Blog | Oceana USA

Today is not a good day for the oceans. First the China spill, now this:

Slick measured at 2.5 miles in diameter and expanding

ANCHORAGE, Alaska - As the search for six victims of a rescue helicopter crash was scaled back, officials on Friday turned to a growing problem stemming from the break up of a cargo ship off Alaska: a major oil spill near a sensitive wildlife refuge.

Thousands of gallons of heavy bunker fuel and diesel spilled from a soybean freighter that was ripped clean in half off the shore of Unalaska Island. Near a wildlife refuge 800 miles southwest of Anchorage, the area is home to sea lions, harbor seals, sea otters, tanner crabs, halibut and kelp beds.

Here's the full story from MSNBC Online. It's fairly gruesome; it seems a Coast Guard helicopter rescued some of the ship's crew and then itself crashed. The victims haven't been found but chances of their surviving the frigid waters of the Bering Strait are slim. Meanwhile, the oil slick is growing...

On Tuesday, November 16, the United Nations rejected the call for a moratorium on high seas bottom trawling. Instead, the UN approved new Oceans & Fisheries resolutions that relegate responsibility for high seas fisheries to member nations and regional coalitions.

The high seas: It is one of the last great ecological frontiers on Earth, one of the few we all share; the open ocean; the two-thirds of the planet's salt water outside of any national jurisdiction. You can guess what that means. In classic tragedy-of-the-commons style, the world's fishing nations have been hauling sea life out of these waters while avoiding any responsibility for oversight. In the last few years, we have begun to fish out high seas species and tear up ocean floor habitat faster than we can explore this most remote region of the Earth.

The greatest direct threat to high seas ecosystems is bottom trawling. (Bottom trawling, as marine conservationists and readers of this blog will know, is an incredibly destructive form of fishing. If you need a lesson, see our website.) In the past decade, industrial bottom trawlers have been advancing farther and farther from shore, driven by an insatiable public demand for fish and by the depleted fisheries in their wake. The problem, now, is that trawlers are dragging their nets over areas of the ocean bottom that we have yet to even explore - but which, we are finding out, are home to ecosystems as rich and diverse as any on land. Seamounts are the best example. The floor of the open ocean, far from the flat, barren moonscape we once imagined it to be, is riven with canyons and gorges and crisscrossed with chains of underwater mountains, or seamounts. Along their slopes, where ocean currents move faster and carry higher densities of nutrients, life thrives. And rather unusual life. Some seamount fish, like the orange roughy, live for 150 years. Slow-growing corals and sponges may hold great promise as pharmaceutical agents. Many of the species recently discovered on seamounts are completely new to science.

The trawlers, unfortunately, are beating the researchers to the seamounts, and the world is at risk of losing valuable ecosystems, not to mention commercially valuable fish populations, to their voracious nets. The severity of the threat has inspired a movement to stop it. An umbrella group of environmental organizations, operating as the Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, has been pushing for a temporary halt to high-seas trawling. The time-out would give scientists a chance to develop a more comprehensive assessment of the situation, and the world a chance to put some kind of rational governance system in place.

Unfortunately, the coalition is up against formidable opposition. At this meeting of the UN, critics of the moratorium - led by Iceland and the EU (particularly Spain) - won out.

Not to be discouraged, the coalition will be working to raise awareness about high seas trawling over the coming year.  If the upwelling of support in the past few months is any indication of the movement's momentum, the UN General Assembly may vote differently in 2005.

You may know a lot about long lining, bycatch and sea turtles. You also followed Charlotte on her Mediterranean Sea adventure as a fisher-woman.

But do you know about bycatch of sea birds?

A recent study based on satellite tracking, released on Wednesday Nov. 10, shows "hot spots" where longline fishing trawlers and albatrosses cross paths. And the news is not good for the birds -- they are lured by the baited hooks and then drown.

How do you solve such a problem? As it happens, there may be a fairly low-tech solution:

Conservationists say that fairly simple measures can be used by longliners to reduce seabird mortality.

[Richard Thomas from Birdlife] said Brazilian fishermen use a colorful but effective technique that involves dyeing their bait two shades of blue.

Birds tend not to see blue but fish do. The first dye keeps the birds away but is water soluble and bleaches after the bait sinks. This leaves the fat-soluble blue dye which makes the bait more attractive to the fish, so both fishermen and birds win.

If you want to read the full article you can find it here.

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