Breakthroughs, Launches, and Warnings on World Oceans Day

NEW YORK, New York, June 8, 2011 (ENS) – The spectrum of actions marking the UN’s annual World Oceans Day ranges from the celebratory to the cautionary as ocean health is assaulted by challenges that include climate change, oil spills, pollution and overfishing.

New York’s iconic Empire State Building will be lit this evening in purple, blue and white, from bottom to top, representing the different layers of the ocean in honor of the United Nations World Oceans Day.

At Capital Hill Ocean Week in Washington, DC Tuesday, NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco said, “Healthy oceans are everyone’s business,” because the U.S. economy and the ocean economy are inseparable – millions of Americans depend on the health of the oceans for their livelihood.

“That inseparable connection between the health of the ocean, the health of the American economy, the health of the job market and the well-being of people emerged as an indelible message from the Deepwater Horizon tragedy,” she said.

NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco meets with local fishermen and charter boat captains after the BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Venice, Louisiana, April 30, 2010 (Photo courtesy GreenpeaceUSA)

“An unprecedented environmental disaster, the Deepwater Horizon spill oiled over 1,000 miles of shoreline, 3/5 of them in Louisiana. Although the vast majority of the oil in the Gulf is now gone, oil remains close to shore in many of these Louisiana coastal areas, and the effects on Gulf ecosystems and communities will be felt for years. Communities and economies throughout the Gulf were devastated by the spill.”

“While a cooperative Natural Resource Damage Assessment process is well underway, it will be some time yet before we have a clear picture of the full impact of the spill,” Lubchenco acknowledged in her remarks.

Representatives from the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative and the Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting made two major announcements at a joint press conference late yesterday as part of Capitol Hill Ocean Week.

The Joint Ocean Commission Initiative called on national, state and local officials to support effective implementation of the first U.S. National Ocean Policy to better protect local economies, national industries and encourage innovation.

William Ruckelshaus and Norman Mineta, co-chairs of the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative Leadership Council, presented a report, “America’s Ocean Future,” with recommendations to help protect ocean health, coastal communities and the jobs that depend on them.

“Our oceans, coasts and Great Lake are an engine of the United States economy,” said Mineta. “While some may consider ocean health trivial in a time when our economy is struggling to recover and our government is in crisis, the fact is we need to invest in healthy oceans so that they can continue to support the many jobs that rely on them.”

Rockfish recruits on the top California’s Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary, taken on the first visit by NOAA divers, 2010. (Photo by Greg McFall courtesy NOAA)

According to the National Ocean Economics Program, in 2007 the ocean economy generated over 2.3 million jobs and more than $138 billion of the GDP of the United States. The data show that 156 million people live in coastal counties, where they hold 69 million jobs that contribute $7.9 trillion to the U.S. economy.

The report recommends: robust federal coordination, in particular enhanced collaboration with and support for states and regions; better collection and delivery of science and data to support decision making; and immediate investments that would increase government efficiency and effectiveness, including through establishment of an ocean investment fund.

In 2012, the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative will publicly assess progress toward implementing the National Ocean Policy.

The Metcalf Institute for Marine & Environmental Reporting revealed the 2011 winner of the Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment.

James Astill of “The Economist” will receive the $75,000 prize for “The World’s Lungs: Forests, and How to Save Them,” an eight part special report on the state of global forests and the rising threats they face from human exploitation and climate change.

New Consensus on High Seas Protection

The International Union for the Conservation of Nature is celebrating. Last week at the United Nations, countries took the first, essential steps towards closing the huge gaps in international law that leave the high seas beyond national jurisdictions poorly protected.

Countries agreed to establish a UN-based “process” that could lead to a new multilateral agreement under the UN Law of the Sea Convention.

“This truly was an unexpected and exciting breakthrough,” says Kristina Gjerde, IUCN’s high seas policy advisor. “We were hoping to get this sort of commitment at the Rio+20 conference next year, not at this meeting. But governments were fired up, and willing to compromise on some key issues.”

Dolphins play ahead of a sailboat crossing the Pacific Ocean. (Photo by Froda)

Working within “the Ad Hoc Open-ended Informal Working Group to study issues relating to the conservation and sustainable use of marine biological diversity beyond areas of national jurisdiction,” established by the UN General Assembly in 2004, countries adopted the recommendations during a four-day meeting that wrapped on Saturday.

If they are adopted by the UN General Assembly later this year, the recommendations could lead to a legal framework for designating marine protected areas on the high seas. Standards could be developed for assessing the impacts of activities that may harm marine life beyond national jurisdictions.

Though much complex work lies ahead, said Gjerde, “A key element of last Friday’s decision is that it recognizes, for the first time, the need to share the benefits of marine genetic resources fairly and with particular concern for the needs of developing countries, which often lack the capacity to explore and exploit these resources.”

Marine genetic resources can provide the ingredients for life-saving drugs and new types of industrial materials, for example. Failure to treat these resources equitably in the past has stalled attempts to get international agreement for high seas conservation and reform.

The process would address area-based management tools such as marine protected areas, as well as environmental impact assessments, capacity-building and the transfer of marine technology among nations.

