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BLUE NOTES

Does Obama have the Blues? Does Santa live underwater? Slow Whales, Good Props and more

December 18, 2008

By David Helvarg

But is Green Blue?

President-Elect Obama’s initial choices for his environmental team look promising in terms of their commitment to climate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, fund green jobs and develop renewable energy systems. They are certainly a breath of fresh air compared to the Lame Duck’s last minute pollution exemptions. These allow companies to dirty the air by burning hazardous waste as “fuel,” and exempt factory farms from having to report their ammonia and hydrogen sulfide emissions from, among other sources, manure lagoons located in coastal flood zones (see Blue Notes #52 ‘Bush’s Ocean Legacy’).

My concern was that even if we manage to eliminate our dependence on fossil fuel before we reach a civilization-ending state of climate disruption, we could still be left with a lifeless sea full of plastic debris. We need to commit not only to a new energy revolution but also to the protection and restoration of marine and terrestrial biodiversity in all its myriad wonder. We need to apply the precautionary principle that says, “First do no harm,” if we’re to assure our blue planet’s numerous interdependent species survival, including our own.

The good news that begins to lift my concern (and has me revising this Blue Note) is that Dr. Jane Lubchenco was picked on Dec. 19 to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the lead civilian agency for the ocean. Jane, former president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science among her other credits, is that rare species of scientist who can speak passionately and persuasively for the changes that need to take place. Also she’s a bit of a mermaid, loving the seas she’s helped protect, even the foggy bone chilling waters of Oregon where she’s been based at OSU. Dr. J will also be in a good position to bring her new boss, the Secretary of Commerce up to speed.

The outgoing Commerce Secretary former Kellogg’s executive Carlos Gutierrez might have shown more interest in NOAA had the ocean been made of cereal. By way of contrast, the incoming Secretary, New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson gave a talk a few years ago at a dinner for the National Environmental Trust. He said, “It’s great to be here and see the NET folks and the Sierra Club and the Ocean Group.” I was pretty sure he didn’t know which ocean group, but he knew the coastal and ocean community was worth acknowledging, which is better than most politicians who – like most people – think the environment ends at the shoreline.

Get Santa a Wetsuit this year

During this Holiday Season we might be needing an extra miracle or two if we hope to reverse the more frightening impacts of what we’ve already done to the ocean.

Worrying trends include the gassing-off of methane from below the newly exposed open waters of an increasingly ice-free Arctic Ocean and the potential coral crumbling and pelagic dead zoning of ocean acidification.

This September Russian and British Scientists found methane plumes bubbling up to the surface of exposed Arctic waters. For some time scientists have worried about positive feedback loops in which our actions promote a series of irreversible natural actions increasing the rate of global warming. One focus has been on the gassing off of methane from frozen peat as arctic tundra melts. Methane is twenty times as powerful as carbon dioxide when it comes to heating up the atmosphere. Now there’s concern that additional methane trapped in sediment below the Arctic Ocean will start to gas off, although the findings are still preliminary and there is so little known about the Arctic marine ecosystem that scientists aren’t even sure if these gas plumes have been around for some time. Still we can expect ice-free arctic seas every summer starting around 2013.

Like Arctic ice loss, ocean acidification (resulting from the ocean’s absorbing 30 percent of human-generated carbon dioxide) is also happening more rapidly than predicted (see Blue Notes #46). Among the effects of acidification is a decline in the ability of shell-forming critters from clams to corals to extract calcium carbonate from seawater in order to keep themselves alive. Pre-industrial carbon dioxide in our atmosphere stood around 275 parts per million (ppm). Today it’s climbed to 385 ppm and some scientists like Dr. Jeffrey Short, formerly of NOAA and now with the blue group Oceana, suggest that if we reach 450 ppm (as could happen in 25 years if present rates of industrial carbon dioxide emissions continue) the world’s tropical coral reefs could crumble and die.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute is studying how pressure from buffered carbon dioxide in the oceanic shallows also displaces dissolved oxygen in the mid-water column, at least around the highly productive upwelling zones of coastal oceans where they are investigating the phenomena.

To appreciate the significance of that finding you have to understand that the greatest wildlife migration on the planet doesn’t take place on the African plain. Rather it’s the daily movement of fish and mammals between the ocean depths and surface waters. But while mammals like deep-diving whales can hold their breath, fish cannot hold their gills if human-generated carbon dioxide in the ocean significantly reduces dissolved oxygen in the mid-pelagic waters, creating an impenetrable dead zone between the deep and the shallow. As Henry David Thoreau wondered, “Who hears the fishes when they cry?”

