By David Helvarg
July 22, 2010
Even a Fin will help
For seven years Blue Frontier Campaign has worked to build a stronger, more unified marine conservation movement able to move policy and protect our public seas. We’ve sponsored historic Blue Vision Summits, Peter Benchley Ocean Awards, ocean adventurers like Roz Savage and Margo Pellegrino, produced books including 50 Ways to Save the Ocean, and helped drive policy initiatives like the President’s newly released Executive Order for the Ocean, Coasts and Great Lakes (see below). We have done this with a minnow sized budget and a staff of two. Unfortunately, hard times are catching up with us. We are hoping you might help us turn the tide. Although many of the more than 3,000 subscribers to Blue Notes are themselves (yourselves) out raising money for your own marine organizations and institutions, we’re also hoping you’ll consider supporting BFC by committing $10 (a fin) or more as a monthly pledge or by making a one-time tax-deductible donation to Blue Frontier Campaign by clicking here.
Obama Signs on for the Sea
On July 19, with the cap on the BP Wellhead apparently holding, President Obama finally signed a long hoped for Executive Order establishing a new (really first) conservation oriented Ocean and Coastal Policy for the United States. Although it may feel like its 175 million gallons too late this new approach, had it been implemented several years ago during the previous administration, might have created the oversight that would have prevented a Deepwater Horizon type disaster. The new White House initiative (see Blue Notes 67 and subsequent ones) will take a comprehensive approach to all the different uses of our public seas. Using our best observing tools and a national Ocean Council working with regional and local interests there will be a determination how we can best restore our ocean commons while maintaining its use for recreation, transportation, trade, (clean) energy, (limited) protein, security and, of course, inspiration, the everlasting blue in our red, white and blue. Its what Admiral Thad Allen (USCG Ret.) calls, ‘urban planning in the water column,’ and it’s spawning has not come easily. In the last 18 months Blue Frontier Campaign and other marine groups helped turn out over 2,000 people for public hearings of the Ocean Policy Task Force, got thousands of comments submitted to the White House and organized a ‘Wear Blue for the Ocean’ day in support of this initiative. In June NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco received the Blue Frontier Campaign/ Peter Benchley Ocean Award for Policy for being an early promoter of the need for a unified ocean policy with then President-elect Obama. CEQ Chair Nancy Sutley, former Coast Guard Commandant Thad Allen and many others also worked like dogfish in driving the process forward. The next step is getting the House Natural Resources Committee to keep a coastal and ocean trust fund in their new energy package. The nation’s new ocean policy needs a dedicated source of funding. Given the impacts of the Gulf spill it would be crazy to respond by moving forward on climate reform while neglecting the other saltier 71 percent of our blue planet.
Along with a presidential commitment and funding a new approach to our public seas ought to include a dedicated ocean agency or Department of the Oceans that reflects the true value of our seas to the Nation. This is not my idea but has been proposed several times, most recently by the Pew Ocean Commission in 2003 (chaired by now CIA Chief Leon Panetta). I think bringing together the Coast Guard for operations and NOAA for science, policy and exploration could inspire people in the way the creation of NASA did more than a generation ago. And in the wake of the Gulf disaster we could all use some inspiration.
Paddle on Pellegrino
Speaking of which… after receiving a bump on the head (she now has a helmet) and broken outrigger (since replaced) during a big wave landing in Washington State Blue Frontier’s intrepid paddler Margo Pellegrino decided to move on to Oregon. All she had to do was cross the Columbia Bar (“The Graveyard of the Pacific”) which she successfully accomplished on Sunday July 18. She’s also been getting great support from local seaweed activists and media all along the way. For the latest on Margo’s Pacific Coast Paddle from Seattle to San Diego check out her website: www.seattle2sandiego.com.
Oil, Water and Videotape
If the new cap on the BP wellhead continues to hold we may be moving from containment to consequences. Still, its hard to measure the long term impacts of the Deepwater Horizon Disaster on the Gulf of Mexico. By my second trip to the region last week there were over 45,000 people and 6,000 vessels and aircraft involved in the response.
