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November 1-7, 2006

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big rig

Big rig: Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, wants to see the coast opened for oil drilling.

Watery Report Card

With threats from drilling, pollution, global warming and alien species increasing, how's the health of our slice of the coast?

By Joy Lanzendorfer


Two little-known bills headed for congressional vote intend to drastically extend the size of North Bay marine sanctuaries to protect the coastline from any oil or gas drilling. If they prevail, nearly 1,100 square nautical miles of new marine sanctuary would be established from the southern end of Marin County all the way north to the Gualala River.

Local representative Lynn Woolsey and Sen. Barbara Boxer introduced parallel measures, HR 1712 and S 880, respectively, into the House and Senate in April of 2005. The bills are currently in committee. If their boundary expansions pass, 233 miles of protected area would be added to the Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary and 866 miles to the Farallones Marine Sanctuary, nearly doubling it to include all of Sonoma County.

The boundary expansion is a response to Republican lawmakers who want to start oil drilling on the West Coast. While Marin County's coast is protected, most of Sonoma County is wide open, should laws change and drilling suddenly be allowed.

"The Republican plan for offshore drilling consists of unchecked and endless drilling for more and more oil by stripping states such as California of virtually any oversight," Woolsey says. "The result will be less beautiful coastlines and an unsustainable energy policy."

The sanctuary expansion is one of several recent attempts to protect the local marine environment from threats, legislative or otherwise. The Gulf of the Farallones, Cordell Bank and the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary in October released a joint management plan detailing 11 categories of potential threats to the coastal environment, ranging from vessel spills to invasive species to resource protection. A series of public-information workshops was held at points all along the coast last month. Beginning in late November, public hearings commence, including Nov. 29 in Bodega Bay and Nov. 30 in Pt. Reyes Station. From there, they will establish plans of action for each one.

With all this talk of danger, it's easy to wonder: Just how safe is our coastline, anyway? What are these threats, exactly, and should we be concerned?

Oil with Water

In a time when the phrase "dependence on foreign oil" is a common warning on TV, some people are chomping at the bit to dig into our domestic oil supply. Rep. Richard Pombo, R-Tracy, who is in a tight race for re-election against opponent Democrat Jerry McNerney, recently proposed a national bill, HR 4761, that would make oil drilling on the North Coast a possibility.

The bill would remove the bipartisan congressional moratorium on oil drilling, where every year for the last 24 years, Congress has banned drilling on the California coast and in other states. In its place, the bill would shift the power so each state would make the decision about oil drilling individually, meaning that governors and state legislatures would have to continually agree to maintain protection of the water. To sweeten the honey pot, the bill also gives 50 percent of all oil profits to the states.

"If the Pombo bill prevails, it means that not only Sonoma and Mendocino counties, but the whole West Coast, could be exposed to oil drilling," says Richard Charter, co-chairman of the environmental group National Outer Continental Shelf Coalition.

For his part, Pombo maintains that his bill would increase jobs and take energy decisions out of the hands of the U.S. Congress and put it into the hands of each individual state.

"Environmental protection and American energy production are not mutually exclusive," he says in a statement. "This bill delivers to Sacramento the power to protect, so California will not have to rely on the whims of Washington, extending unprecedented power to protect its coasts." (It is perhaps instructive to note that Florida's St. Petersburg Times recently called Pombo "the oil industry's errand boy.")

The bill, which is opposed by Gov. Schwarzenegger, is one of two trying to make oil drilling in U.S. waters more of a likelihood. The other focuses on the Florida coast and parts of the Gulf of Mexico, but doesn't affect California. At this point, it's unlikely that Congress will work out the differences between the two bills before next week's elections, meaning they will most likely resolve them in the lame-duck session, the session that happens after the elections have been held but before the newly elected Congress convenes.

This makes environmentalists nervous.

"The danger of the lame-duck session is that if the House of Representatives flips and is controlled by the Democrats, lingering committee chairs like Pombo will be an endangered species in charge of a session," says Charter. "Sometimes dangerous, malicious things can happen in a lame-duck session, because nobody has anything to lose."