The high seas are the largest area of unprotected wilderness, covering nearly 50 percent of the planet and 64 percent of the ocean. Since 2003, IUCN has fostered international action to safeguard this “blue heart of the planet,” said Gjerde, just as it supports efforts at the national level to conserve coastal and marine biodiversity within national waters.

UNESCO’s Inspiration: Youth: the Next Wave for Change

To mark the day, UNESCO and its Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission “join hundreds of aquariums, zoos, museums, conservation organizations, and thousands of individuals around the world celebrating the day by participating in fun, inspirational, and educational events,” the agency said.

Young people clean the beach at Bat Yam’s HaSelah Beach, Israel (Photo by Zalul Environmental Assn.)

This year, celebrations around the world draw attention to the importance of getting young people in our communities inspired to protect the ocean, kicking off a two-year theme, Youth: the Next Wave for Change.

“The importance of oceans is not matched by our knowledge,” said UNESCO Director-General Irina Bokova in her message for World Oceans Day. “The Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission has promoted marine science and research for 50 years, but the fact remains that oceans are still relatively unexplored.”

“Knowledge of oceans has long been driven by the need to access and exploit their resources. This must change,” she said. “The challenge today is to use marine science to understand and protect oceans, in order to better manage their ecosystems and biodiversity for present and future generations.”

In his message to the world today, UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said, “World Oceans Day is an opportunity to reflect on the importance of oceans to humankind’s sustainable development. It is also a time to recognize the many severe challenges related to oceans. ”

“The ecosystem functions that oceans provide, and their importance to the global economy, deserve particular attention as we look ahead to next year’s Rio +20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development,” said Ban.

UNEP’s Sustainable Oceans Case Studies

The UN Environment Programme marked the day by launching a report calling for new partnerships to ensure sustainable development for marine and coastal environments.

“Taking Steps toward Marine and Coastal Ecosystem-Based Management: An Introductory Guide” states that closer partnerships between different marine users – such as fishing communities, the tourism industry and conservationists – can also help coastal communities become better prepared for natural disasters and the impacts of global warming, such ocean acidification and changes in sea levels.

The report shows how sharing knowledge and best practices across different sectors can make marine management more effective, and offers guidance using over 20 case studies and success stories, ranging from polar ecosystems in Antarctica to atolls in the Indian Ocean.

“The future role of marine and coastal ecosystems in human well-being depends increasingly on developing the capacity of countries to manage human uses and impacts in order to ensure that ecosystem health and self-repairing capacity is not undermined,” said UNEP Executive Director Achim Steiner.

“Central to a transformational response to decades of overfishing, pollution and unplanned urban development,” Steiner said, “will be moving from sectoral marine and coastal management to a joined approach that marries seemingly competing interests.”

Europe’s Plan to Ease Stress on Fish Populations

At the GLOBE World Oceans Day Forum in London, European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries Maria Damanaki warned fellow lawmakers and distinguished delegates, “In the EU too many stocks are overfished and catches are only a fraction of what they used to be in the nineties, and still dipping year after year. Europe has to rely on imports for two-thirds of its fish.”

“Our fleet is obese and our efforts to slim it down have not given us results,” she said. If we don’t act, Damanaki warned, “We will lose one fish stock after the other, with a possible chain reaction for the ecosystem that is hard to predict.”

Traditional Maltese fishing boats moored in Marsaxlokk, Malta (Photo by albireo2006)

First, the commitment to reach Maximum Sustainable Yield by 2015, which nations undertook in Johannesburg in 2002, has to become a legal obligation, she said.

Next, Damanaki said she wants to put an end to discarding of fish caught in excess of a boat’s quota. “It is unethical, unacceptable and certainly not justifiable to consumers anymore; therefore all catches have to be landed,” she said.

To help reduce discards, Damanaki is proposing transferable user quotas. “Member States will allow vessel owners to trade these rights between them, so if a skipper, on his way to port, sees that he has more cod than his quota permits, he can ask who is willing to sell him part of their quota so that he can land all his catches.”

At the EU level, Damanaki proposed regionalization of practical decisions such as closing an area to fishing, prescribing the use of specific nets, or limiting days at sea, rather than leaving every single decision to the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.

“It is a form of management based on results rather than methods, and it goes to the advantage of Member States because they have to deal with far less micro-management from Brussels,” she said, “and most importantly, because they can devise new measures together with the industry.”

Vancouver At Risk of Oil Spills

On the Pacific Ocean in Vancouver, British Columbia, environmentalists are worried about oil spills.

To mark World Oceans Day, the Wilderness Committee is warning against the possibility of a catastrophic oil spill in Vancouver’s harbor.

Band of heavy crude oil from the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, May 12, 2010 (Photo courtesy NOAA)

“Most people are totally unaware of it, but every week two tankers carrying three times more crude oil than what was spilled by the Exxon Valdez pass through the narrows of Burrard Inlet, right past Stanley Park,” said Ben West, Wilderness Committee Campaigner and a member of Tanker Free BC. “It’s a disaster waiting to happen, and the scariest thing is that there are plans to increase six-fold the amount of crude exported through Vancouver.”

