Archive for the ‘Ocean Dumping’ Category

An Ocean of Troubles

via Wikimedia Commone

via Wikimedia Commons

Last month I noted the dangers global warming poses to the world’s oceans. Not for 55 million years has there been oceanic disruption of comparable severity to the calamity that lies just a hundred years ahead as a result of the climatic stresses we are placing on the oceans. But there are more prosaic threats than rising temperatures and increasing acidity facing the ocean’s. Rampant over-fishing and a rising tide of garbage are taking their toll as well.

How can that be? The oceans are enormous – some 70 percent of the globe is covered with water. The Pacific Ocean has the volume of the moon. But as big as they are, we are plucking the Seven Seas bare and replacing the fish with trash.

Two decades ago, Charles Moore discovered what came to be known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Sailing across the the Pacific, Moore was stunned to look out over the ocean from the deck of his racing yacht to see, not the pristine waters he had come to know and love, but rather plastic debris stretching as far as the eye could see. “It seemed unbelievable,” he wrote, “ but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments.”

Garbage patches now occupy immense areas of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans. More than merely an eyesore for sailors, the plastic garbage plays havoc with the entire marine food chain. Larger chunks are eaten by birds, seals, dolphins and fish, leading to fatal intestinal blockages. As the plastic degrades into smaller pieces (it never decays, it only breaks into ever smaller bits) it displaces food for animals which eat algae and plankton. Beside being toxic in their own right, the smallest pieces of plastic debris serve as vectors for viruses and bacteria to roam the ocean. And the debris isn’t just floating handily and visibly on the surface. The entire upper strata of the oceans can contain syringes, plastic bags, soft drink bottles, and disposable diapers moving like wraiths in the currents.

While sailors and fishermen who are intimately familiar with the oceans may be alarmed by the open leagues of rubbish, they haven’t made much impression on the public imagination: the Bounding Main is a bottomless pit capable of absorbing anything thrown into it.

Not only do we think we can throw anything into the oceans, we are doing our level best to take every living thing out of them. Indeed, we may be approaching “the end of fish.” We now have the technology to haul every fish in the seas to the surface. The fishing-industrial complex is hauling in so much seafood, that many of the world’s leading fisheries are on the verge of collapse. According to a report by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, all the current fish and seafood species on which we have historically depended may collapse by the middle of this century. Says the lead author of the study, “Species have been disappearing from ocean ecosystems and this trend has recently been accelerating. Now we begin to see some of the consequences. For example, if the long-term trend continues, all fish and seafood species are projected to collapse within my lifetime — by 2048.”  The implications, he reminds us, extend far beyond the oceans themselves. “The oceans define our planet, and their fate may to a large extent determine our fate, now and in the future.”

Some twenty years after Moore’s shocking discovery of the Great Garbage Patch, another yachtsman made his way across the Pacific from Australia to San Francisco via Japan. On that voyage, over waters he had decades of familiarity with, Ivan Macfadyen saw firsthand the dire toll the combination of over-fishing and junk-filled waters had taken on the Pacific. In the whole of the voyage from Melbourne to Osaka he encountered not a single fish or bird. He found himself surrounded by silence and desolation. One thing he did encounter was an immense trawler, one of the countless ships which crisscross the seas hauling up fish on an industrial scale. It was no wonder Mcfadyen caught nothing. There was nothing left to catch. “After we left Japan, it felt as if the ocean itself was dead,” Macfadyen said. “I’ve done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I’m used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen.” Instead of fish, there were endless miles of garbage. The oceans, he says, are broken.

Will Controversial Expansion of Naval Activities Harm NW Whales?

Last week the Navy cleared one of several final hurdles facing their proposed operations expansion at the Northwest Training Range Complex (NWTRC) when NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) granted them permission to “take” marine animals incidental to their training activities. An article published in the Bellingham Herald last weekend explains why the plan for expanded operations has animal lovers up in arms.

Photo by Franco Folini. Some rights reserved.

The NWTRC is a stretch of ocean and airspace used for routine naval training that extends to 250 nautical miles west of the coast of Washington, Oregon, and northern California. The Navy is proposing to expand its operations to support future training activities and provide for range enhancements. Critics are quick to point out that these “activities” may include disruptive practices such as the dumping of hazardous materials and chronic noise from sonar testing.

In accordance with NEPA, the Navy has prepared an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) reviewing and evaluating the potential environmental effects of these proposed actions and activities. The Navy finished the EIS (which included formal consultations with NMFS) and then the Navy reviewed the EIS (a process which smacks of conflict of interest), and decided to move forward to “continue to support and conduct current, emerging, and future training and research, development, test, and evaluation […] activities in the Northwest Training Range Complex.”