Still, some of the clean up effects are questionable. Off Ocean Springs Mississippi with Gulf Coast Research Lab Director Bill Hawkins I watched a crew of ten men with three flat boats trying to spray wash about 80 feet of oiled marsh grass to little effect. Nearby they were protecting a rock jetty rather than wetlands. In Louisiana’s Barataria Bay I’ve seen miles of oiled wetlands that act as the nurseries and filters of the sea and provide a livelihood for fishermen and their communities.
Flying over the Gulf in June with Waterkeeper John Wathen and SouthWings conservation pilot Tom Hutchings I’d seen 100 dolphins and a sperm whale trapped and dying in the oil. Off Mississippi I saw dozens of brown pelicans. Their return to the Gulf in the past decade, years after DDT was banned is considered a huge environmental success story. Now these birds are threatened by the oil and chemical dispersants as are sea turtles, tuna and whale sharks.
I went out with scientists Jim Franks and Steve Curran from the lab sampling possible toxic impacts on juvenile tripletail fish. These baby fish live under floating sargassum algae. Some change their colors to
gold and green to look like the weedy algae. Others are now living under floating oil blobs and camouflage themselves by turning black and brown like the oil. Our nets and boat bottom were soon splashed with oil.
At the entry to Biloxi Bay there are extensive booms to try and protect the estuary and a fleet of shrimp boats skimming oil. Nearby Horn Island has already been hit by the oil as have many of the Gulf’s barrier islands. Last time I was here less than five years ago many of these shrimp boats were driven ashore by Hurricane Katrina along with floating Casino Barges. The beaches that I once saw covered in debris are now clean and empty in mid-July as tourists are flocking away from the oil-threatened Gulf to other safer sands.
I drive from Louisiana and Mississippi to Pensacola Florida where the sugar white sands of local beaches are also boomed off and clean up crews are removing tar balls that have also washed ashore.
Here I board the Coast Guard Cutter Resolve heading out to the Deepwater Horizon spill site where a new cap is being placed that will hopefully stop the ongoing eruption of oil from the wellhead until a relief well can kill it.
Steaming to the source we pass through different kinds of ugly, oil that looks brown as maple syrup in our wake and oil sheens in deep purple and gold and aged orange oil and new black oil. The last time I flew over this part of the Gulf there were oil slicks out to the horizon.
The BP source has become a floating city of some 75 rigs and ships and workboats and a giant supertanker. The Q-4000 rig is burning off 6,000 barrels of oil a day in a black plume of oily smoke while collector ships like the Helix Producer are flaring natural gas and controlled burns of surface oil are being set off on the horizon. This reminds me of oil terminals off Iraq I visited in the Persian Gulf War Zone only this is more like cancer than war, with the metastasizing oil spreading across the water.
We visit BP’s Command and Control ship Seacor Lee where I’m told the cap is now in place and ready for testing (the tests will prove inconclusive but the cap will hold for now).
A Coast Guard Dolphin Helicopter flies me and a crew from CNN back to Air Station New Orleans where their helicopter crews saved over 6,000 people during hurricane Katrina. On the way we fly over streaks of aging oil spread for miles across the Gulf.
Though fewer have died this is a longer lasting and potentially more destructive disaster than Katrina for the Gulf’s people and marine wildlife.
And if this hurricane season is as bad as predicted it could also be raining oil and blackening beaches from Florida to Texas by the fall. Our efforts to boom off bird rookeries and protect the coastline may be valiant but still seem feeble more than 80 days into this mess.
Among other needed changes we have to end our dependence on coal and oil, energy systems of the 16th and 19th centuries and develop clean offshore energy. After all no coastline or culture was ever destroyed by a wind spill or a turning tide.
As a writer and ocean activist I realize we’re also entering the age of multiplatform media. To see the video version of this report I narrated and shot – and that was edited by my friend Ted Woerner – please click on it at the beginning of this story or click here.