In the first State of the Union address of his second term, President Obama sought to mark the beginning of a time where he will take bolder action on job creation and on divisive issues, including climate change. But while his rhetoric makes for great intentions, conservationists will be holding a collective breath until action is taken.
In case there is any question about what actually needs to be done, here we lay out some important steps the Obama administration can take over the next four years to protect America's oceans, a vast resource that spans more than 3 million square miles and supports 1 in 6 American jobs. Despite the political gridlock that still binds Congress, the Obama administration can make substantial improvements to the health of the ocean on its own -- improvements that spur our economy, and restore and protect abundant oceans. In no particular order:
1) Ban seismic testing in the Atlantic - Currently seismic testing is being proposed in the Atlantic Ocean (from Delaware to Florida) to search for oil and gas. In this practice, airguns shoot extremely loud blasts of compressed air through the ocean and miles under the seafloor. The sound generated by seismic airguns is 100,000 times more intense than a jet engine. Estimates are that these tests would injure 138,500 whales and dolphins, including the North Atlantic right whale (of which there are an estimated 361 left on the planet). Going deaf for these animals is often equivalent to a death sentence, since many of these animals use sound to locate food, navigate, and reproduce. The tests could also wreak havoc on the area's $12 billion fishing industry by displacing economically critical fish stocks. Unless the Obama administration stands up against seismic testing, all of this will be put at risk for the chance to continue drilling offshore, a dirty practice that has inflicted too much damage on our beaches and fisheries already.
2) Protect the Arctic from Offshore Drilling - The Department of Interior's decision to allow Shell Oil to explore for oil in the Arctic suggests we are headed for a cold-water version of BP-led 2010 disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. Every step along the way has been marked by Shell's incompetence- from losing control of its drillship, to the damage of its oil containment dome, which was designed to contain a spill yet was "crushed like a beer can." In addition, Shell backtracked on its claim that it could contain 95 percent of an oil spill and sought a waiver for provisions in its Clean Air Act permit, eventually being fined by the EPA for emissions violations. Last month Shell lost control of its oil drilling rig for days in icy Alaskan waters before it ran aground off Kodiak, Alaska. The succession of failures shows what we knew too well before -- the extreme natural environment of the Arctic is no match for an oil company, no matter how many billions of dollars they throw its way (Shell has spent $4 billion on its Arctic drilling failure so far). After the BP calamity, it is impossible to understand the Obama administration's forbearance in the face of Shell's demonstrated drilling incompetence. It must rethink its decision to let Shell, or any other oil company, drill in the Arctic. We should be investing our public resources in clean energy like offshore wind, not in repeatedly rescuing Shell from itself.
3) Protect Great White Sharks - Off the coast of California the Pacific population of great white sharks is threatened by extinction. Research suggests that there may be as few as 350 adults left. After campaigning alongside groups like Center for Biological Diversity, Shark Stewards and WildEarth Guardians, Oceana was successful at inching the Pacific population of great white sharks closer to protection under the Endangered Species Act, but the future of this unique population of sharks hangs in the balance unless the act gets ratified. Last year, the National Marine Fisheries Service responded to our request by instituting a status analysis on the species. Though this is an important step forward, an Endangered Species Act listing is necessary to provide the sharks additional safeguards from key threats, like driftnets, and garner more funding for research to better understand the status and threats they face.
4) Extend Investment Tax Credit for Offshore Wind - As part of its last minute fiscal cliff deal, Congress extended the tax credit for offshore wind investment, but they did so for only one year. Long term confidence is still lacking as the credit must be reapproved at the end of 2013. This temporary extension is an important step forward, but if the administration is serious about transitioning to clean, renewable energy, they should call on Congress to ensure a long-term extension of the Investment Tax Credit to provide real certainty to investors and send a clear signal to the rest of the world that the U.S. is committed to developing a domestic offshore wind industry.
5) Stop Seafood Fraud - Everyday seafood consumers are duped into thinking they're purchasing one type of fish when really they're paying a premium for a far less desirable product. It's called seafood fraud and recent studies show that fish may be mislabeled as often as 70 percent for commonly swapped species like red snapper, wild salmon, and Atlantic cod. The swap can happen at any point in the supply chain -- shipping, processing, grocery stores, restaurants or anywhere in between -- and it results in customers paying the price. More than just hitting our wallets, seafood fraud jeopardizes our health (in sushi bars, escolar is often substituted for white tuna or super white tuna -- a fish commonly called the "ex lax fish"... you get the idea). It also undermines ocean conservation as illegally caught fish can make their way into the U.S. market. In order to stop this practice we must demand full traceability from boat to plate for all seafood served in the United States. The technology already exists, but we must require it across the board to protect the oceans and the people who depend on them.
Ocean conservation has a distinguished bi-partisan legacy. President Clinton signed landmark fishery management legislation. President George W. Bush protected huge areas of the Pacific. This augurs well for President Obama's opportunity to win real changes right now in our national waters. We laid out five here. They're all practical and manageable and if tackled would improve the health and abundance of the ocean that America manages. Our oceans are a priceless resource that supports jobs, provides food and helps drive our economy. It's time we give them the attention they deserve.