As part of the approval process, the Navy also had to apply to NMFS for authorization to “take” marine mammals incidental to these training activities. (In the context of marine mammals, the term “take” is a nice-sounding word that means to harass, hunt, capture, or kill. 16 USC 1362.) According to the aforementioned federal register notice in which NMFS issued their authorization, the Navy does expect some incidental harm to marine mammals from the sonars and underwater denotations that are part of the Navy’s routine training activities. Specifically, the Navy requested “authorization to take individuals of 26 species of marine mammals by Level B Harassment and 13 individuals of 9 species by Level A Harassment. […] No mortality of marine mammals is authorized incidental to naval exercises in the NWTRC.”

The authorization was based on findings that the takings will have a “negligible impact on marine mammal stocks and will not have an unmitigable adverse impact on the availability of the affected marine mammal stock for subsistence uses,” and was issued pursuant to NMFS’ recent final rule, which set forth general regulations governing the taking of marine mammals incidental to Navy activities in the NWTRC from October 2010 through October 2015.

However, such findings have not assuaged environmentalists’ concerns. Before the comment period expired, the Orca Network was urging fellow pro-Orca enthusiasts to give NMFS a piece of their mind. The National Resources Defense Council submitted a comment letter directly to the Navy, asking them, on behalf of twenty other environmental groups, to revise their EIS, “improving its impacts and alternatives analysis and establishing temporal and geographic protection zones to mitigate the harmful impacts of its training.” The comment letter was rich with evidence suggesting that the proposed expansion posed significant risk to whales, fish, and other wildlife.

EPA Listening Session Today on Vessel General Permits

Today from 9-5 the EPA is holding a listening session to obtain feedback from the public on improving the next Vessel General Permit (VGP).

Photo by JamesCanby. Some rights reserved.

The VGP is a Clean Water Act National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit that regulates discharges “incidental to the normal operation of vessels operating in a capacity as a means of transportation.” All vessels weighing 300 gross tons or more (or those that have to ability to hold or discharge more than 8 cubic meters of ballast) must apply for coverage under the permit. Vessel operators can submit the requisite Notice of Intent here.

The final version of the most recent VGP became effective in 2008 and is set to expire in 2013. As part of the process for developing the next version, the EPA is seeking input on questions such as “Were parts of the 2008 VGP confusing? Do certain sections need to provide additional guidance?” and “Did the 2008 VGP accurately identify and capture all the discharge categories of discharges incidental to the normal operation of a vessel in the vessel universe?”

The listening session will be held in the EPA East Building at 1201 Constitution Ave. NW, Room 1153, Washington, DC 20004. If you are unable to attend, you can submit comments by email to, attention Docket ID No. EPA-HQ-OW-2010-0828.

After You Die, Will You Still Comply?

Photo by Greenshed. Some rights reserved.

Open water enthusiasts should be glad to know that the EPA is unlikely to stand between them and a watery grave. The EPA primer “Burial of Human Remains At Sea” – unceremoniously located under the  “Ocean Dumping” portion of their website – states that, according to 40 CFR 229.1, “human remains transported from United States ports or on United States vessels or aircraft may be buried at sea under specified conditions.” Provided those conditions are met, you don’t need to fill out a special application; under 229.1 (which was based on the Marine Protection, Research and Sanctuary Act of 1972), a general permit is granted for the “dumping” of said remains into the ocean. (Burials in inland waters are regulated according to the Clean Water Act, and a permit is required from the appropriate state agency.)

The EPA’s conditions are relatively straightforward. The burial of human remains, either cremated or not, needs to take place at least 3 miles from land. Remains that have not been cremated have an additional depth requirement of six hundred feet, and, of course, “all necessary measures shall be taken to ensure that the remains sink to the bottom rapidly and permanently.”

However, regulation of the preparation of remains does not fall under the jurisdiction of the EPA. The same CFR section that grants the general permit also specifies that “human remains shall be prepared for burial at sea […] in accordance with accepted practices and requirements as may be deemed appropriate and desirable by the United States Navy, United States Coast Guard, or civil authority charged with the responsibility for making such arrangements.” Many individual states may have their own additional set of requirements for proper cremation or burial that may apply. The Natural Burial Co-operative has created a compilation of state laws here.

Once the burial has taken place, a friend or family member must provide notification and a few details on the service to the appropriate regional EPA office. Region 4 has a sample form that can be printed and mailed in. (One hopes all the EPA conditions were met – the form requires the potentially upsetting answer to “Did the remains appear to rapidly sink to the ocean floor?”)

Some may opt for their ashes or bodies to be buried at sea strictly for environmental reasons. Green burials are gaining popularity, and the Green Burial Council advocates cremation as a greener alternative to many traditional “disposition options.” But if having your ashes simply scattered isn’t lively enough for you, consider an Eternal Reef, in which your cremated remains are incorporated “into an environmentally safe cement mixture designed to create artificial reef formations,” creating a “meaningful permanent environmental tribute to life.”

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