Blog | Oceana USA

Yesterday evening, the Avalon in Washington DC was hosting the Sierra Club and the Alaska Wilderness League for the screening of the award winning documentary "Oil on Ice" which presents the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge Oil Drilling controversy.

One of the filmmakers was present and Native Alaskans talked to the audience about their life, how they would be affected if the U.S. decides to drill and how they can feel the first effects of global warming.

Unless like Sen. Frank Murkowski (now governor of Alaska) said in March 2002, the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge doesn't look at all like a big white board with nothing in it.  He said holding the immaculate board: "This is what the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge looks like 9 months out of 12, don't be misinformed" in his attempt to convince Congress to open the federal government to open the protected area to oil drilling.

The documentary shows how this portion of land in the Arctic became a refuge in 1960 thanks to conservationists' efforts and the Eisenhower administration.  In 1980, the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) enlarged the area with the purpose of:

  • conserving fish and wildlife populations and habitats in their natural diversity including, but not limited to, the Porcupine caribou herd, polar bears, grizzly bears, muskox, Dall sheep, wolves, wolverines, snow geese, peregrine falcons and other migratory birds and Arctic char and grayling;
  • fulfilling the international fish and wildlife treaty obligations of the United States;
  • providing the opportunity for continued subsistence uses by local residents; and
  • ensuring water quality and necessary water quantity within the refuge.

But Section 1002 of ANILCA required that studies were undertaken, including a comprehensive inventory and assessment of fish and wildlife resources, an analysis of potential impacts of oil and gas exploration and development on those resources, and a delineation of the extent and amount of potential petroleum resources.  This is the area they want now to open to oil drilling.

The problem is that this particular section of land is where the porcupine caribou herds gather, calve, and migrate as they did in the Pleistocene.  And the Gwich'in people depend directly on these herds for their survival as well as many forms of wildlife like wolves, grizzlies etc.

This is about the battle of big oil corporations over one of America's last, great wild places.  And this battle is occurring NOW!.  Each of us can do something against it.  Take action!  Log on to the Sierra Club website and go on their activism section on this issue.  Help the Gwich'in people to protect their culture, and their pristine environment.

[editor's note, by Jason]: This journal entry was written by Sandy on Sunday, Feb. 27.

La Isla de Coiba is the largest island in the Central American Pacific - approximately three times the size of Manhattan, or twenty times larger than Coco´s - and only 12 miles off the coast of Panama. It is the site of the Central Pacific´s most extensive coral reef system; a feeding and calving ground for blue whales, humpback whales, orcas and tropical spotted dolphins; and home to sharks, manta rays, billfish and tuna. Four species of threatened sea turtles nest on Coiba´s beaches. Crocodiles patrol its mangrove-lined shores. On the Panamanian mainland the island is famous, but not for its biological richness. For the past century the word "Coiba" has inspired fear.

Until last year Coiba was a federal prison. Panama´s most dangerous convicts were sent here - dangerous either to society or to the prevailing political regime. The jail was dispersed, with prison camps at various points around the island, and further dispersed because, according to legend, the prisoners were given leave to roam the island at night... while prison guards and timid inmates locked themselves in. Violence was a fact, not all of it perpetrated by man; in addition to the crocodiles, 15 species of snake, including lethal fer-de-lance and coral snakes, live on Coiba.

The prison population gradually dwindled as the twentieth century came to a close, but still The Panama Guide (Second Edition, 2001) warned visitors that "due to the continuing presence of the penal colony the safest place to anchor is off the biological station located on Punta Machete on the northeast tip of Coiba... The police are very friendly and if you want to go on any island trails one of them, equipped with weapons, will go as a guide and protector." Of Jicaron, a smaller island in the Coiba archipelago (in addition to Coiba the group includes eight smaller islands and 40 islets), the guide writes: "This island, separated from Coiba by a wide channel has strong currents which make it safe from any lurking fugitives. No one lives here and the beauty of the lush landscape can take your breath away. We rated Jicaron as the most wildly beautiful stop in Pacific Panama."

Others have been drawn to Coiba's beauty, and the history of the island has not all been dark. A Smithsonian scientist, Alicia Ibañez, has been living and working on the island for several years, attended by a guard and assisted by an inmate, Mali Mali, who finished his sentence and stayed to continue work on the project. Today he is a government park ranger and the island´s most knowledgeable guide.