Slow Whale Crossing

At least some whales are getting a fair hearing though very late in the game. Starting this month, and after 10 years of study and struggle with, among others, Dick Cheney (see Blue Notes # 46), NOAA is finally requiring ships to slow down to 10 knots while the last 350 Northern Right Whales are transiting between breeding and feeding grounds along the eastern seaboard. Ship strikes, along with fishing gear entanglement, have been the major causes of fatalities for these survivors first named by early New England whalers because their tendency to loll about at the surface made them the “right whale,” for killing.

Dollars to Dolphins

If in discussing the benefits of fighting to restore clean seas and protect coastal habitat you feel the need to put a dollar value on our blue ocean you might, along with the value of recreation, transportation, trade, energy, protein, medicine, joy and wonder point to the $4 trillion of insured property in the United States’ 600 coastal counties. Sea level rise, polluted unhealthy beaches, and loss of protective coastal wetlands all pose a threat to this already financially depreciated commercial and housing stock that nonetheless is worth about half of the national GDP. In Hard Times protecting this investment would seem an easy choice.

A bodysurfer’s favorite board

Props to Blue Frontier Board member and Rainforest Action Network founder Randy Hayes (the guy in red) for winning the Individual Achievement Award from the Business Ethics Network as top corporate campaign activist. Randy’s used boycotts, demonstrations, negotiations and other forms of influence to turn old-growth forests clear-cutters, wood product distributors and their financial backers into responsible corporate citizens. Now he’s helping do the same for the other 71 percent.

Props also to the activists from WWF, Greenpeace and (amazingly), NOAA, the State Department and a consortium of Tuna Canners and Processors including Bumble Bee who (feeling the “influence” from constituents and consumers) worked together these last few months to save tuna. While it was a loss for the giant Bluefin at a Morocco meeting where a majority of Atlantic tuna fishing nations voted to keep killing these great beasts, the more humble Big Eye tuna of the Pacific got significant protections from fishing nations meeting in Korea this December. The long-term secret of fishing policy, it turns out, is simple – when you stop killing fish they tend to grow back.

Summit Up Again

Many other secrets of the deep will be revealed, along with new administration officials, members of Congress, surfers, sailors, scientists, maritime workers, fishermen, entrepreneurs and explorers at the Blue Vision Summit March 7-10 in Washington, D.C.

Following up on fall planning meetings in S.F. and D.C. we held a Dec. 15 conference call with some 20 Summit Organizers to see how things are advancing for the three day, four night event.

Swimmingly we can report. Plenaries and panels will look at the state of the ocean and climate, federal ocean legislation and policy, state and regional restoration efforts that are working, grassroots success stories and many other parts of a whole that tells us Blue is the new Green. “Celebrations of the Sea” will take place at the Smithsonian’s new Ocean Hall and a D.C. Surfrider hangout yet to be determined. Participants will also visit Capitol Hill to meet with their elected representatives and educate them about how they can become ocean champions. Expected participants to date include Sylvia Earle, Philippe Cousteau, Leon Panetta, Rep. Sam Farr, California Secretary of Resources Mike Chrisman, Deep Economy author Bill McKibben, Sherman’s Lagoon cartoonist Jim Toomey, Ocean Rower Roz Savage, Climate and Ocean experts Dr. Jane Lubchenco, Terry Tamminen and others. Leading officials from the Obama administration and new Congress are now being invited. Register now and get the early flying fish discount.

For the latest Agenda Summary, updates or registration/hotel/conference site links go to www.bluefront.org/bluevision or contact helvarg@bluefront.org

And Don’t Feel Dissed

…if you didn’t receive your end of the year appeal from the Blue Frontier Campaign. Due to our full-time efforts on the Summit we were only able to get out about 100 letters this year. In summary they read, “…Tumultuous year…among our successes…a small group made up mostly of friends, volunteers…field campaign to strengthen the seaweed (marine grassroots) constituency…in these hard economic times any help you can provide…Please make a tax-deductible donation…www.bluefront.org (under DONATE).

The good news: as a Blue Notes reader any donation you now make will have helped save a tree.

 

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