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Santa Barbara Oil Spill Jeopardizes the Golden Beaches of Our Golden State

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When oil began flowing from a ruptured pipeline along the wild and scenic shoreline up the coast from Santa Barbara, California, the community’s coastal life flashed before its eyes:  thriving fisheries, popular and pristine beaches, teeming populations of whales and marine mammals, and a new network of protected areas set up to safeguard these coastal treasures.  The awful images of oiled beaches and sea life are appearing on our screens at a time when visitors are flocking to the coast for Memorial Day weekend.

Recreational and commercial fishing have been ordered closed in the wake of the spill. Fishing grounds along the rural coast west of Santa Barbara support a good deal of the harvest of some of California’s highest-value fisheries. Spiny lobster, red sea urchin and market squid are harvested along this coastline, and are among the top five commercial fisheries in California, bringing in millions of dollars in revenue from the sale of fish and providing healthy seafood for local and distant consumers. Recreational fishermen ply these waters for calico bass, white seabass and halibut while enjoying the scenic surroundings and spending dollars locally. Surfers, scuba divers, beachgoers and whale watchers explore, play and spend in even greater numbers.

All these groups recently worked together tirelessly to set up marine protected areas (MPAs) – despite sometimes intense differences – to protect special places along this coast and to sustain the health of the entire California coastline. Two of the new MPAs, enacted in 2012, are within ten miles of Tuesday’s oil spill and stand threatened by the expanding oil slick. Four MPAs are along the 30 mile coast surrounding the oil spill. Among them, Naples Reef State Marine Conservation Area is a regionally unique pinnacle reef system packed with fish, lobster, anemones, and healthy kelp forests. Next closest to the spill is the Kashtayit State Marine Conservation Area, established to protect and celebrate the coastal culture practiced by Chumash Indians for millennia. These sites are now at risk of damage from this spill.

Oil and gas development has been active along this coast for decades. About 20 oil platforms pump oil offshore and several more rigs operate along this sensitive and productive shore. Though we are told technology has improved since the massive Platform A blowout in 1969, when three million gallons of oil spewed into the ocean, we notice a steady pattern of oil spills, releases and accidents. The pipeline that ruptured Monday was installed to improve safety in replacing a large industrial oil processing facility nearby. Yet today we are seeing blackened beaches and oiled wildlife. Are we properly balancing the value of energy production with the value of clean beaches, fishing, recreation and coastal views?

We know oil and water don’t mix, so it’s crucial to carefully look at the trade-offs between offshore oil and protecting fish, fisheries and beaches. We want to keep the Golden State golden.  

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