The prison closed for good with the evacuation of the last prisoners in July of 2004. No one knows for sure what crimes led them to Coiba, what in human life has been lost in the island´s past. In any case the inmates, collectively, have repaid a debt: their presence has kept this place almost completely immune from industrial degradation. Coiba and its archipelago were made a national park by decree in 1991, and last year the park status was made law.

Preserved as it is, Coiba´s value is immense - particularly because of the island´s marine life. Coiba is a key link in the Pacific island ring that includes Coco´s and the Galapagos, and, as the member of the group closest to the continent, a protected nursery for juvenile fish that will migrate as adults. Keeping Coiba´s marine ecosystem intact, therefore, is critical to maintaining tuna and billfish populations that are fished and consumed all over the world.

On a more local level, Coiba should continue to provide for coastal Panamanian communities. Small-scale fishing is an ancient activity in Panama; the word "Panama" actually means "abundance of fish" in an indigenous language, and while the moniker no longer applies to nearshore areas invaded by industrial fleets in the 70s and 80s, it still fits Coiba. Under the new park rules small-scale fishing will be allowed here under close regulation. All boats must apply for a permit at the ranger station. Legal gear is one line and three hooks - sufficient to fish for a family or small community but no more. The hope is that Coiba can continue to support local fishing while also providing a marine nursery ground that will help to replenish fish populations along the more heavily-fished coasts.

The transformation of Coiba from prison colony to national park is new and happening now. On Wednesday the first class of Coiba Ecological Police will graduate from their training course and take up a permanent presence on the island. They will collaborate with the park rangers and with MarViva to enforce the new fishing regulations, which went into effect this weekend. Yesterday, for the first time, the park rangers collected miles of longline from two of four boats that had requested permits to fish in the park; the other two decided to leave park territory rather than relinquish their illegal gear. Tonight a MarViva/park ranger/ecological police patrol will head out to circle the island. With the change of the Panamanian government in September there is a new administration in power and Coiba´s rangers are all new, so for this first run Rolando Ruiloba, director of Coiba National Park, will accompany them to supervise. Mar will be there to film and I to write. Needless to say, the Ranger could not have chosen a more important moment to arrive.

[editor's note, by Jason]: This entry was written by Sandy on Friday, February 25.

We're back in Golfito for a few days to restock, shower, and get information about Cocos Island out to the wider world. Today we held a joint Oceana/MarViva press conference at the MarViva base. A bus brought the audience of journalists and cameramen from San Jose.

Xavier told the story of Cocos, which by now is familiar to some of us but no less impressive. It basically runs thus: Until very recently Cocos was a wilderness apart. It was a haven for pirates and the occasional whaler, but otherwise unvisited and unknown. In the 1970s, however, nearshore fisheries were rapidly depleted and fishing fleets began to frequent the island in force. Costa Rica declared Cocos and 12 miles of the surrounding ocean a national park (1978); UNESCO named it a World Heritage Site (1997), but the designations were meaningless in practice, industrial fishing continued on a large scale, and one of the planet´s most extraordinary marine treasures slipped into decline. It was only with the creation of MarViva and collaborative patrols, in 2002, that things began to change. And change they did.

As Xavier said, "The ongoing work around Cocos shows that professional partnership and loyal cooperation between governments, private companies, and NGOs gives results very quickly. In three years MarViva has done a number of important things here, and if we could copy and paste this approach in other parts of the world it would be one very good way to change the situation in the oceans."

There is, of course, still work to be done. Longliners linger at park borders, waiting for a chance to enter and willing to risk arrest - perhaps a further demonstration of continuing fisheries depletion closer to shore, perhaps testament to the success of the Cocos project in restoring the island's remarkable marine abundance, or perhaps some combination of both.

There were four organizations represented at the conference. Xavier Pastor, director of Oceana Europe; Micheal Rothchild, executive director of MarViva in Costa Rica; and Juan Pablo Camblor, director of Zoea, in Spain, all spoke. Mar Mas, founder and president of Kaisut Media and chief videographer of the Ranger expedition, had compiled a video of footage from Cocos, which we watched. It is easy when you are sailing, diving, filming to get lost in the details of the work, but here was its sum - four organizations pursuing a coordinated effort to assess the status of some of the most extraordinary areas of ocean in the world, and to convey to a broader public a vision of what the oceans are and can be. It was good to be in the audience, a thrill to see the pieces falling into place.