Thursday, October 16, 2003
On an overcast morning in early October, local whale watch guides Nancy Black and Richard Ternullo took a boatload of tourists out past Pt. Pinos for a four-hour cruise.
This year, in late summer and into autumn, the Monterey Bay has been teeming with blue whales. Scientists and others report seeing a dozen or more out there feeding on krill by the ton. Black was confident as the wind blew over the docks.
"If we didn''t have wind, we wouldn''t have whales," she told the expectant guests.
Blue whales were at the top of the wish list, but after a little more than an hour, the search provided a grim "predation" scene very rarely witnessed by humans, as the boat came across a pod of killer whales eating a Pacific white-sided dolphin for lunch.
Meanwhile, back in Washington DC, another grim scene was unfolding as Republican lawmakers put forward a different idea of poking around the sea. While the Sea Wolf II spent the day searching for hidden whales offshore of Monterey, the GOP made moves to begin a search for hidden oil off the entire Outer Continental Shelf (OCS) of the West Coast.
As part of the 2004 Energy Bill, now being negotiated in the congressional conference committee, Republican lawmakers have added language that would allow for oil exploration by requiring an inventory of oil and natural gas reserves across the United States and offshore.
The protections in effect in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary--with a ban on oil drilling and exploration at its very core, as well as a national moratorium in effect until 2012--would be null and void.
"Monterey Bay and the Sanctuary would not be exempt from the bill," say Warner Chabot, vice president of regional operations for the Ocean Conservancy. "The whole goal of that bill is to basically weaken the moratorium provisions all around the country by allowing seismic [exploration] activities to occur anywhere in the country. Whether it''s a moratorium area or National Marine Sanctuary is irrelevant."
Rather than something attached to the bill as a last-minute maneuver, Chabot says, oil and gas inventory lies at the heart of the bill.
"It is basically a goal to begin the weakening and eventual elimination of the moratorium areas piece by piece, of anything that''s an impediment to oil and gas exploration in the United States. That''s the fundamental tenet of the energy package."
Besides the oil inventory issue, the bill also contains measures that streamline exploration procedures and weaken state control of the coasts.
This week political opponents to the exploration measure launched an effort to remove the language from the bill. Representative Lois Capps, D-Santa Barbara, has been leading opposition to the measure and has forwarded a motion to cut the provision. Congressional observers expect a vote on her motion this week.
Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel, has voiced his opposition as well. He says the inventories are unnecessary because they were done in 2000. He''s also frustrated that the Bush administration remains focused on perpetuating "gas guzzlers" rather than exploring alternative forms of energy.
"This President has no vision," Farr says. "It''s dinosaur politics."
Sen. Barbara Boxer wrote a letter opposing the language, and got 26 fellow senators to sign it.
State politicians are also taking note. Before being booted from office, Gov. Gray Davis vowed to protect the coasts from oil exploration. Governor-elect Arnold Schwarzenegger vows to do the same. His official position: "California is identified for its beaches and magnificent coastline more than any other single feature. I am opposed to offshore oil drilling. I will urge the federal government to purchase the remaining offshore oil leases as has been done in Florida."
However, a request for his position on oil exploration was not provided by press time.
The prospect of offshore oil exploration coincides with increased attention to the effect of human activity on marine life. There have been widely publicized reports about whales being killed or wounded by a potent Navy sonar system used to detect submarines at great distances. Just this week, the Navy pledged to limit its use of the technology to the eastern coast of Asia.
Whales and other marine mammals rely on sound to communicate and navigate. The worry has been that the powerful sonar was lethally damaging to the animals. It turns out to be so. Last week it was reported in the journal Nature that the sonar does in fact kill whales by triggering an effect similar to "the bends" suffered by scuba divers.
Now the possibility of oil exploration vessels searching offshore in federally protected areas has conservationists doubly concerned.
To detect oil beneath the ocean floor, oil exploration firms employ a technique known as "seismic reflection profiling" which uses a system of very powerful airguns. Towed behind a ship, the airguns shoot a strong column of noise vertically downward to the sea floor. Measuring the time and distance of the reflection allows the surveyors to assess the location and scale of any oil deposits.
According to a recent 2003 report published in the journal of the American Acoustical Society, the sound produced by airgun arrays does permanent damage to marine life. Although fish and other creatures tend to swim away from such noise, researchers found that the effect was "severe" by simulating the underwater sound on captive pink snapper.
In another recent report called "Ocean Noise and Marine Mammals," published by the National Academies of Science, a team of researchers found that ocean noises are "sufficiently great to warrant concern." In their studies, they found that seismic oil exploration to be some of the loudest man-made noise in the ocean.
But pink snapper are one thing and blue whales are another. The effect on whales, such as those that feed in Monterey Bay, has not been proven, because marine mammals pose particular challenges to researchers.
"It''s hard to have one of these large baleen whales hold still while you test its hearing," says Gerald D''Spain, an underwater acoustic modeling and measuring scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego who contributed to the National Academies of Science report.
The report cites different sources of manmade ocean noise and finds that oil exploration is far louder than oil production even though the industry now uses airguns instead of explosives.
"Our committee felt that the largest impact was from exploration," D''Spain says.
In the pink snapper study, it was shown that fish will swim away from the sound and the same could be expected of marine mammals. But news that oil survey ships might soon be blasting the ocean with high-powered columns of sounds was not welcome to Nancy Black as she and her crew chased a group of killer whales around the Monterey Bay.
"That would definitely not be good," she said from the deck of Sea Wolf II.