Washington, DC — Throwing cold water on hopes for a “sea change” in oceans policy, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration says it has no “plans to initiate an assessment” of potential marine sanctuaries anytime soon, according to correspondence released today by Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility (PEER). Instead, any such decisions will be a “part of a comprehensive review of our Nation’s marine waters” – an interagency process expected to take several years.
The cautionary statements were contained in a September 1, 2009 letter from NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco to Professor Rick Steiner, a noted marine conservation specialist at the University of Alaska, in which she demurred on his suggestion that NOAA undertake the first steps for designating the very first national marine sanctuaries in Alaskan waters, specifically in Unimak Pass and Bering Strait.
Administrator Lubchenco indicated that NOAA had no funds available to explore the possibility of new marine sanctuaries and did not foresee any change “in the immediate future.” Her stance stands in ironic contrast to the prior administration’s record where President Bush designated three new marine national monuments in the Pacific covering more than 150,000 square miles, including the world’s largest ocean reserve. Although President Obama has the same authority under the Antiquities Act to designate new marine national monuments, Dr. Lubchenco’s letter suggests that this option will not be explored.
NOAA’s posture also raises questions as to whether meaningful Arctic Ocean protections are under active consideration. Most of Alaska’s threatened and endangered species are marine species. In many regions sea lions, harbor and fur seals have declined by 80%; sea otters by 60%; and some seabird populations have declined by 90%. Many of Alaska’s apex marine predators contain some of the highest levels of persistent organic pollutants of any animals in the world. Thus far, however, Obama’s NOAA has –
- Pushed ahead with oil and gas exploration planning with no Arctic Ocean zone, no matter how sensitive, off limits, with an Interior Department touting “energy independence” as its top priority;
- Given the green light to fish-farming and other open-ocean aquaculture nationally; and
- Adopted the Arctic Policy (National Security Directive 66) unveiled in the final weeks of the Bush administration stressing maximum exploitation, rather than conservation, of marine resources.
Prof. Steiner points out that Alaska has half the U.S. shoreline, three-fourths of our continental shelf, more marine mammals, seabirds and fish than the rest of the nation combined but still not one marine sanctuary or monument. In his July 30, 2009 letter to Administrator Lubchenco, Prof. Steiner makes the case for these two designations:
“Unimak Pass and Bering Strait host some of the most important migratory corridors for marine wildlife anywhere in the world ocean, and can be looked at as ‘marine ecological gateways.’ Most of the migration of whales, seals, walrus, birds, and fish between these three seas [Gulf of Alaska, Bering Sea and Arctic Ocean] pass seasonally through these two restricted marine corridors….”
“Thus far the Obama administration has delivered process without the promise of protection,” stated PEER Executive Director Jeff Ruch, referring to the recently announced White House Interagency Ocean Policy Task Force interim report. “Our worry is that the final inter-agency product will be so belated and compromised that invaluable resources will be irretrievably lost.”