Economically speaking, California stands to lose a lot by allowing oil drilling on the coast, including tourism and fishing. In addition, there simply may not be that much oil out there. While some oil traces have been found around the Pt. Reyes National Seashore, one estimate says there is probably only 25 to 30 days of a national oil supply on the entire North Coast, according to Charter.

On the other hand, lawmakers are also looking at alternative energy sources. Some of those, like wave and tide generation, look to the sea for answers to our energy problem. But those resources can also have a negative impact on our coastline, according to Dan Howard, superintendent of Cordell Bank.

"More proposals are looking toward the ocean to provide alternative energy sources," he says. "But what you don't hear is that they also have user conflicts that occur with the marine environment."

Just a Little Spill

Most people remember the oil spills of the late '60s and '70s, such as the Santa Barbara disaster of 1969, when a loss of well control led to a massive spill. Mats of tar stretched a hundred miles down the coastline, killing everything in their path.

Today, new technology and tougher regulations mean spills like that are unlikely to happen in the North Bay. The biggest oil-related threat we face is from boats that sunk 40 to 50 years ago. For example, the S.S. Jacob Luckenbach collided with another ship in 1953 and sunk in the San Francisco Bay. The boat was carrying 457,000 gallons of bunker fuel. As it has sat under the water, the fuel has leaked intermittently, leading to mysterious-seeming oil spills from San Mateo up through the Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Between 1990 and 2003, the Luckenbach was responsible for the death of almost 52,000 birds and at least eight sea otters. In 2002, officials finally discovered that the boat was the source of the pollution.

"The California Department of Fish and Game had a major, major project with that," says Howard. "But taking the oil off that vessel has gone a long way. We're not seeing nearly the same issues we were seeing before. There have been a few small spills, but no large catastrophes."

Of course, oil spills aren't the only things that pollute the ocean. One new concern is the amount of plastic in the water. According to the United Nations environmental program, there are 46,000 pieces of plastic floating on the surface of every square mile of the sea.

Jennifer Stock, a scientist at Cordell Bank, recently did a study looking into this problem. She tracked black-footed albatrosses, which migrate from their nests in Hawaii to the Bay Area, where they forage for food. They then return to Hawaii and regurgitate the food to their chicks. When Stock examined refuse from the chicks, she didn't find the concentrated fish oil she was expecting. Instead, she found an astounding amount of plastic--parts of cigarette lighters, caps from drinking bottles, tampon applicators, you name it.

"Instead of high-protein, they are regurgitating Bic lighters to their young," says Howard. "Some of the chicks even died in the nest because of it."

In the middle of the Pacific Ocean is the North Pacific Gyre, a churning vortex of ocean currents where trash meets and spins like a toilet that never flushes. The plastic, then, is from all over. Some of it is in the form of small pellets from recycling plants, which somehow made their way into the water. Other pieces migrated here from Asia. Lots of plastic comes from ships or storm drains, and still more from people throwing things into the ocean.

"If you go to any store and look at the packaging, it's covered with plastic," says Howard. "This is not something that is going to go away any time soon. It's the great Pacific garbage patch out there."

While plastic is a problem all over the coast, the North Bay is blessedly free of other issues. For example, we don't have problems with human waste in our water, because little direct storm water drains onto our beaches. As a result, our beaches are clean and there are few closures.

Well, except for one: Campbell Cove State Beach in Bodega Bay. Campbell Cove is among the dirtiest beaches in California and is closed several times a year. Testing reveals that the beach often has high levels of the bacteria found in fecal matter.

However, the bacteria aren't from humans, but animals.

Experts aren't sure exactly how copious amounts of animal and bird feces are ending up on Campbell Cove. It may simply be a quirk of nature that the beach doesn't flush itself well. Then again, it could be coming from agriculture and grazing land.

"It's not clear if the bacteria represents a risk to humans," says Gary Cherr, professor of Environmental Toxicology at UC Davis' Bodega Marine Lab. "There hasn't been any sort of concern about the animal strains of e-coli and the risk of bathing in the water. You wouldn't want to drink the water, but in the case of simply bathing in it, you would probably be OK."

Richard Pombo, R-Tracy

Oil Help You: Richard Pombo has been called the No. 1 enemy of our oceans.

