Cargo Ships in Paradise

Imagine if someone put a superhighway through Yosemite.

That’s exactly what’s happening just outside the Golden Gate. Our Yosemites on the sea are being used as on-ramps to the global economy. And as long as they continued to be used this way we can only expect more and worse Cosco Busan spills.

The San Francisco Bay area is home to 3 contiguous National Marine Sanctuaries-the Cordell Bank, Monterrey Bay and the Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuaries. The federal government has a system of 13 National Marine Sanctuaries, the ocean equivalent to our national park system, which protect the most sensitive and biologically diverse of our national waters. California has four in all including one in the Channel Islands. There are also dozens of state Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) along the Central and North Central Coast.

Running shipping lanes through these sanctuaries undermines the intent of the 1972 Sanctuaries Act to protect these biologically rich areas.

Running these shipping lanes through or near newly proposed MPAs also threatens to undermine the number one goal of the 1999 Marine Life Protection Act-protecting the integrity of critical marine habitats including areas like Pt. Bonita, Duxbury Reef and Pt. Reyes, all three of which have been polluted by the Cosco Busan spill.

The deadly little secret of the Cosco Busan spill is that our sanctuaries and state MPAs are in danger. Every cargo vessel and oil tanker that enters San Francisco Bay passes right through at least one of our three contiguous National Marine Sanctuaries. The approximately 3,600 vessels that annually enter the bay are threatening the very integrity of these invaluable marine habitats and the San Francisco Bay.

This year, the California Department of Fish and Game began working to establish a new network of MPAs along the North Central California Coast. One of the critically important areas in the region, Pt. Bonita in the Marin Headlands, which is part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, is now contaminated by the Cosco Busan spill. Every vessel entering the bay passes right through Pt. Bonita and one of the northbound lane runs right through Pt Reyes.

Attention to the threat from shipping in the North Central region has been mostly missing in the MLPA planning process. Hopefully, last week’s oil spill and a recent stranding of a humpback whale in Pt. Reyes National Seashore, which was reportedly struck by a large ship, will serve as a wake up call all the stakeholders involved.

As devastating as oil spills are, large cargo vessels and oil tankers present a wide-ranging threat to the environment. They contribute to global warming by burning bunker fuel like that spilt by the Cosco Busan.

Large ships and oil tankers also emit intense low-frequency noise at the same frequency used by baleen whales-the biggest source of ocean noise pollution in the ocean today. Ocean noise pollution is on the rise locally and globally. In some areas, scientists have documented that underwater noise levels have doubled every decade for the past four decades. Ocean noise pollution has a range of impacts on marine life. At worst, it can be deadly. Studies show that fish, including commercially important species, are dramatically impacted by noise pollution. Hearing loss, changes in migration and schooling along with serious reduction in catch rates have all been documented.

The problem of large vessel traffic into San Francisco Bay is increasing rapidly and is not going to go away unless action is taken right now to address it. The Port of Oakland, already plaguing local communities with toxic emissions from both the vessels and semi trucks that service them, is the 4th busiest container port in the U.S. and 20th busiest in the world. According to the federal government, the global large commercial vessel fleet nearly tripled from about 30,000 vessels in 1950 to more than 85,000 vessels in 1998. The number of large vessels in the global fleet is expected to nearly double in the next 20-30 years. About 2 oil tankers already visit the Bay each day.

The Cosco Busan spill can be a lesson that our national marine sanctuaries and new state MPAs must be protected from the rising threat of large cargo vessels and oil tankers. Federal and state agencies responsible for protecting these marine habitats and managing vessel traffic must begin to work together as well as with industry and environmental groups to address this urgent problem.

The number one goal of the Marine Life Protection Act is to protect the integrity of these proposed marine protected areas. That cannot be achieved if we continue to ignore the risk of more Cosco Busan spills, ship emissions, ship strikes, and rising ocean noise pollution.

ROBERT OVETZ, Ph.D. is the executive director of Seaflow. He can be reached at