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The Blog Aquatic

News, opinions, photos and facts from Ocean Conservancy

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Regulation of Shipping in the Warming Arctic is a Hot Topic

Posted On April 11, 2014 by

With 90 percent of the world’s trade being transported across our ocean, it was only a matter of time before the receding sea ice in the Arctic Ocean captured the interest of the shipping industry. Shipping goods through the Northern Sea Route across the Russian Arctic coast, along the fabled Northwest Passage of the Canadian and U.S. Arctic coasts, or straight across the North Pole could save time and money. But at what cost? The Arctic Ocean is far from a safe place for vessels, and the inevitable accidents in this remote and rapidly changing region could devastate the fragile ecosystem. Fortunately, the International Maritime Organization, a specialized agency of the United Nations that regulates global shipping, is developing a mandatory ‘Polar Code’ designed to minimize impacts of the anticipated Arctic shipping boom.

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Coast Guard Report Shows Shell Failed to Recognize Risk in the Arctic

Posted On April 4, 2014 by

Photo: Coast Guard

This past Thursday, the U.S. Coast Guard released a report on its investigation into the grounding of Shell’s Arctic drilling rig Kulluk near Kodiak, Alaska on December 31, 2012. A tug lost control of the Kulluk in heavy weather on the way to Seattle after Shell’s failed attempt to drill for oil in the Arctic Ocean in 2012.

The Coast Guard report provides a detailed account of the events before the Kulluk ran aground and identifies a number of causal factors, including lack of experience in Alaska waters, failure to recognize risks, use of inadequate equipment, insufficient planning and preparedness and major problems with the primary towing vessel.

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Communities Come Together to Restore the Gulf

Posted On April 2, 2014 by

Great things happen when people come together and collaborate on a shared vision, especially when that shared vision is a healthier Gulf of Mexico. This notion rang true at a series of workshops Ocean Conservancy helped to coordinate in Mobile and Baldwin counties on the Alabama Gulf Coast. These “Community Conversations” were an opportunity to share information with and collect ideas from residents and business owners about the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s (NFWF) Gulf Environmental Benefit Fund.

As you might remember, NFWF established this fund with $2.544 billion from a settlement resolving the criminal cases against BP and Transocean as a result of the BP Deepwater Horizon oil disaster. Alabama will receive $356 million over the next five years to fund projects that benefit Alabama’s coastal and marine wildlife and habitats. Last fall, 22 projects were selected to restore and protect our natural resources around the Gulf Coast. Alabama received $12.6 million for three projects, which will restore oyster reefs and watersheds around Mobile Bay.

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Galveston Oil Spill Threatens Multibillion-dollar Investment in Gulf Wildlife

Posted On March 27, 2014 by

Photo: Laronna Doggett

This week, as we recall the moment that the Exxon Valdez crashed into Bligh Reef just off the coast of a sleepy Alaska fishing town 25 years ago, a similar scene unfolds on the other side of the country. Under heavy fog, a barge traveling through Galveston Bay, Texas, collided with another ship and leaked an alarming amount of oil into the bay from its 168,000-gallon fuel tank. Due to bad weather, the oil is spreading quickly and has been spotted as far as 12 miles out in the Gulf of Mexico.

Response teams are busy trying to contain the oil on the water’s surface with boom and skimmers, but the damage has already been done. Spring is a crucial time for bird migrations in Texas, with an estimated 50,000 shorebirds and seabirds roosting at the Bolivar Flats Refuge only two miles from where the spill occurred. Our partners at Audubon and Galveston Bay Foundation are on the ground reporting a number of birds that have been found oiled. The surface oil also poses a threat to dolphins and turtles, which frequently surface in the bay. The endangered Kemp’s ridley sea turtles living in the Gulf nest almost exclusively on the coasts of Texas and Mexico.

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Four Reasons Why an Arctic Oil Spill Could be Catastrophic

Posted On March 25, 2014 by

Photo: NOAA

Just after midnight on March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez struck Bligh Reef in Alaska’s Prince William Sound. In the days that followed, the tanker spilled approximately 11 million gallons of oil into the sound. Oil from the tanker eventually affected roughly 1,300 miles of coastline, some of it more than 450 miles away from the site of the spill. Experts estimate that the spill killed roughly 250,000 seabirds, 2,800 sea otters, 300 harbor seals, 250 bald eagles and up to 22 killer whales. Although the Exxon Valdez oil spill was not the biggest oil spill in the world, it is still widely considered to have caused more environmental damage than any other.

The 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez oil spill is a good opportunity to evaluate the threat of an oil spill in the Arctic. In recent years, oil companies have expressed great interest in drilling in Arctic waters off the north and northwest coasts of Alaska. In addition, decreasing levels of summer sea ice mean that Arctic waters are experiencing more vessel traffic. Both drilling and shipping activities have the potential to cause a catastrophic oil spill in the Arctic region. What lessons from the Exxon Valdez spill can be applied to the Arctic?

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Four Years Out and Counting: Taking Stock of the BP Disaster Through the Lens of the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill

Posted On March 24, 2014 by

This piece was co-authored by Chris Robbins, senior manager of restoration planning at Ocean Conservancy, and Bob Spies, former chief scientist for the Exxon Valdez Oil Spill Trustee Council.

The first and second phases of the BP trial involving the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster are behind us. The judge is now deciding how to rule on the issues of gross negligence and amount of oil released into the ocean, while a third and final phase is set for January 2015. Yet, while the end of the courtroom drama is in sight, the genie BP let out of the bottle almost four years ago has not gone away, and questions abound. For example, how is lingering oil affecting the food web? Which impacts will remain hidden? And how long will recovery of the environment take? Answers to these questions are frustratingly elusive, especially since the results of government studies assessing environmental damage are still mostly confidential.

With the fourth anniversary of the BP disaster nearly upon us, we can look back to the March 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska for insight into the types of impacts seen four years after that oil spill and what they might mean for Gulf recovery. As Alaskans reach a significant milestone this spring – the 25th anniversary of the Exxon Valdez disaster – the successes and setbacks in coastal Alaska’s recovery are instructive. These insights put the Gulf’s recovery into perspective and tell us that science is the foundation of a decades-long restoration effort, and it must not be shortchanged.
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Exxon Valdez Oil Disaster 25 Years Later

Posted On March 23, 2014 by

Photo: Valdez-Cordova Census Area County, Alaska/Creative Commons

On March 24, 1989, a few hours after the Exxon Valdez spill began, Alaska Gov. Steve Cowper and I boarded the tanker. At the time I was serving as Alaska’s commissioner of environmental conservation. We flew on a single-engine floatplane from the town of Valdez to a cove near the tanker, hitched a ride on a Coast Guard boat, climbed a long rope ladder dangling from the deck, and found our way up to the bridge. From there, we could see that there was hardly any response activity underway.

After several hours, we flew back to Valdez, where we went directly into a community meeting—still wearing our oily boots—to report on what we had seen on the water. Already on the stage of the community hall were Exxon officials, who had arrived from Houston. The auditorium crackled with tension; the audience, including many fishermen—who for years had opposed the shipping of oil by tanker and who felt that their livelihoods were at stake—were angry and frightened. It reminded me that a big oil spill is always a human crisis, not just an environmental disaster.

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