The Beacon: wrace's blog

Shell Gets Green Light to Harass Marine Mammals

Bowhead whales would be affected by Shell's drilling. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

Shell now has the green light from the government to harass marine mammals and put them at risk of a major oil spill in the region.

The Arctic Ocean is home to an abundance of wildlife. In the spring, consistent and extensive polynyas—stretches of open water surrounded by sea ice—create pathways into the Arctic for bowhead whales, seals, and birds seeking to take advantage of the explosion of productivity created by summer’s constant daylight.  

For millennia, this great migration of marine mammals and seabirds has been a part of the Inupiat subsistence culture. Now, however, these animals and ecosystems are at risk. Despite the lack of basic scientific information and demonstrated ability to clean up spilled oil in Arctic conditions, our government is poised to allow companies to move forward with offshore oil drilling in the Arctic Ocean. 

Whales, walrus, and other species are protected by laws like the Marine Mammal Protection Act, but the National Marine Fisheries Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service may permit small numbers of marine mammals to be “harassed” by industrial activities by issuing the company an “incidental harassment authorization” or “letter of authorization.”

So what, exactly, is allowed?  According to the government, Shell’s plans will result in “Level B” harassment,” which means the activities have:

the potential to disturb a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild by causing disruption of behavioral patterns, including, but not limited to, migration, breathing, nursing, breeding, feeding, or sheltering but which does not have the potential to injure a marine mammal or marine mammal stock in the wild.

According to the government documents, Shell’s drilling activities would result in harassment of thousands of marine mammals such as whales and seals

Of course, it is difficult to evaluate these numbers, or what they might mean for these populations because we are missing basic information, such as good estimates of the numbers of seals and walrus. A fuller understanding of the food web, ocean conditions, and changes due to warming would allow us to better understand the impacts of this harassment and Shell’s proposals more broadly.

humorous website is drawing attention to the impact that Shell’s proposed Arctic drilling program will have on marine mammals, but this is no joke. For its part, Shell continues to push aggressively to drill this summer even as it backtracks on commitments to protect clean air, argues with the Coast Guard about how strong its response barge must be, and loses control of its drill ship. 


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Leatherbacks Closer to Becoming CA Symbol

© NOAA

More good news for sea turtles today: The endangered leatherback sea turtle swam one lap closer today to becoming California’s official marine reptile.

The California Assembly Committee on Water, Parks, and Wildlife voted unanimously today that this ocean ambassador should be an additional state symbol. This is exciting news as the bill heads next to the Assembly floor where all 80 Assemblymembers will vote to determine if the bill moves to the state Senate.

Leatherbacks are truly an impressive species and an important part of the marine ecosystem. Once they reach maturity, leatherback sea turtles swim over 6,000 miles from their nesting beaches in Indonesia, Papua New Guinea, and the Solomon Islands to waters off California’s coast to feed on jellyfish.

California waters are a globally important foraging area for leatherbacks and these endangered species are an ecologically important part of the marine ecosystem. In recognition of new scientific information demonstrating the importance of California waters to the survival of Pacific leatherbacks, the National Marine Fisheries Service recently designated nearly 42,000 square miles off the US West Coast as critical habitat, including 16,910 square miles off California’s coast.

Oceana co-authored the petition and weighed in heavily during this 5 year process leading to the final designation to help ensure ensure these awe-inspiring animals are not wiped out by human impacts to their key feeding areas.

Thank you to all of you California Wavemakers who signed the letter of support to your local representative letting them know your support for this legislation. This is truly a time to celebrate the leatherback.

Stay tuned!


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Arctic Drilling Could Start as Early as July

The Beaufort Sea. [Image credit: NOAA via Wikimedia Commons.]

In the past 60 days Shell Oil, the global oil and gas company headquartered in the Netherlands, has received two permits from the U.S. government approving their Chukchi Sea and Beaufort Sea spill response plans. This is shocking because neither of the plans use technology that has ever been successfully tested in America’s Arctic waters.

Drilling could begin as soon as July 1 -- a blatant sign that the Administration is going after a quick political fix that places the public trust behind Big Oil’s bottom line. A year ago people were talking about the possibility of drilling one well in the Arctic,  but today’s approval will make it possible for Shell to drill up to ten wells, four in the Beaufort Sea and six in the Chukchi.

Oceana encourages the Administration to follow a path of attaining and relying on good science, being prepared for a worst case accident, and having a full and fair public dialogue. 

