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Oceana Magazine Spring 2011: Making Waves

Thousands of Miles of U.S. Ocean Protected from Offshore Drilling

In the aftermath of last summer’s oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, Oceana scored two significant victories in the fight against offshore drilling. In December, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that in the Obama Administration’s new drilling plan, no new offshore drilling would be allowed in the eastern Gulf of Mexico or off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

The Arctic was not protected by Salazar’s announcement, but there was good news in February: Shell Oil announced it would cancel its 2011 plans to drill exploratory wells offshore in Alaska due to continued uncertainty over whether it would receive federal  permits.

Shell had hoped to drill exploratory wells in the Beaufort and Chukchi seas. Oceana has been instrumental in monitoring the permitting process in the Arctic and holding policymakers accountable for upholding the law.

There is currently no proven method of cleaning up an oil spill in Arctic conditions. There are no trained personnel or equipment in the region capable of carrying out an effective response plan, in addition to a lack of basic scientific information about the ocean ecosystem.

Oceana has been working for many years to end dirty and dangerous offshore drilling, and these victories are an important step in the right direction towards protecting our oceans from another spill, and moving towards cleaner and safer alternative sources of energy, such as offshore wind.

Olin Corporation Phases Out Mercury Use

In a decisive victory against mercury pollution, Olin Corporation announced plans to phase out the use of mercury in its chlor-alkali manufacturing process in its Charleston, Tenn. facility by the end of 2012. The company also said it would discontinue chlor-alkali manufacturing at its Augusta, Ga. plant.

Oceana has been working since 2005 to convince mercury-based chlorine plants to convert to clean, updated technology. During the campaign, two factories have closed and three others had agreed to convert to mercury-free technology. With Olin’s announcement, there are now only two remaining plants using mercury – Ashta Chemicals in Ashtabula, Ohio and PPG Industries in Natrium, W.Va. These remaining plants are the smallest emitters of the original nine. One of them is already 75 percent mercury free.

Olin’s Tennessee facility, on the other hand, is the largest mercury-based factory left in the United States. Built in 1962, the factory pollutes the nearby Hiwassee River with mercury.

Mercury released to the environment from these plants ultimately ends up in the oceans, where it accumulates in fish and wildlife. Animals higher on the food chain – such as  tuna and swordfish – carry the most mercury. People can experience health effects, such as delayed neurological development in children.

U.S. Congress Passes Shark Finning Ban

In a culmination of years of work by Oceana and our allies, Congress ended shark finning in U.S. waters with the passage of the Shark Conservation Act in December, which requires sharks to be landed with their fins naturally attached.

Shark finning is the brutal practice of slicing off a shark’s fins and throwing the shark,  often still alive, back in to the water to die. Demand for fins for use in shark fin soup, an Asian delicacy, drives this practice.

The Shark Conservation Act improves the existing law originally intended to prevent shark finning, and it also allows the U.S. to take action against countries whose shark protections are weaker.

Each year, commercial fishing gear kills more than 100 million sharks worldwide – including tens of millions for just their fins. Sharks have been swimming the world’s oceans for more than 400 million years.

As apex predators, they play a vital role in maintaining the health of ocean ecosystems. But due to their slow growth rate and low level of reproduction, sharks are especially vulnerable to pressure from human exploitation. Some shark populations have declined to less than 10 percent of their historic levels.

Second Power Plant Defeated in Chile

For the second time in less than a year, Oceana helped defeat a coal-fired power plant on the coast of northern Chile that would have threatened marine reserves home to 80 percent of the world’s Humboldt  penguins as well as bottlenose dolphins, blue whales and numerous other marine animals.

In March, the CAP Company in Chile withdrew its plans to construct the 300-megawatt Cruz Grande power plant after pressure from Oceana and its allies. In late 2010, Oceana was a leader in the effort to stop the construction of another power plant in the same region in a campaign which galvanized the Chilean environmental movement and saw thousands of citizens peacefully protesting the plant.

The power plants threatened the marine reserves with their emissions, which would have been released upstream from the reserves. The plants would have used the area’s seawater to cool the plant, discharging it back into the ocean at higher temperatures. Oil spills from ships carrying coal to the plants would seep there in a few hours, and the local currents would retain the pollution within the area. Also, mercury emissions from the plants would contaminate fish and mollusks like the Chilean abalone, damaging a crucial local economy.

Oceana is now calling on the Chilean government to speed up the designation of a marine protected area in La Higuera and Chañaral Island in northern Chile and to promote renewable energy sources to gradually replace coal-fired power plants.

16.1 Million Square Miles of Sensitive Habitat Protected in the Pacific

After years of work by Oceana and allies, an international delegation agreed in March to conservation measures that will protect more than 16.1 million square miles of seafloor habitat from bottom trawling in the north Pacific Ocean. The delegation adopted  Oceana’s “freeze the footprint” approach to prevent the expansion of bottom trawling into untouched areas and to protect seamounts, corals and other vulnerable marine ecosystems.

Bottom trawls are massive weighted nets that drag along the ocean floor, destroying anything in their path, including ancient corals and fields of sea sponges. Nets can be 200 feet wide and 40 feet high, weighing as much as 1,000 pounds and reaching depths of more than 5,000 feet.

Oceana, the Natural Resources Defense Council and the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition have been working together to advance these habitat protections. Participating nations, including the U.S., Canada, Japan, Russia, China, Korea and Taiwan acted on a commitment they made at the United Nations General Assembly to enact these interim conservation measures to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems in international waters.

The conservation measures, which take effect immediately, halt the expansion of bottom trawling and other bottom fishing gear, and require an assessment of the long-term sustainability of fish stocks, as well as a determination that fishing would not have significant effects on sensitive habitats as a condition to allow fishing into new areas.

These interim conservation measures will be in place while the new North Pacific Fisheries Commission is established, which will then oversee the sustainable management of bottom fisheries and other fisheries (squid and saury) on the high seas of the north Pacific Ocean.