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Oceana Magazine Winter 2010: Making Waves

Arctic protections take effect

In December, the U.S. part of the Arctic Ocean was officially protected from expanded commercial fishing. Nearly 200,000 square miles of ocean wilderness – an area much larger than California – are now closed to commercial fishing unless and until there is adequate information to manage fisheries sustainably in the Arctic’s fragile ecosystem.

Despite the harsh conditions, the Arctic is home to vibrant communities and ecosystems. It provides vital habitat for polar bears, whales, walrus, fish, birds and other animals.

The closure is one of the largest preventive measures in fisheries management history, and will be crucial for protecting the Arctic. The region is warming at twice the rate of the rest of the planet and has seen unprecedented sea ice loss in recent years. Currently undisturbed by commercial fishing nets, trawls and longlines, the U.S. Arctic might have become the next fishing hotspot as waters become more navigable and fish species expand northward as the region continues to warm.


23,000 square miles of deep-sea coral in southeast U.S. protected

After five years of advocacy by Oceana and others in the environmental community and fishing industry, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council approved a plan to  protect more than 23,000 square miles of rare deep-sea coral from North Carolina to Florida from destructive fishing gear.

The plan will restrict the use of bottom trawls, whose nets drag the ocean floor and have destroyed thousand-year-old coral reefs, including the Oculina banks, an area of vulnerable deep-sea coral habitat off the east coast of Florida. The Oculina banks were eventually protected by the Council, but not before the corals suffered irreversible damage from trawls and dredges.

Deep-sea corals off the southeast coast include hundreds of pinnacles up to 500 feet tall that provide habitat for many species, including sponges that are being tested to develop drugs for the treatment of cancer, heart disease and more.

The Council’s decision, which will also help restore the long-term productivity of commercially valuable fisheries in the area, has been sent to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Oceana anticipates the new regulation will take effect in early 2010.


Mercury bill clears U.S. House committee

In October, Oceana was instrumental in clearing the Mercury Pollution Reduction Act (H.R. 2190) past a critical legislative hurdle, the U.S. House Energy and Commerce Committee. The bill, which was sponsored by Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), would require chlor-alkali plants to end their unnecessary use of mercury-based technology in chlorine and caustic soda production. Oceana is now working to ensure the bill's passage in the Senate and on the House floor.

Oceana campaigned for nearly five years to persuade nine factories toswitch from mercury-based technology to mercury-free alternatives. Only three companies, Ashta Chemicals,  Olin Corporation and PPG Industries, with four factories in the U.S., have

refused to switch to cleaner, mercury-free technology, despite the fact that doing so  w ould eliminate major sources of mercury pollution, make chlorine production more efficient, increase profitability and protect jobs.

In 2009, Oceana reported in a white paper that Ashta Chemicals was continuing to emit mercury despite claiming zero emissions in official reports to the Environmental Protection Agency. An Oceana scientist documented mercury levels up to 20 times higher than background levels in the area surrounding the Ashta plant in northeast Ohio.


Deepwater canyons saved from trawling

The U.S. government has protected four deepwater canyons off the mid-Atlantic from bottom trawling and dredging, destructive fishing methods that can devastate ecosystems in a single pass.

The four canyons, known as Oceanographer, Lydonia, Veatch and Norfolk, are among the best-documented deepwater habitats in the U.S. The canyons are home to a multitude of marine animals, including sponges, corals, lobsters and fish.

This landmark action by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which took effect on Nov. 1, banned the use of bottom trawls and dredges in the canyon areas year-round. The ban was established as part of the rules for fishing for Atlantic tilefish.

Offshore canyons are also important to the region’s recreational fishing community. The new regulations will have no impact on fishing for marlin, tuna or other gamefish that swim above the canyons.


Loggerhead and leatherback sea turtle petitions advance

After failing to meet a 12-month legal deadline, and following a lawsuit by Oceana and conservation partners, the U.S. government agreed to respond to petitions from Oceana, the Center for  Biological Diversity and the Turtle Island Restoration Network for increased protections for two sea turtle species in U.S. waters off the east and west coasts.

Two of the three petitions focus on populations of loggerheads in the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The groups have urged the National Marine Fisheries Service to designate the north Pacific and western north Atlantic loggerheads as distinct population segments and to change their status under the Endangered Species Act from threatened to endangered. The petitions also call for increased protections in the loggerheads’ key nesting beaches and marine habitats.

The third petition urges the government to protect key migratory and foraging habitat for endangered leatherbacks in the waters off California and Oregon by designating the area as critical habitat. Endangered leatherbacks migrate more than 6,000 miles from nesting beaches in Indonesia to feed on the abundant jellyfish in these waters.

A recent worldwide status review showed that northwest Atlantic and north Pacific loggerheads are currently at risk of extinction. Loggerheads have declined by at least 80 percent in the north Pacific. Meanwhile, Florida beaches, thought to host the second-largest loggerhead nesting population in the world, have seen a decline in nesting of more than 40 percent in the past decade, and recent nesting data showed 2009 to be one of the worst sea turtle nesting years on record.

In addition to demanding that the government protect sea turtles and their habitat under existing law, Oceana continues to work for comprehensive legislation that would protect U.S. sea turtles in the water as well as on land.