Currently in the North Sea there is a leaking rig that could spark a massive explosion. This latest North Sea disaster is a crystal ball showing us the future in the Arctic. There has never been exploration, development, or transport of oil in the offshore U.S. without a major accident eventually occurring as evidenced by the Deepwater Horizon blowout, the Santa Barbara pipe rupture, and the Exxon Valdez tanker wreck.

The last public U.S. Arctic in-the-water spill response tests were a failure so why is the U.S. government and Shell assuming their untested spill plans will work?  Just look at the most recent failed test and you can see they aren’t prepared.

Wherever oil and gas exploration goes, pollution follows. It is naive to think that a spill won’t happen in the Arctic. And we have the rare opportunity to do thoughtful management and planning in the Arctic. 

There is simply not enough science information or infrastructure in the Arctic to make any kind of claim that offshore drilling could be done without harming this pristine place.

You can help: Tell President Obama to make sure Shell’s final permits are not granted – let’s keep offshore drilling out of the Arctic.


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Oregon Senate Passes Bill to Create Marine Reserves

otter rock in oregon

Oregon's Otter Rock. © Oceana/Will Race

Today the Oregon Senate passed Senate Bill 1510, which brings Oregon’s first network of marine reserves and marine protected areas off the Oregon coast one step closer to implementation.

An ecologically significant network of marine reserves and protected areas would make the entire Oregon near-shore ecosystem more healthy and resilient to increasing pressures from overfishing, habitat damage, and changing ocean conditions from global warming and ocean acidification.

The bill will now have to pass the House before heading to the Governor’s desk for signing. If it does, Oregon’s marine reserve and protected area sites will total 118 square miles and make up less than 10 percent of the Pacific Ocean waters in the state’s jurisdiction. (See a map here.) We see this as a great start, but we hope Oregon will continue to identify all of its important ecological areas and ultimately build an ecologically significant network of protected areas and reserves for the full coast. 


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New Report: Small Fish in Big Trouble

bryde's whale.

A bryde's whale enjoys a meal. © Randy Morse  www.GoldenStateImages.com

Did you know that the brown pelican relies on northern anchovy for food? Or that the endangered blue whale feeds exclusively on tiny krill at rates of up to 4,000 pounds per day? Or that a record number of young sea lions were stranded on California beaches last year because they didn’t have enough small fish to eat?

Individually they don’t look like much, but small fish and invertebrates called “forage species” school up to form massive underwater bait balls.

These forage fish are the foundation of the marine food web and provide food for nearly everything else higher up the food ladder. Forage species, such as Pacific herring, Pacific sardine, anchovy, smelts, squid and krill are the critical prey for whales, dolphins, sea lions, many types of fish, and millions of seabirds.

Our new report, “Forage Fish: Feeding the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem,” shows the value of forage fish for fisheries and wildlife – and demonstrates that it’s high time that our fisheries managers recognize their big impact in the ocean.

How many forage fish are needed to feed our ocean’s wildlife and preserve the benefits forage species provide us? That is the question we are asking managers to answer and take into account when setting catch quotas. 

As consumers we enjoy forage fish without even realizing it. Activities, such as whale watching, enjoying fresh wild salmon for dinner, and going sport fishing, are all possible because those top predators survive on forage fish. And they are important for the economy, too -- tourism, recreation activities, and fishing brought in over $23 billion in GDP to California, Oregon, and Washington combined in 2004 alone.

Oceana is the first conservation group to assess the current status of Pacific forage fish. Our new report details the role of forage species in the California Current marine ecosystem, the threats to forage species populations, and the flawed management structures currently in place. The report documents the large gaps in stock information and show the fisheries mismanagement taking place at multiple levels of state, federal and international government.

Providing and maintaining a healthy, sustainable ocean ecosystem does not mean shutting down existing fisheries—but it does call for change. The challenge is to extend the principles in our new report to create a new way of managing our resources that goes beyond single-species management, and considers the role of forage species within the ecosystem as a whole.

By highlighting the colossal importance of these tiny forage species, Oceana aims to ensure a healthy, diverse, productive, and resilient California Current marine ecosystem. Be sure to check out the full report and let us know what you think!


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Caleb Pungowiyi: 1941-2011

caleb pungowiyi

We are incredibly saddened by the passing of Caleb Pungowiyi, a longtime Alaska Native leader and Oceana’s Senior Advisor and Rural Liaison.

Originally from the St. Lawrence Island village of Savoonga, Caleb’s work was a critical part of Oceana’s accomplishments in Alaska. He was a passionate yet incredibly humble person who followed his beliefs and led by example. He cared deeply about protecting and nurturing the subsistence way of life and the environment that was his garden. 

