Wednesday, June 8, 2011

World Oceans Day 2011: Take action for Arctic species

Created in 1992 and officially recognized by the United Nations in 2008, June 8th is designated as World Oceans Day.

Credit NOAA/Igor Lavrenov
On last year's World Oceans Day, our nation was collectively engaged in a stunned response to its worst environmental catastrophe to date--the Deepwater Horizon blowout and oil spill.  We now know that thousands of sea birds, hundreds of sea turtles and scores of marine mammals were found dead as a direct result of the oil spill. Other estimates have put that number far higher.

In the year that has followed, the totality of the long term consequences of the spill on marine species have become more clear. A recent paper in the journal BioScience found that marine species facing threats from the  Gulf oil spill far exceed those under legal protection in the United States.

The research found that 53 species listed by the IUCN Red List as critically endangered, endangered or vulnerable have distribution including the spill zone. Of those 53, just 14 currently receive legal protection under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, or the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

Included in the list of unprotected species are 16 species of shark (the enormous whale shark among them), 8 corals and the western stock of Atlantic bluefin tuna. The bluefin faced substantial risks due to overfishing prior to the spill, having seen their numbers plummet drastically since the early 1970's.  Researchers using satellite data recently estimated that the spill killed more than 20 percent of the juvenile Atlantic bluefin in the Gulf, likely impacting their ability to sustain the already low population levels. NOAA recently opted not to list the species but will revisit the decision by 2013 following further study.

The horrific environmental as well as economic consequences of the Deepwater Horizon spill have regrettably not moderated the oil industry in its pursuit of crude buried deep beneath some of the planet's most treacherous and icy seas.

Shell Oil is seeking permission from the Department of Interior to move forward with an aggressive and danger-fraught plan to drill in Alaska's Chukchi Sea, home to walrus, threatened polar bears, and endangered fin and humpback whales. 

Drilling in this Arctic environment would be challenging  at best, with its extreme cold, hurricane strength winds and icebergs as tall as three-story buildings.  Responding to a spill would appear to be nearly impossible. 

According to Thad Allen, the Coast Guard Admiral who led the response to the Deepwater Horizon spill, the country is not prepared to deal with an Arctic spill.  Describing the Arctic as a "very, very difficult place to operate," Allen cautioned against proceeding without caution. Shell has yet to lay out a viable spill response plan nor is the technology in place to deal with an Arctic spill. 

Additionally, there's a lack of basic scientific information about the Arctic to fully estimate the potential impacts of drilling. Before the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management Regulation and Enforcement (BOEMRE) considers any drilling in the Arctic Ocean, more environmental analysis must be completed, including the impacts from a potential blowout oil spill during the proposed drilling.

The Department of Interior is accepting comments regarding Shell's proposal through July 11th. Please take action for Arctic Ocean species today by asking Secretary Salazar to and BOEMRE to delay decisions about Arctic drilling until a plan is in place to gather basic essential information and there is proven and viable spill response plans and technology to clean up a spill in the Arctic’s unique conditions.

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