The Beacon: Andy Sharpless's blog

What if an Oil Spill Happened in the Arctic?

Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana.

Less than a year after the Deepwater Horizon gusher was finally sealed, oil companies are claiming they can drill safely in the Arctic Ocean, an even more fragile and forbidding environment than the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, our government seems to be suffering from amnesia, too.

This month, Shell Oil received a conditional approval from the federal government to drill four exploratory wells next summer in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. The company claims that it can end a gushing spill like the Deepwater Horizon in just 43 days and clean up 90 percent of oil lost.

These claims aren’t based in historic experience and have little scientific evidence to back them up. Crews were only able to recover 10 percent of the oil escaping the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, and only 8 percent of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.

The most recent oil spill drill in the Beaufort Sea was in 2000 and was described as a “failure.” Mechanical systems like skimmers and booms in calm but icy conditions simply didn’t work. The technology has not improved since then. Just watch this video of a failed cleanup test:


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CEO Note: The Arctic Still Isn’t Safe From Oil Spills

Less than a year after the Deepwater Horizon gusher was finally sealed, oil companies are claiming they can drill safely in the Arctic Ocean, an even more fragile and forbidding environment than the Gulf of Mexico. Unfortunately, our government seems to be suffering from amnesia, too.

This month, Shell Oil received a conditional approval from the federal government to drill four exploratory wells next summer in Alaska’s Beaufort Sea. The company claims that it can end a gushing spill like the Deepwater Horizon in just 43 days and clean up 90 percent of oil lost.

These claims aren’t based in historic experience and have little scientific evidence to back them up. Crews were only able to recover 10 percent of the oil escaping the Macondo well in the Gulf of Mexico last summer, and only 8 percent of oil from the Exxon Valdez spill.

The most recent oil spill drill in the Beaufort Sea was in 2000 and was described as a “failure.” Mechanical systems like skimmers and booms in calm but icy conditions simply didn’t work. The technology has not improved since then.

Watch the video of the failed cleanup test here.

Furthermore, the Arctic is an incredibly harsh place. The Gulf of Mexico was surrounded by thousands of first-responders within a few hours’ travel, and it has year-round temperate weather. The nearest Coast Guard response facility is 1000 air miles from the Beaufort Sea. The Arctic is only a hospitable working environment for a few months in summer. Ice and weather could easily make rescue working conditions far too dangerous for crews, leaving a nearly-pristine ecosystem that is home to Inuit people destroyed during an uncapped oil spill.

We’ve won major victories against offshore drilling, especially last year when President Obama announced that the new five-year plan for offshore drilling removed thousands of miles of U.S. ocean from consideration, including the eastern Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

But the Interior Department’s approval of Shell’s plan shows that we still face an uphill battle, even when the facts show that increased drilling won’t reduce gas prices at the pump.

We have campaigners and scientists at work in Washington, D.C. as well as in Alaska who are closely monitoring the oil companies’ plans to drill in one of the last great ocean ecosystems. With your support, we hope to win more protections to keep our coasts safe from oil spills.


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CEO Note: Oceana’s Seafood Fraud Campaign Kicks Off

How many New Yorkers does it take to tell the difference between snapper and tilapia?

We found out last weekend, when many of Oceana’s supporters came together for the second annual Hamptons Splash, a fundraiser hosted at the beautiful home of Margie and Michael Loeb.

In addition to showing their support for saving the oceans, guests got an inside look at Oceana’s newest campaign to end seafood fraud. This common practice is hurtful to both oceans and the people who love and depend upon seafood.

Our new report, “Bait and Switch: How Seafood Fraud Hurts Our Oceans, Our Wallets and Our Health,” explains how U.S. consumers are frequently served a completely different fish species than the one they paid for. Seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70 percent of the time for fish such as red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod, according to recent studies.

How is this possible, you ask? More than 80 percent of U.S. seafood is imported, but only 2 percent is inspected. Fraud can happen at each step of the supply chain – the restaurant, the distributor, or the processing and packaging phase.

Plus, it’s a simple question of supply and demand. As seafood consumption around the world continues to rise, so do the incentives to overfish the oceans and mislabel fish as more expensive species, such as wild salmon and red snapper.

Our new campaign will be working to convince the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to implement a tracking system for fish that can trace seafood back to its original source. The Food Safety Modernization Act, signed into law by President Obama in January, requires tracking systems for high-risk foods, and Oceana believe seafood should be considered a high-risk food.

