Given the cascading disasters the ocean faces from industrial overfishing, pollution, coastal sprawl and climate change there’s been some surprisingly good news in the United States this year. Here are ten stories – both good and bad – that impacted the blue in our red, white and blue.
- Pacific Monument Expanded
President Obama expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument established by his predecessor George W. Bush from 87,000 square miles to close to half a million square miles. This makes it the largest fully protected ocean wilderness park on our blue planet, about the size of California and Texas combined. While few of us may ever sail to Palmyra Atoll or Kingman Reef its nice to know America still has vast frontier seas full of sharks, turtles, whales and healthy coral reefs.
- Bristol Bay Salmon Protected
“In Alaska fish are the one thing that can trump oil,” offshore oil activist Richard Charter stated rather succinctly in describing President Obama’s end of year decision to prevent oil and gas drilling in Bristol Bay, the 52,000 square mile ocean zone off southwest Alaska that’s also the world’s biggest sockeye salmon fishery worth some $2 billion a year. The decision was seen as a significant victory for Alaskan fishermen, Native Alaskans and environmentalists (also fish, bear and eagles). Still not decided by the White House is whether to allow the copper and gold “Pebble Mine,” that would be the largest open-pit mine in North America in the Bristol Bay watershed. If licensed it could threaten the upriver spawning rivers of the salmon with toxic mine runoff according to an EPA report.
- Judge rules BP Grossly Negligent
A Federal Judge in New Orleans ruled that BP’s “gross negligence” and “willful misconduct” resulted in the massive 2010 blowout in the Gulf of Mexico that killed 11 workers and resulted in a months long oil spill. The ruling could add as much as $17 billion in criminal fines to the $27 billion BP has had to spend to date in clean up and compensation payments, although no one will go to jail. The environmental and human health costs of the disaster are still being added up almost 5 years after the fact. At the same time BP has expanded its deepwater drilling operations in the Gulf.
- East Coast and Arctic opened to oil drilling
The Obama administration opened up federal waters off of the eastern seaboard, in parts of the Gulf of Mexico and Arctic Alaska this summer to acoustic oil surveys presaging oil lease sales in 2017. Like the Keystone XL pipeline from Canada, new offshore oil drilling could threaten increased pollution, continued fossil fuel dependence and climate disaster. Environmentalists are also concerned about death and impairment to whales, dolphins and other marine wildlife from the high-volume sonic cannons used in the surveys. The government itself estimates the testing could impact 138,000 marine mammals.
- Secretary of State Kerry makes Ocean Health a priority
A long time ocean advocate in the Senate, as Secretary of State John Kerry has stepped up his game, with a range of initiatives starting with a global ‘Our Ocean’ meeting that focused on Marine Protected Areas, Overfishing, pirate fishing, mislabeling of seafood, pollution and Ocean Acidification. Recently he named former NOAA Administrator and Peter Benchley Policy Award winner Dr. Jane Lubchenco our nation’s first Ambassador for the Ocean. As incoming chair of the 8-nation Arctic Council Kerry will also bring a precautionary approach to shipping and energy development in that climate-impacted region.
- Senate unanimously ratifies Pirate Fishing Treaties
This spring the U.S. Senate unanimously ratified international treaties that crack down on illegal fishing. One is an agreement to restrict ships from using ports if they engage in what’s known as IUU, Illegal, Unreported and Unregulated fishing on the high seas. Another would create an international organization to regulate fishing in international waters of the North Pacific to protect fish habitat. These were the first international treaties ratified by the U.S. Senate since 2010. It’s hard to know if we should celebrate a bipartisan victory for the ocean or wonder that it’s gotten so bad we feel we need to celebrate when Republicans and Democrats can agree to oppose pirates.
- Illinois bans microbead products
As with plastic bag bans in recent years, new initiatives are underway to deal with the threat posed by tiny plastic microbeads used in cosmetic facial scrubs. This year Illinois banned products containing the tiny orbs and other states like New York and California are expected to follow in 2015. Too small to be filtered out by water treatment plants the beads flow down drains and end up in the ocean and Great Lakes where they are mistaken for food by fish and birds and act as toxic sponges concentrating chlorinated compounds like PCBs up the food web. Activist and research groups including 5 Gyres have been working with both legislatures and industry leaders to phase out their use. But the larger issue of single-use plastic pollution of the sea remains.
- New York invests first $100 million on sea level rise
The city and state of New York each pledged $50 million for integrated flood protection in the Red Hook section of Brooklyn that saw heavy flooding during 2012’s Hurricane Sandy. This is part of a $200 million dollar project to use flood walls, raised structures and natural buffers including new parks, wetlands and oyster reefs to protect the city from the impacts of sea level rise and intensified storms linked to climate change. The multi-billion dollar costs and planning associated with coastal adaptation to a projected 3-6 feet of sea level rise this century are being unevenly implemented with some states like New York and California taking the lead in planning and others like New Jersey and North Carolina choosing to ignore the threat.
- 2014 federal elections hold surprise for ocean activists
Even in an election that saw pro-oil drilling republicans take back the Senate, “Ocean Champions” the pro-conservation political action group saw 54 of 59 candidates they endorsed elected. While some were incumbents not at great risk of losing their seats, other winners like Senator Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, are expected to prove vital allies in the fight for ocean and coastal protection. One race was particularly sweet for Ocean Champions, which fought hard to defeat Rep. Steve Southerland of Florida who they labeled “Ocean Enemy #1.” Southerland, who opposed federal fish management reforms favored by both environmentalists and local fishermen would prove to be one of only two incumbent republican House members defeated in 2014.
10. Restored U.S. Cuba ties are good for the fish
We’ve come a long way since the CIA tried to put poison in Scuba diver Fidel Castro’s wetsuit. President Obama’s announced normalization of U.S. relations with Cuba is bound to increase cooperation around environmental issues between the U.S. and the island nation of 11 million that is home to the greatest natural biodiversity in the Caribbean. The expected rush of hotel, tourism and other development could pose a threat to Cuba’s extraordinary system of coastal and marine reserves including turtle breeding beaches and coral reefs both inside and outside the world famous Jardines De La Reina (Gardens of the Queen) marine National Park. Luckily several U.S. based environmental groups have long established working relationships with marine scientists and ocean institutes in Cuba. Among them are The Ocean Foundation, Environmental Defense Fund and the Ocean Doctor.