the financial collapse and threats of a swine flu pandemic in mind, he told the New Yorker he decided to create the class because “now seemed like a good time.”

I don’t know if Professor Taussig’s students have looked toward the oceans for signs of the apocalypse, but if they do, the students will find unsettling news coming from the marine world. Whether you believe in end times or not, the oceans are sending clear signals that they are in distress.

In Chile alone, a trio of strange occurrences has unsettled scientists and observers in recent weeks. More than a thousand dead penguins were found on a southern beach, followed by tons of dead sardines so smelly that schools were forced to close. Lastly, thousands of rare flamingos abandoned their nests, leaving 2,000 chicks to die.

Elsewhere on the planet, the ocean throws up another mystery. In California, hundreds of emaciated seabirds, mostly Brandt's cormorants, littered beaches in a dozen locations early in May in perhaps another example of Hungry Oceans.

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CEO Note: The Basic Solution to Ocean Acidification

At long last, a Congressional committee is poised to approve sweeping climate and energy legislation this week. The American Clean Energy and Security Act (H.R.2454) calls for a 17 percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2005 levels by 2020 and an 83 percent reduction by 2050. While Oceana believes these targets should be strengthened, they are still a giant step forward in global efforts to combat climate change.

Additionally, and perhaps most importantly, the bill’s passage would be a significant milestone for protecting the health of the oceans.

We need your help now. Please take a moment to call the House Energy and Commerce Committee and urge passage of H.R. 2454. Tell them to pass a strong version of this bill to protect our oceans and put America on the path to a clean energy future. You can call the Committee directly at 202-225-2927.

As we speak, carbon emissions are altering the chemistry of the oceans. Ocean acidification, the nasty, under-reported cousin of climate change, is set to wreak havoc on the entire ocean if emissions aren’t curbed, and soon.

Here’s how it works: the oceans absorb an enormous amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which reacts with sea water to produce carbonic acid, reducing the amount of available calcium carbonate that corals and marine life such as crabs, lobsters, clams and oysters depend on to produce their skeletons and shells.

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CEO Note: Krill, Baby, Krill

arctic ice

Last week, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit issued a quiet but crucial decision for the future of offshore oil and gas leasing. The court invalidated the Bush administration’s 2007-2012 Five-Year Leasing Program, which had authorized large-scale lease sales in the sensitive and vitally important Arctic Ocean.

In Center for Biological Diversity v. U.S. Department of the Interior, the court found that the Department of Interior - which is charged with selling the leases while protecting the environment - had failed to appropriately balance potential environmental harm with the potential economic benefits from oil and gas leasing. The government had arbitrarily decided that vast Arctic waters faced the same risks from oil and gas development as the coasts, despite the fact that we know very little about the Arctic’s unique and sensitive ecosystems.

Oceana submitted an amicus brief in support of the petitioners’ case along with the Ocean Conservancy, National Audubon Society, the Wilderness Society and the Natural Resources Defense Council. Our brief is science-based and makes the following case - given how little is known about Arctic Ocean ecosystems, given that they are changing more rapidly than scientists predicted, and given that the communities in the Arctic are dependent on them, the government should not move ahead with leasing there.

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CEO Note: Surprise Conservationists

What do Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez and the Prince of Monaco have in common? They have both become unexpected world leaders in ocean conservation.

Last month, Venezuela became one of the first countries to outlaw bottom trawling, the most destructive form of industrial fishing. The weighted nets used by trawlers obliterate seafloor habitat and indiscriminately kill marine wildlife. Chavez and his countrymen correctly noted that the industrial trawlers were decimating Venezuela’s fish populations, leaving local fishermen in the lurch while profiting the trawlers’ foreign owners.

Chavez will invest $32 million to convert or decommission the 263 trawlers operating in Venezuelan waters. One local fisherman representative rejoiced: “Our parents’ spirits are watching and celebrating together with us – they’ve finally eliminated the evil practice that destroyed our marine coasts.”

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CEO Note: Victory! Protecting Salmon From Pollock Nets

On the heels of Oceana’s success in establishing sensible density and antibiotic usage standards for the Chilean farmed salmon industry comes another salmon victory, this time from Alaska. For the first time, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to limit the number of Chinook (also known as king) salmon that the Bering Sea pollock industry incidentally kills every year.

Wild salmon populations have suffered huge population losses in recent years, culminating in the decision to cancel the California salmon fishing season in 2008 and again this year. Meanwhile, pollock nets continued to kill thousands of Chinook salmon – a record 121,704 in 2007 – that would have otherwise returned to West coast and Alaska rivers to spawn.

When NOAA Fisheries implements the Council recommendation, the Bering Sea pollock fishing fleet will have to shut down if it surpasses 60,000 king salmon caught and killed in its nets. And while I applaud this critical step in restoring salmon populations, it is not enough. Our team here at Oceana will continue to press for lower limits and more responsible fishing that will allow salmon to recover their historic plenty.

Meanwhile, Oceana has taken a big step forward in protecting marine wildlife elsewhere in the Pacific. The Pacific Fishery Management Council has agreed to deny new fishing permits for swordfish boats along the U.S. West coast whose longlines are infamous for snagging loggerhead and leatherback sea turtles, sharks, dolphins, seabirds and dozens of other untargeted species. Oceana also continues to fight on other fronts to protect all sea turtles endangered or threatened with extinction.

[Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana.]

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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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