In the Hamptons, we invited guests to sample two fish dishes and guess which one was snapper.

The result? At least half of the guests picked incorrectly, which is a simple illustration of how easy it is to fool seafood consumers.

As our chief scientist Dr. Mike Hirshfield told the New York Times (in what they proclaimed “Quotation of the day”), “If you’re ordering steak, you would never be served horse meat. But you can easily be ordering snapper and get tilapia or Vietnamese catfish.”

I think you deserve to know that the seafood you’re eating is what you paid for, and I’m sure the people who failed our tests would agree. I’ll be sure to keep you informed as the campaign progresses.


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CEO Note: A New Victory for Sustainable Seafood and Healthy Oceans

I have some great news to share with you today. After a long legal battle, Oceana has succeeded in compelling the the federal government to reliably measure bycatch on the East Coast. Bycatch is the fish and wildlife that is thrown overboard, dead or dying, in the process of catching seafood.

Why is this important? Bycatch is one of the greatest problems facing the oceans today. It damages marine ecosystems by needlessly killing fish and wildlife, and it contributes to overfishing, further threatening our wild seafood supply. Worldwide, 16 billion pounds of bycatch are thrown overboard every year. This waste is tragic and completely unnecessary. The government needs to know the extent of bycatch in order to control it.

The U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service is required by law to count and report bycatch, but until Oceana’s legal victory, its Northeast region refused to do so. After a clear decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the federal government will establish a clear system for reporting bycatch, including determining how many observers needed on board commercial fishing ships in New England and the Mid-Atlantic.

Oceana has fought bycatch for a decade now, and our campaigns have succeeded in saving thousands of sea turtles from shrimp trawls and longlines in the Gulf of Mexico and the Pacific, as well as multitudes of birds, sharks, dolphins and fish from illegal driftnets in the Mediterranean.

With your support, we’re making the oceans a safer place for wildlife and a better source of sustainable seafood.


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CEO Note: Test Your Seafood Savvy at Hamptons Splash

Have you eaten any seafood yet this summer? If the answer is yes, do you know where it came from?

We recently launched a new campaign to combat seafood fraud, a practice that often misleads consumers about the seafood they purchase in order to increase profits. Recent studies have shown that seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70 percent of the time for fish such as red snapper and wild salmon. Fish fraud not only hurts our wallets, but marine conservation and human health as well.

But don’t just take my word for it. In a few short weeks, you’ll have the chance to test your own seafood IQ at our second major East Coast event, Oceana’s 2011 Hamptons Splash party, which takes place July 30th at a private beachfront estate in Southampton, New York. Test your seafood savvy with a blind taste test and a seafood pop quiz. You might be surprised how easy it is to be duped.

After you’re done tasting, sit back and listen as Oceana board member Ted Danson reads from his new book “Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them,” and enjoy musical entertainment provided by the Honey Brothers, featuring Oceana Ambassador Adrian Grenier.

Events like the Hamptons Splash party play a crucial role in our fundraising efforts, enabling us to launch new campaigns like seafood fraud. In short, they help us to continue winning victories on behalf of the oceans.

Even if you are unable to attend, you can still support us by visiting the event’s online auction, hosted by charitybuzz, which features artwork, travel opportunities and more, all benefiting our work. I urge you to visit the auction anytime today through Tuesday, August 2nd.

Best of luck bidding -- and tasting -- and thank you for supporting Oceana and Hamptons Splash.


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CEO Note: Victory! Chile Bans Shark Finning

Great news! Chile’s Congress has voted unanimously to ban shark finning -- and I’m proud to announce that it’s a direct result of our work.

The bill, which Oceana drafted and campaigned for, will end the brutal practice of shark finning, in which a shark’s fins are sliced off and the shark is thrown back into the water to suffocate or bleed to death. The new bill requires sharks to be landed with their fins still naturally attached.

This victory follows on the heels of a very similar ban passed by the United States Congress last December. Chile’s adoption of the same approach is heartening at a time when sharks are in serious trouble around the world.

Up to 78 million sharks are killed each year for their fins, and Chile has become a major shark fin exporter. A Freedom of Information Act request filed by Oceana revealed that between 2006 and 2009, Chile exported more than 71 tons of shark fins from 8 different species.

With the passage of this bill, Chile joins a growing list of countries leading the way in shark conservation. This legislation will help protect shark populations and ocean health in Chile and beyond.

Congratulations to our Chilean colleagues, and thanks to supporters like you, whose support makes it possible for us to win significant victories like this one.