A Weird Year

While humans can do something about reducing plastic and oil in the water, other issues seem bafflingly out of our control. One of these is the sudden drop of zooplankton--small, often microscopic animals that float in the water. They are an important first level of the food chain, with many smaller fish feeding on them. When a low level of the food chain drops off, it affects all the marine life that depends on it.

The reason for the drop in plankton is because of the unusual weather patterns we have had the last two years or so. Our ocean system is fertilized by upwellings--cold, nutrient-rich water that is pushed to the top of the ocean. When the upwelling is hit by the sun, microscopic algae plants bloom, feeding the marine creatures. The North Bay is located near one of four such upwellings in the world.

For the last few years, the upwellings have been late. This, in turn, has affected the whole ecosystem. Certain fish, like herring, are so thin they are swimming through fishermen's nets. Bird reproduction is down. And while predators that feed on fish, like humpback whales and pelicans, are in abundance, the ones that feed on the plankton, like blue whales and Cassin's auklets, are not.

"When that upwelling comes late, it throws off the whole process, and the marine wildlife is not as productive," says Maria Brown, superintendent for the Gulf of the Farallones. "But why did it come late this year? That's the million-dollar question. You can make a lot of hypotheses about it, but no one really knows."

The late arrival of the upwelling may simply be a peculiarity that nature will compensate for later on. On the other hand, some scientists worry it's a sign of global warming. After all, they are finding that ocean temperature is rising on average, which some believe is related to climate change. Could the lateness of the upwellings also be a sign of that same issue?

"It's not conclusive yet why there is this sudden change," says Cherr. "It's hard to know if this has happened in the past or not. But it is not gradual. It has happened very quickly."

In the case of local seabirds, the lack of plankton is not the only thing interfering with their breeding habits. Many birds nest on rocks, which are sometimes flushed out when boats approach too closely and splash the rocks, knocking off the eggs and frightening the birds away.

The Gulf of the Farallones is developing a strategy to help increase breeding among the birds.

"If the situation with the boats happens enough, it could wipe out entire rookeries," says Brown. "As it is, it happens frequently enough to be a concern. So we are taking steps with that."

Invading Species

Like the non-native mistletoe that suffocates our oak trees, or the starlings that swoop in clouds over our fields, non-native species, once here, want to stay. In the ocean, the same principle applies. Sometimes they come over on boats or are introduced because of the aquarium trade. Animals that looked lovely in a fish tank can be a real problem once in the actual ocean. However they come, invasive species can end up competing with local wildlife for habitat, and sometimes end up taking over completely.

"They are really difficult to get rid of," says Cherr. "Once they are out in the bay, there's nothing you can do because you can't go and poison everything, obviously. They can be a real problem."

In the 1980s, the Asian clam was brought into the San Francisco delta system where it established itself so well it carpeted the bottom of the bay. In the process, it pushed out native species and changed the water's ecosystem.

Another case is the mitten crab, which is a popular food in Asian and was probably brought over so it could be fished here. The crabs have burrowed into the sides of the Sacramento River and are thought to be destabilizing the banks and damaging the levees.

Though the North Bay has had less of a problem with invasive marine creatures, the European green crab recently appeared in the Bodega Harbor, something that is worrying local scientists. The crab, with its brown back and algae-colored tints, seems to be competing with the Dungeness crab for habitat. So far, however, it looks like it will not cause a serious environmental problem.

"But even though by itself the crab is not necessarily destructive, it does compete with native species and can cause a decline," says Cherr.

Despite the threats, general scientific consensus is that our coastline seems to be in good shape overall. With the area's agricultural history, there has been less damage on our marine environment than industrial and urban locations like San Francisco or Los Angeles. And the environmental practices of the last few decades have repaired much of the damage caused by outdated fishing practices. Some marine mammal populations are even approaching their historical levels, including gray whales, humpback whales and rock fish.

Most of all, people seem more aware that their actions impact the ocean. It's more common for them to realize that if you throw something in the water, it doesn't just disappear, according to Howard.

"I would say our oceans are relatively healthy," he says. "It's a slow process, but it's heading in the right direction. I think people are starting to understand that the ocean is not this unlimited resource that we can never impact. And we're incredibly lucky to have that resource right out our back door."


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