Kinder Morgan, the U.S.-based multinational corporation, has submitted an application to the National Energy Board of Canada to expand its Trans Mountain pipeline which brings crude oil from the Alberta tar sands to the Vancouver suburb of Burnaby.

Kinder Morgan’s plans include shipping up to six times more unrefined, crude oil from Vancouver.

“Vancouver is rapidly becoming the key point of export for tar sands crude oil on the west coast of North America,” said West. “We are opposed to this both because of what this means for the fight against climate change and because of the threat it poses to our Pacific coast.”

West will speak Thursday at an event featuring U.S. author and activist Antonia Juhasz. She will introduce her latest book, “Black Tide: The Devastating Impact of the Gulf Oil Spill,” which reports on last year’s BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill and its disastrous aftermath.

“BP and the other oil companies drilling in the Gulf of Mexico assured governments and the public that their drilling techniques were ‘safe’, and now today we are hearing from the oil industry that these oil tankers in Burrard Inlet are safe,” said West. “So it’s important for us here to be vigilant, and to consider the disaster in the Gulf when thinking about the massive increase in oil exports going through Vancouver’s harbor.”

Mapping the Ocean Floor

Starting today, armchair explorers will be able to view parts of the deep ocean floors in far greater detail than ever before, due to a new synthesis of seafloor topography released through Google Earth.

Developed by oceanographers at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory from scientific data collected on research cruises, the new feature tightens resolution in covered areas from the former one-kilometer grids to just 100 meters.

Seafloor image from a video inviting visitors to dxplore the ocean seafloor with Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth (Image courtesy Google Earth)

The ocean floors contain volcanic ridges, peaks, wide plains and deep valleys, but most areas remain mapped in less detail than the surfaces of the Moon and Mars.

The new, sharper focus is currently available for about five percent of the oceans, showing the huge Hudson Canyon off New York City, the Wini Seamount near Hawaii, and the sharp-edged 10,000-foot-high Mendocino Ridge off the U.S. Pacific Coast.

Viewers can use the “ground level view” feature of Google Earth to take them to the seafloor for a closer look at the terrain. To find which areas offer greater detail, users can download a plug-in, the Columbia Ocean Terrain Synthesis, showing the tracks of research cruises that have produced the higher resolution.

Google’s new 2011 Seafloor Tour takes viewers to the Pacific Ocean’s Lamont Seamounts, named for the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

The more accurate data is helping scientists understand the risks posed by some features, including earthquake zones. Viewers can visit Mendocino Ridge, where the Juan de Fuca plate slides toward western North America, and where an earthquake could potentially send a massive tsunami up onto land.

A second virtual tour, Deep Sea Ridge 2000, fueled by the new synthesis and produced by Lamont-Doherty scientist Vicki Ferrini and colleagues, takes visitors to see seafloor hydrothermal vents spewing lava and hot liquids, and to learn about the creatures that thrive there.

“In spite of the importance of the oceans for life on Earth, the landscape beneath the sea is hidden in darkness and poorly mapped,” said William Ryan, an oceanographer at Lamont-Doherty who helped created the system used to generate the imagery. “While we can map the surface of planets from spacecraft in a single mission, to obtain comparable detail of the hidden seascape requires visiting every spot with a ship.”

Oceana Announces Ocean Heroes Award Winners

Today, Oceana announces that Peter Wallerstein and Sophi Bromenshenkel are the winners of its 3rd annual Ocean Heroes Award. The adult and junior heroes will be officially announced on June 8th in conjunction with World Oceans Day and the start of Oceana’s “Be an Ocean Hero” campaign.

Peter Wallerstein (Photo by Mary Cummins)

Peter Wallerstein, program director at Marine Animal Rescue in El Segundo, California was voted the adult hero for his commitment to rescuing injured marine mammals. For well over 20 years, Wallerstein has been a first responder and the hands-on caretaker of ailing marine animals all over the world.

Eight-year-old Sophi Bromenshenkel of Richfield, Minnesota was voted the junior hero after raising over $3,500 for shark conservation.

“This year’s Ocean Heroes are truly impressive, largely because of their tangible achievements towards ocean conservation. Peter has 3,000 marine mammal rescues under his belt and Sophi, even though she is only eight years old, has raised thousands of dollars for shark conservation,” said Oceana Chief Executive Officer Andrew Sharpless. “Individual commitments like these all add up and make a real difference for the world’s oceans.”

Oceana’s 2011 Ocean Heroes contest was launched in March with a national call for nominations. A panel of experts at Oceana sorted through 500 nominations, narrowing the field to six adult finalists and six junior finalists. After inviting the public to vote online, over 12,000 people went to www.oceana.org/heroes to pick their favorite heroes.

Oceana encourages everyone to take the pledge to “Be an Ocean Hero” at www.oceana.org/heroes. Choose between three pledges – recycle, participate in a beach clean-up, or eat sustainable seafood – and Oceana will share some tips on how to make it happen.

Copyright Environment News Service,ENS, 2011. All rights reserved.