Enlisting Navy’s voice for the silent sea

Wednesday, May 12, 2004, 12:00 a.m. Pacific
Guest columnist

By Fred Felleman
Special to The Times

The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy’s preliminary report on ocean conditions does a public service by elevating the significance and vulnerability of our nation’s greatest liquid asset. The degree to which it is a “life preserver,” however, will depend on the political will that is mustered to implement its recommendations.

Only governors can comment on the report. Therefore, it is important that the public urge Gov. Gary Locke, at his public forum at the Seattle Aquarium starting at 3 p.m. tomorrow, to strengthen the report’s findings.

The report calls for significant increases in funding for ocean research and conservation, but seeks it from an unfortunate source — offshore oil and gas revenues. This creates a perverse incentive to unnecessarily impact the ocean in order to fund its conservation.

The commission’s chairman, retired U.S. Navy Adm. James Watkins, clearly has had some influence in recruiting the Navy’s maritime prowess to offset the need for hard cash. But more is needed.

The report does call on the Navy and the Office of Naval Research to support educational efforts in our schools and to transfer technology and declassify naval intelligence as appropriate, which are positive steps for institutions like the University of Washington.

In addition, if directed by the White House and Congress, the Navy could contribute to our understanding and conservation of the sea instead of seeking exemptions from environmental laws.

Through the leadership of former Secretary of State Ralph Munro, several members of the whale research and conservation community have been meeting with senior members of the Navy in the Northwest over the past year to discuss such ideas and are anxiously waiting to see if any will be put into action.

Some would like to see the Navy simply stop using mid-frequency sonar in the inland waters to avoid further incidents such as the USS Shoup’s May 2003 harassment of our acoustically sensitive orca, porpoise and minke whales.

Others, like myself, believe while the Navy is part of the fabric of the Puget Sound community, its footprint on Washington’s waters is far broader than acoustic and includes impacts on water quality; persistent toxins in the sediment from past base operations; oil-spill risks from potential collisions between Navy and commercial vessels; and the potential for nuclear mishaps.

Examples of projects the Navy could contribute to include:

• Helping to implement phase one of the U.S.-Canada plan to reunite Luna (L98) with his orca pod while it is offshore near Nootka Sound. L pod has suffered the greatest population losses of our three resident pods. Any contribution the Navy can provide to detect where L pod goes off the coast in the course of this effort would help the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) in shaping a conservation plan while attempting to add another member back to the pod.

• Providing ongoing acoustic monitoring of ambient noise and whale vocalizations throughout the year. This tracking effort can be accomplished via a series of hydrophones on buoys such as the one the Coast Guard is to deploy off Hein Bank this summer with money Sen. Patty Murray appropriated for oil-spill prevention.

• Repositioning of one of the Navy’s two salvage tugs from California and other oil-spill and salvage equipment from Alaska. That could go a long way toward enhancing our region’s oil-spill prevention and response capability. Despite securing four years of public funding, the state is about to put the Neah Bay rescue tug back out to bid without public review. We could have a far more capable tug for a longer period of time if the Navy’s surplused assets were made available to the state for this purpose.

Due to our elected officials’ concerted efforts, the armed forces are Washington state’s largest employer. It is time to assure that this increased presence and expansion of their operating areas does not occur at the expense of our fragile marine environment.

Severely depleted populations like our resident orca and Cherry Point herring need more than a life preserver. They need active resuscitation.

The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy has clearly shown the ocean to be an essential part of our homeland in need of immediate protection. It is my hope that the Navy’s unique maritime prowess can be recruited in its defense.

The late Sen. Warren Magnuson was instrumental in the creation of NOAA in response to the last ocean commission report. Integrating the Navy’s unique expertise and capability in this effort would be of comparable significance. I hope our congressional delegation can carry on his legacy of ocean stewardship.

Fred Felleman, based in Seattle, serves on the boards of Ocean Advocates and the Orca Conservancy.


~ by fredfelleman on May 12, 2004.

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