Environmentalists were encouraged by the attendance last week of President Clinton and Vice President Al Gore at the nation’s first National Ocean Conference in Monterey.
Clinton promised $224 million in support of various plans to improve the oceans’ health and extended the current ban on offshore oil drilling in California and most of the country’s other coastal states for 10 more years. He also announced new initiatives to reduce overfishing and for improvements to the nation’s harbors.
Marine biologists and other ocean experts hailed the ideas, but most said the money was just a drop in the bucket.
Former White House Chief of Staff Leon Panetta said of the oil-drilling ban, “At some point we need permanent protection. But this is an important step.”
There are 28 oil-drilling platforms off the California coast from Santa Barbara to Long Beach, built between 1950 and the early 1980s. Their oil makes up only 4 percent of the nation’s yearly production. Drilling was banned forever on the central coast with the creation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, the nation’s largest protected ocean area at 350 miles long.
Part of the $224 million would be spent to build sustainable fisheries. The National Marine Fisheries Service estimates that of 727 major marine species in U.S. coastal waters, the status of only 38 percent is known. Of that number, one-third are overfished. Clinton proposed measures to ban the sale and importation of Atlantic swordfish, rebuild fish stocks and develop technology to reduce bycatch (sealife unintentionally caught in nets).
Clinton also said he would push Congress to fund his $2.3 billion Clean Water Action Plan to reduce pollution flowing into streams and oceans.
Of interest to activists opposing the Navy’s low-frequency active sonar tests was Gore’s proposal to complete an ocean-monitoring system and the declassification of nonsensitive military data, which would be used to help track marine mammals and detect illegal fishing. He said such data would also help predict deadly storms and increase knowledge of climate change.
Environmentalists say the LFAS tests have noticeably affected whales that migrate to Hawaii to birth their young. When tests were conducted off the central coast last year, several dead whales washed up on beaches within days of the first transmission, which were temporarily halted. The noise tests were permitted to resume several weeks later and have continued off the coast of Hawaii.
After studying a report in the journal Nature by biologist Dr. Alexandros Frantzis, which correlates the LFAS tests and strandings of Cuvier’s beaked whales in the Mediterranean Sea in May 1996, Jean-Michel Cousteau has stated his opposition to the tests. Frantzis’ article states, “Although pure coincidence cannot be excluded, it seems improbable that the two events were independent.” Using stranding data collected over the last 16 years, he computes the probability of a nonmilitary cause for the stranding at less than 0.07 percent.
Using this information, environmental groups attempted to block the tests, but in March, a U.S. District Court judge in Hawaii denied the request for an injunction and allowed testing to go forward.
Scientists for the Navy disagree and accept a certain amount of “collateral damage” from testing. The National Marine Fisheries Service also allows a certain arbitrary “take” of marine mammals during military exercises.
Local environmentalists are wondering whether the unusual numbers of dead seals and sea lions along our coast this year may be related in part to the sonic tests. (See related story on this page.)