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NOAA’s Silent World, Coasties Rule, Flippercide and more

December 15, 2005
By David Helvarg

NOAA’s Silent World

While the nation’s leading civilian agency for the oceans is supposed to help assure our public seas are clean and bountiful, transparency is apparently not one of their aims. In the wake of the federal government’s failures to respond to the Hurricane Katrina disaster the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (part of the Department of Commerce) has told its people around the country not to talk to reporters without first getting clearance from Washington Headquarters. Before doing any interviews people have had to submit reporter’s questions in writing to HQ as well as their planned responses and then been told not to allow any deviation from their scripted and approved answers. Several NOAA folks I spoke with believe this directive is coming from higher up in the Bush administration. In Washington a Public Affairs spokesman referred me to NOAA’s posted Media Policy which requires prior notification for media inquiries that, “concern regulatory actions and issues…concern controversial issues…science or research having known or potential policy implications or are controversial…involve a crisis or a potential crisis situation.” It’s the later that has resulted in a new emphasis on centralized information control that seems to reflect a lack of trust in NOAA’s own people in the field trying to do the public’s business.

Coastie Rules

By contrast when I was down in the Gulf region following Hurricane Katrina I called Coast Guard headquarters in D.C. to see about doing some frontline interviews. They suggested the easiest thing to do was just head on over to Coast Guard Air Station New Orleans – where I introduced myself and was given free reign to talk to whoever I wanted: pilots, rescue swimmers, mechanics, etc. No minders, no directives. Part of the reason the Coasties were so effective in the wake of the Katrina disaster (doing over 33,000 rescues including more than 6,400 helicopter rescues) was that they remain flexible and trust their line people to make tough choices without being second guessed or micro-managed from above.


A November report by the UN’s Environmental Program suggests that more than two-thirds of the world’s dolphins, porpoises and related species are threatened by accidental entanglement in fishing nets. The second largest threat is “directed” catches where the animals, including false killer whales, pilot whales and narwhals are killed for food or use as crab and shark bait. More than half the animals are threatened by pollution including heavy metals, pesticides and ingesting marine litter. Noise pollution and habitat degradation are other threats. I don’t think those dolphins are smiling, I think they’re grimacing.

Scary Climate News of the Week

In the last few Blue Notes we talked about Acidification of the Oceans and Coral Bleaching in the Caribbean. Now British Scientists have come up with new findings (reported in the lasted issue of Nature) suggesting that the conveyer belt of cold to warm water that drives the Gulf Stream and keeps Europe from falling back into a new Ice Age has slowed 30 percent since 1992. While not claiming that their work is definitive, or that the rapidity of change means a return of saber-tooth tigers to Scotland any time soon, the scientists who produced these results see them as in keeping with what has been expected from the melting of Arctic and Greenland glaciers and the resulting pulse of fresh water into the Atlantic – all proven phenomena linked to global warming. Still the US delegation to climate talks in Montreal just refused to commit to limiting greenhouse gas emissions. Hope they brought their swimming gear.

Wasted Away again

Oceana, the marine conservation group, commissioned a study that found 22 percent of the U.S. fishing catch (over a million tons) is thrown over the side as ‘bycatch’ non-targeted fish and marine wildlife that is then discarded. Among those who conducted the study is Blue Frontier Award winner (and otherwise highly noted) fisheries scientist Dr. Ran Myers of Canada. The study has received wide media play and should help Oceana in its efforts to get NOAA, Federal Fisheries Councils and others to continue to find ways to reduce this wasteful practice. Not surprisingly, some of the most creative Bycatch Reduction Devices (that are attached to fishing gear) have been fabricated by commercial fishermen themselves. A good segue to…

Commercial Fishermen learn to school together

A new group, Commercial Fishermen of America (CFA) recently formed at an industry conference in Seattle to represent the interests of the working men and women who sail out to sea to hunt wild fish for food. They will provide a needed counterpoint to the National Fisheries Institute (NFI) that tends to represent the corporate catcher/processor/distributor/retailer end of the industry. Among CFA’s founding members are some of the most progressive and socially engaged fishing folk we’re aware of as well as individuals and organizations we’ve long supported including leaders from the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen’s Associations, Maryland Watermen, Cape Cod Commercial Hook Fishermen’s Assoc. and many others. I got a briefing on CFA’s state of play from Sara Randall who’s coordinating their early organizing efforts out of San Francisco. Their initial focus will be on getting health insurance coverage for all fishermen, protecting working waterfronts from the kind of gentrification that has turned many fishing communities into endangered species, and fighting pollution of prime fishing grounds and habitat. At this point I suspect there’s too much diversity of opinion among various fishermen for CFA to be taking stands on fishery policy reforms or legislation now in Congress. Still the emergence of CFA will, over time, I believe, add a vital new voice to that dialogue as well.

Cleaning up the Ports

I was in California the first week of December. Along with meeting inspiring activists from the OCS Coalition, Santa Monica Bay Keeper, Reef Check, CFA, Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association, etc. I also got to go for a jog on Manhattan Beach. There were surfers catching 5 foot curls, some ripping off the lips, women playing two on two volleyball, sandpipers running up and down the wet sand on the edge of the shore break like little 4 ounce apostrophes, and a big oil tanker sitting offshore waiting to offload at the port of Long Beach/ LA. It was a good day and could soon get better now that the California Air Resources Board has ordered ships within 24 miles of the coast to switch from highly polluting bunker fuel (the dregs of oil refining) to lighter, cleaner fuels whenever using their auxiliary engines in or near port. This would greatly reduce health risks for people living in seaport communities like Long Beach and San Pedro, as well as other folks and critters along the coast. It’s through the work of citizen activists like the Coalition for Clean Air and Blue Water Network that this action came to fruition. The bad news is if industry challenges this rule in court the US Supreme Court will probably overturn it under the Constitutional Supremacy Clause (that federal law trumps state law). That’s what happened when Washington State tried to impose tougher regulations for oil tanker safety in Puget Sound than exists in the federal standards. This is also an example of why the Blue Frontier Campaign, while supporting local, state and regional initiatives to protect our public seas, believes we have to mobilize the blue movement to pass comprehensive Ocean Protection Legislation at the national level (look for a Safe the Date notice for the next Blue Vision Conference in September ’06).

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