Ten years after the creation of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, things are getting worse.
Thursday, September 26, 2002
Photo by Randy Tunnell.
Photo: Leon Panetta, Julie Packard and Jean-Michel Cousteau addressed a conference on the tenth anniversary of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary.
Whenever a certain point was made, or for that matter, a point left unmade, a woman seated close to the stage at last weekend''s oceans conference would loudly whisper her own exclamations. The first hosanna came early.
The occasion was a invitation-only, three-way conversation to mark the tenth anniversary of the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary (MBNMS), held in a nearly packed auditorium at the Monterey Conference Center on Sept. 20. It was one event in a series, including a daylong public Oceans Fair in Monterey on Sept. 21 and a pricey gala dinner for a select few later that night.
Leon Panetta, dubbed the "Godfather of the Sanctuary," hosted Julie Packard, head of Monterey Bay Aquarium, and Jean-Michel Cousteau, son of aquanaut Jacques and a filmmaker himself.
Alone on stage at the beginning of the talk, Panetta stated his conviction that citizens must fight for their beliefs and confront challenges. This earned an enthusiastic stage-whispered "Yes!" Later in the talk, during a point about the tragedy of innocent sealife that gets accidentally scooped up in fishing nets-- which is known as bycatch--the whisperer let out a exuberant "Oh my gosh, yes!"
When a comment about threats to ocean health was left dangling, she stepped up and offered, "Fishing!"
Some things may be better left unsaid.
For ten years, a line has been drawn in the ocean, beginning just south of Point Reyes, arcing out west of San Francisco, then curving down to landfall south of Big Sur. The line demarcates the MBNMS, the largest federally protected marine sanctuary. It covers 5,322 square miles of the sea.
Born of a perceived threats of oil drilling offshore, the Sanctuary is one of 13 such havens under management of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It is a federally-protected area, but it doesn''t enjoy the full weight of federal authority.
In order to strike a balance between human uses and the mandate to protect natural resources, certain compromises are part of the Sanctuary''s framework. Oil drilling is banned. Aircraft flights are restricted. Birds, sea turtles and marine mammals are not to be bothered. Strangely though, while "depositing any materials" in Sanctuary waters is banned, " effluent incidental to vessel operations" is not, and proved to be a issue when cruise ships, which discharge vast amounts of human waste, scheduled visits here this year.
The Sanctuary is now undergoing a 10-year review--which means any rule can be changed or eliminated, and new rules can be added. As it stands, there are some places where the Sanctuary does not have authority; significantly, it does not regulate fishing. That frustrates conservationists who believe that over-fishing is hurting the natural resources that Sanctuary is supposed to protect.
Now there''s major pressure to use the management plan review to create no-fishing zones here, as other national marine sanctuaries have done.
Last month, the Department of Fish & Game shut down the nearshore fishery up and down the coast to protect depleted rockfish species.
Panetta, Cousteau and Packard were careful to keep the conversation focused on the ocean in its entirety. They avoided the locally contentious topic of marine reserves.
Because of their lifework, both Packard and Cousteau make good witnesses to the health of the ocean-- health so bad that Panetta calls it a "crisis." Cousteau says that despite national efforts, people tend to treat the sea as a "universal sewer."
Part of the problem also has to do with inland pollution draining into the sea. While the MBNMS does sponsor a watershed outreach program, talking to Salinas Valley farmers about pesticide runoff, Packard noted that awareness remains limited: "We need to get things up several notches from where we''ve been thinking about it."
In fact, just last week the U.S. Commission of Ocean Policy issued dire warnings about the steady population increase on the U.S. coasts, the disappearance of 40,000 acres of coastal wetlands per year, and the 40 percent depletion of known fish stocks. The head commissioner, a retired Navy admiral named James Watkins, was quoted as saying, "These are not challenges we can sweep aside."
Packard, Cousteau and Panetta sounded alarms of their own, even if they were preaching to the choir. Greed, burgeoning populations, abuse and a global appetite clearly endanger the sea, though it''s hard to see that when you can find a plate of sushi a thousand miles inland.
It''s as if we just don''t know it yet, but when we do it will be too late. As Cousteau said at the end of the night, referring to the sentinel birds kept by miners to warn of deadly gas leaks, "All the canaries are dying."