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CEO Note: Sea Turtles Deserve a Breather

I want to update you on a needless tragedy that continues to unfold in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean.

As I told you in May, Oceana uncovered government data showing that the shrimp fishery has been violating sea turtle protection rules, which likely has caused thousands of endangered sea turtles in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic to be needlessly killed by shrimp trawls.

It’s been more than a month since our discovery, but the government is still standing by and watching as the sea turtles deaths continue.

Our campaigners uncovered official government documents showing that shrimp trawlers required to use Turtle Excluder Devices (TEDs) are often using them improperly or not at all. TEDs are escape hatches for sea turtles, who need to reach the surface to breathe. The documents even show that some shrimpers have deliberately sewn TEDs shut—condemning any sea turtle they catch to death.

Shockingly, there are some types of shrimp trawls, like “skimmer trawls” that are not even required to use TEDs at all. Instead, these trawls are supposedly required to limit the length of time they tow their nets to prevent sea turtles from drowning. However, the government documents show that these time limits are not enforceable and demonstrate that TEDs should be required for these shrimp trawls as well.

In part as a result of pressure from Oceana, the government has announced that it will be conducting a formal analysis of the shrimp fishery’s impact on threatened and endangered sea turtles and will be considering options for additional protections.

This is a pathetically slow response. It is appalling that the fishery is allowed to continue operating despite evidence that shrimpers in the region are likely responsible for the death of record numbers of sea turtles. Oceana has called for the immediate closure of the Gulf of Mexico shrimp fishery until and unless adequate sea turtle protections are established and enforced.

Sea turtles have been swimming in the oceans for millions of years, and now they are being unnecessarily pushed toward extinction. It's time to give sea turtles a breather. The government should act immediately to protect threatened and endangered sea turtles.


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Would You Pass the Seafood Pop Quiz?

The fish pop quiz. © Oceana/Vincent Ricardel.

Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana.

Oceana’s new Seafood Fraud campaign kicked off Wednesday with an event at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. As the Washington Post reported, it wasn’t just a press conference; it was also a seafood pop quiz.

Our campaigners asked audience members to identify skinless fillets of halibut and fluke by sight, and did the same for red snapper vs. hake and for farmed vs. wild salmon. Then they conducted a taste test between tilapia and vermilion snapper.

The result? While a few fish-savvy folks passed the tests, many people couldn’t tell the difference, which is a simple illustration of how easy it is to fool seafood consumers.

That’s one of the key points of our new report, “Bait and Switch,” which explains how consumers are frequently served a completely different fish species than the one they paid for. Seafood may be mislabeled as often as 25 to 70 percent of the time for fish such as red snapper, wild salmon and Atlantic cod, according to recent studies.


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The Real Reason for High Gas Prices

Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana; this post also appeared on Politico.

Why do we take terrible risks to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere along our coasts?

Most people would say we drill to protect ourselves from big fluctuations in the price of a gallon of gas that are caused by the major upheavals in the Middle East. Look at this chart (data from the Energy Information Administration):

Their argument is that the more oil we can produce domestically, the lower the price we’ll pay at the pump. It’s not that they like the sight of oil wells off our beaches. The main reason they are doing so is they think it will save them money – especially as gas prices approached $4 a gallon recently.

This idea is not only intuitively appealing, it is repeatedly, and unambiguously, promoted by important government officials from both parties. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La) defended new legislation that would expand offshore oil drilling, saying “this bill would do more to lower gas prices at the pump than any other plan.” Sarah Palin criticized President Barack Obama, “His war on domestic oil and gas exploration and production has caused us pain at the pump.”


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Good News for Sharks and the Oceans

I have several good news items to share with you this week.

First, I am happy to announce that our trawling ban in Belize is now official. Belize is home to a major portion of the world’s second largest reef system as a well as a thriving local fishing community, and the ban protects both these essential elements of Belizean life.

Belize is one of only a few countries in the world to completely ban trawling. We won this important victory with the help of the local community, our staff in Belize and Sir Thomas Moore, a longtime supporter of Oceana’s work around the world.

Second, we have made great strides in our campaign to save sharks. As top predators, sharks are essential to a healthy ocean, and a hundred million sharks are killed every year by the industrial fishing industry – mostly for their fins.

Late last year, we won an incredible victory to protect sharks with the passage of the Shark Conservation Act, which banned shark finning in the United States. Now, we are on the verge of gaining two more important victories to protect sharks.


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