Vast Ocean Parks, Humping Whales, Bay State Rockers, Dick Cheney and other Sea Monsters
May 28, 2008
By David Helvarg
Bush’s Next Blue Asterisk?
In 2006 President Bush established a 1,200 mile long protected area in the waters of Northwest Hawaii between Kauai and Midway now known as the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument (Hawaiian for Yellowstone with fish).
At the time I wrote, “A strong case can be made that the Bush administration has had the worst environmental record of any presidency. But just as Barry Bond’s homerun record will always come with an asterisk relating to his alleged steroid use, any recounting of the Bush Administration’s environmental stances will now have to come with an asterisk noting the establishment of America’s first great and fully-protected wilderness park in the sea, the Northwest Hawaiian Islands Monument. (see Blue Notes #27)
NPR’s John Nielsen now reports the Bush Administration is considering “launching one of the biggest conservation programs in U.S. history,” by protecting vast new marine habitats as National Monuments. Among five prime candidates in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone would be 600,000 square miles of uninhabited tropical atolls and reefs in the Central Pacific around Palmyra, Howland and Baker islands. Another proposal would set aside more than 100,000 square miles around the Northern Mariana Islands including the Marianas Trench and Challenger Deep, the lowest point on the surface of the planet. Seven miles down it is more than a mile deeper than Mt. Everest is high but unlike the hordes swarming Everest these days only two humans have ever been there in the deep-diving bathysphere Trieste back in 1960.
In creating a blue legacy President Bush seems to be following in Bill Clinton’s footsteps. Towards the end of his second term, having failed to secure an Israeli-Palestinian peace, Clinton used his executive power to declare millions of mostly terrestrial acres National Monuments. He also established Northwest Hawaii as an ecosystem reserve, the first step on its way to full protection. Bill Clinton hoped that in protecting more wilderness than any President since Teddy Roosevelt he’d be remembered for more than a sex scandal.
We can only hope President Bush, also failing in his last minute bid to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace, will follow through on creating a vast network of marine wilderness parks for America so that he might be remembered for more than the war in Iraq, the Florida recount, the Katrina fiasco, sanctioning torture, wiretapping Americans, suppressing climate science…
Humpbacking from the Brink
In other good news they’re reproducing in the Pacific. At least that’s the conclusion of a multi-year “Splash” study by Cascadia Research and other whale trackers who found that there are now some 18-20,000 humpbacks in the Pacific region, up from about 1,500 in 1966 when the International Whaling Commission first banned their killing. Interestingly the number of Pacific whale researchers has also increased from about a dozen to more than 400 who worked on the study so that population also seems healthy.
I’ve long said the fact that over half the Pacific Humpbacks spend their summers eating fresh fish in Alaska and winters making babies off Hawaii is proof positive that theirs is a highly intelligent species.
Also two flukes up to our friends at NOAA’s Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary for funding the early years of this study.
Right Whales, Wrong Veep
Unfortunately not all whales are doing as well. The Northern Right Whale may be the most endangered marine mammal out there. Because of their tendency to loll at the surface these great oil rich cetaceans became the “right” (easy) whale to kill for New England’s early whalers. Today this same tendency leaves the last 350 Northern Right Whales vulnerable to being struck and killed by container ships, tankers and other vessels plying the Atlantic shipping lanes. Some three a year are now killed by ship strikes. The Coast Guard has tried to reduce these collisions by shifting one New England shipping lane out of a feeding area.
NOAA has proposed a regulation requiring ships to cut their speed to 10 knots near feeding and breeding grounds. New England Aquarium Research director Scott Kraus told the New York Times that slowing ship traffic down would reduce Right Whale mortalities and “put this population back on the track to recovery.”
But newly released documents show that the President’s Council of Economic Advisors and Vice President Dick Cheney’s office have intervened against the new rule because of potential added costs to the shipping industry. They’ve managed to delay implementation for over a year (or three more dead whales). It’s all very reminiscent of the delay and defanging of the Polar Bear’s Threatened Species listing so that oil drilling can take place in the Arctic (see Blue Notes # 44). Luckily along with coal Dick Cheney hasn’t yet considered whale oil as an “abundant source of cheap, domestic energy.”
And the Golden Cod Goes to…
There is still a golden cod hanging in the Massachusetts Statehouse, a reminder of the state’s once bountiful seas. This May the state took an important step towards restoring its maritime heritage of healthy and abundant marine waters with passage of the Massachusetts Ocean Act. This will establish a comprehensive ocean management plan for overseeing state waters through a broad-based public commission. This will be the nation’s first attempt to integrate all offshore activities including marine parks, shipping, fishing, and energy while trying to restore a sustainable ocean ecosystem. In beginning this “offshore zoning” the Bay State is moving beyond California’s more limited commitment to creating a (still hugely valuable) string of marine wilderness parks. And while Florida has just committed to stop dumping its storm water onto its reefs, I’d have to say the Sunshine state is still lagging behind the Bay and Golden states in terms of Clean Ocean bragging rights.
Bad Acid Trip
On the global scale a new study in the journal Science finds that, just as Arctic ice is melting faster than predicted even a few years ago, ocean acidification also resulting from fossil-fuel fired climate change is accelerating faster than predicted with some areas off North America’s West Coast now reaching levels of acidity that had not been predicted to occur before 2050. This is bad news for corals, clams and other critters that need to take calcium carbonate out of seawater to grow their shells. So when you’re in a hole what’s the first thing you do? Stop digging. Unfortunately we haven’t and may not until oil reaches $200 a barrel at which point hopefully we’ll be forced to get serious about non-carbon energy systems.
I don’t’ really expect a revolution in either politics (carbon taxes) or consciousness (opting out of consumer culture) to radically alter the cascading ecological collapse of our ocean planet. I do however note a rising line of ecological mindfulness approaching the declining plane of biological diversity on our water planet. Where that X crosses will tell us how much is left to save and restore. I’m not sure it will be enough to turn the tide. All I know for certain is that if we don’t try we lose.
One Stroke at a Time.
And trying can also be inspirational Unlike last year when we had a high-profile launch party for Blue Frontier’s Roz Savage in her attempt to be the first woman to row solo across the Pacific to raise awareness of environmental threats to our ocean planet, followed by a month of bad weather, three attempts to clear the Golden Gate, a late season northern departure followed by a reluctant Coast Guard rescue, this May 24 Midnight departure was as good as it gets. And while the media embargo on her second attempt is now breaking down, well just keep our fingers and flippers crossed that all goes well so we can tell you more about her new attempt in our next Blue Notes.
If you can Spar it Matey
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