Dive Dry with Dr. Bill

#184: Shooting Sea Lions In(to) a Barrel

For many decades I have tried to minimize my impact on the environment through a number of life style choices. One choice was to avoid owning a vehicle here on Catalina for most of the time I've lived here. I enjoy the opportunity to walk almost anywhere in town within a "few" minutes. Along with my frequent diving, it also keeps me healthier (and "wealthier" to a small degree since I buy little gas). For the past six years I've carried my dive gear (sometimes 175# of it) down to the dive park or to Scuba Luv on my hand cart. However, the psychological barrier of carrying my gear back up Upper Tremont has finally won out. I recently decided to buy my friend Tony Baloney's golf cart, but still plan to use it sparingly. So now I'm a two car person... my ancient but economical Toyota Tercel on the mainland and my "Dr. Bill-Mobile" here.

Rejoining the gas guzzling groupies was a difficult choice for me. Okay, so both vehicles merely sip... but at the current price of gasoline, it makes little difference to this starving marine biologist. The cost of gasoline is offensive to me in light of the grotesque profits the oil companies have amassed recently. I view that as far more "obscene" than anything I've ever written in my columns! However, it is not just the cost that concerns me. It is the environmental impact of our dependency on oil and other polluting energy sources on both the terrestrial and the marine environments. All of us are aware of the impact of burning gasoline on air pollution and our health. Recent studies have shown a greatly increased probability of contracting diseases like cancer for those living closest to our freeways... one reason I prefer living here. Yet how many are aware of the long-term impacts of the "oil industry" on our marine environment?

Those of us "mature" enough to have been in California during the late 1960's may be able to remember the massive oil spill off Santa Barbara that helped trigger the resurgence of the environmental movement. For those of more tender years, you need only consider the Exxon Valdez spill in Alaska. Obviously oil production and transport carries with it the potential for large-scale and serious damage to the marine environment due to such spills. However run-off from developed areas also brings oil and petroleum by-products to the sea from our streets and drive ways. Such non-point source pollution is very difficult to control, yet is a major source of our nearshore pollution.

The impacts I'm concerned about today are also historic in nature. Think back to Herman Melville's novel Moby Dick. The "oil industry" in the late 1700's and much of the 1800's was based on rendering oil from the blubber of whales. In this uncontrolled harvest, many species of whales declined to near extinction. Several are still endangered or just on the way to recovery. This unregulated harvest of whales soon led to numbers too low to ensure a reliable source of oil. I'm sure prices to the consumer for their oil lamps and stoves rose significantly at that time of the horse-and-buggy. Rather than managing the hunt for whales to ensure a sustained harvest, most whalers took every animal they could. Having interacted with several species of whales, this devastation of their populations saddens me because these are indeed sentient creatures capable of interacting intelligently with humans.

How many of you are aware that another, more local hunt was implemented for the same purpose... "harvesting" oil? I'm referring to the hunting of other marine mammals like elephant seals and California sea lions. This occurred in our waters and Mexico from the mid 1800's into the early 1900's. These species were hunted for their blubber to produce oil, and also for their hides and their genitals (for the Asian market). It took three sea lions to render enough oil to fill one 42-gallon oil barrel. The US currently imports over 10 million barrels of crude oil from other countries each day (about 50% of our daily consumption). Just to satisfy our need for imported oil would require killing 30 million sea lions a day at that rate! Current sea lion population estimates are only in the 200,000 range, so they would only yield just a 10 minute supply. Even after land-based drilling became the primary source of oil, sea lions were hunted well into the 20th century for their hides and for pet food, as well as for circuses and zoos! The Marine Mammal Protection Act (and earlier protections given them in Mexico and Canada) put a stop to these. Despite nearly exponential growth, our own California sea lion population is still recovering from this exploitation.

Fortunately for marine life, the oil industry eventually switched to the land. The first oil company formed to obtain oil by drilling wells was the Pennsylvania Rock Oil Company in 1854. It went bankrupt three years later without finding oil. Two years after that, the Drake Well in Titusville, Pennsylvania, became one of the first successful oil wells by hitting pay dirt in fields known and used previously by the Native Americans of that region. Now there are nearly 500 oil companies world-wide and exploration has extended into, and damaged, some highly pristine areas of our globe with more being eyed for development. And, of course, now drilling in offshore waters is common from the North Sea to the Gulf of Mexico to southern California with consequent environmental impacts once again in the marine world.

Currently no new offshore drilling is allowed in California. In fact the oil companies are looking at decommissioning many aging offshore oil platforms, including about 30 in the Santa Barbara Channel. Many in the oil industry and some in the fishing industry want to keep the platforms in place because they attract fish and other marine life. I've dived on them and agree that this is true, but do not agree that these are "natural" assemblages of species. If adopted, the Rigs-to-Reefs program (Senate Bill 241) could save the oil companies well over $1 billion in decommissioning costs in our waters alone. A portion of the savings would go to the State to fund research and mitigation of what will undoubtedly be environmental impacts of leaving the rigs in place. However, IMHO an industry where one company alone had quarterly profits in excess of $10 billion does not need or deserve such benefits. What it should do is plough those profits and savings into developing real alternatives to our dependence on oil. Perhaps a side benefit would be to eliminate our need to be "involved" in the Middle East or Africa or South America in the future.

In the late 70's I served as the first energy conservation and pollution control officer for Northrop's Anaheim division. I was told my job was to find ways to cut energy costs at our plants, as well as to educate our employees about their personal impacts on the environment through the lifestyle choices they made. One graphic I used showed the per capita consumption of energy for a number of different countries. The artist who rendered this graphic depicted each country's energy use by drawing a person in that country's symbolic outfits. For example, the German was dressed in lederhosen, the Frenchman with a nice beret. Their height was in accordance with the amount of energy each person in each country would use each day. The representative for the U.S. was a giant among even the other industrialized countries of the world.

How many of you are aware that early in the last century solar power was very common in Avalon? Looking at the rooftops in some old photographs you could see solar water heaters on top of many buildings. Where are they now? Being a small and remote town in sunny southern California, Avalon would seem be a perfect demonstration site for alternate energy. I often wonder why we continue to rely on diesel powered generators which cost Edison a lot in air pollution permits. Surely there must be grants available for Edison or other energy companies to pursue this? When will we stop our insatiable "need" for such energy sources and look at real, environmentally friendly alternatives? The answer is up not just to the oil and energy companies, but to each of us as individual consumers. You can make a difference... especially living here on Catalina!

© 2006 Dr. Bill Bushing. Watch the "Dive Dry with Dr. Bill" underwater videos on Catalina Cable TV channel 49, 10:00 AM and 5:00 PM weekdays. Please help me climb out of self-imposed poverty... buy my "Munching and Mating in the Macrocystis," "Great White Sharks of Guadalupe," "Calimari Concupiscence: Mating Squid, "or "Giant Sea Bass" DVD's. Yes, take Dr. Bill home with you... we'll both be glad you did!

Three of these cute little critters to produce a barrel of oil that lasts us for
less than one hundredth of a second? No thanks!

This document maintained by Dr. Bill Bushing.
Material and images © 2006 Star Thrower Educational Multimedia