Caleb’s decision to work for Oceana was not easy, but once he learned more about Oceana’s work, he embraced us, helped guide us, opened many doors for us, and worked to break down mistrust of outside organizations. 

Prior to joining Oceana, Caleb held many positions, including president of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference, an international organization that advocates for indigenous people of the North. We are very lucky that Caleb brought his experience and friendships in the Arctic to Oceana.


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Rough Seas Near Oregon’s Orford Reef

basket stars

Basket stars in Oregon's Orford Reef. © Oceana

This is part of a series of posts about our Pacific Hotspots expedition. Today's highlights: more amazing basket stars, anemones and sea cucumbers.

Oregon Leg, Day 2

We pulled anchor early this morning and ran the R/V Miss Linda to the Orford Reef, just southwest of Cape Blanco. 

Cape Blanco is the westernmost point in the continental U.S. and is the dividing line of two distinct biological regions for the near shore ocean ecosystem off the Oregon coast. South of Cape Blanco is also infamous among mariners for its high winds. Today, with 20 to 25 knot winds and seas building up to 12 feet, our work was more like the “Deadliest Catch” than a reef survey. 


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Exploring Oregon's Rocky Reefs

basket star

A whimsical-looking basket star off the Oregon coast. © Oceana

This is part of a series of posts about our Pacific Hotspots expedition. Today's highlights: rockfish, basket stars and hydroids.

Oregon Leg, Day 1

Last night our six Oceana crew slept aboard the R/V Miss Linda, tied to the dock at the Charleston Marina. The captain and his two crew members arrived at dawn, started up the engines and walked our tired souls through an important safety briefing. The Miss Linda is a 76-foot research charter vessel that formerly worked these Pacific Ocean waters as a commercial fishing boat. The captain is experienced, confident and will certainly lead us safely through our five-day expedition.

Our objective today was to get situated working aboard the Miss Linda with our Remotely Operated Vehicle (ROV) while exploring a large area of rocky reef just south of Cape Arago. Over the next four days we will use the ROV to capture high definition video footage of some of the most remote and rugged areas off the southern Oregon coast. 

By our third dive this afternoon, five miles offshore and over 150 feet down, the Miss Linda crew and Oceana crew were in sync. With each drop of the ROV we saw schools of rockfish hovering over a rich tapestry of seafloor life.


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Hydrocorals and Octopuses in the Monterey Shale Beds

hydrocorals

Spectacular hydrocorals cover a pinnacle. © Oceana

This is part of a series of posts about our Pacific Hotspots expedition. Today's highlights: octupuses, hydrocorals and nudibranchs!

California Leg, Days 4-5

Friday concluded the Monterey portion of the expedition, and we had high hopes and much enthusiasm for the last day. We successfully completed three fantastic dives exploring three unique habitats.

This section of the expedition involves two ROVs, a compact one able to capture footage in more shallow depths and one designed to dive much deeper. The crew is still making improvements to the larger ROV so we used the smaller one to document bottom habitat consisting of sand, boulders, and large white sponges inside Point Pinos reef; the pinnacles at Asilomar State Marine Reserve; and investigated marine life hiding within the ledges of the Monterey Shale Beds.

The strong swells we had been working against all week calmed a bit under the overcast sky. Special guests joining us today included scientists from the Stanford Center for Ocean Solutions, a reporter and photographer from the Santa Cruz Sentinel newspaper, and documentary filmmakers from Sea Studios.

Our dive within the newly established Asilomar State Marine Reserve was truly extraordinary. We were pleasantly surprised to see that this marine protected area contained such large pinnacles, equivalent in splendor and color to what we observed further south near Carmel earlier in the week.


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Ted Danson Visits the Arctic

Oceana's Mike Levine and Susan Murray with board member Ted Danson. © Oceana

 Tomorrow Oceana board member Ted Danson will testify against offshore drilling in the Chukchi Sea in Alaska (more specifically, Lease sale 193). Danson, a long time ocean advocate, believes that the Arctic is not ready for offshore development. There is a lack of baseline science to determine if offshore drilling can be conducted safely in the region, and there is neither the infrastructure nor the response capability to respond to a large spill.

This past week Danson visited the Arctic community of Barrow, Alaska. Accompanied by Oceana’s Pacific Director Susan Murray, Mike LeVine and myself, Ted visited with Mayor Edward Itta of the North Slope Borough, Director Taqulik Hepa of the North Slope Borough Department of Wildlife Management, Chairman Harry Brower of the Alaska Eskimo Whaling Commission, and other officials. Oceana hosted a community meet-and-greet where Danson took the opportunity to meet and learn from coastal residents, while sharing his stories and connections to the ocean.


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