Conservation & Science

We’re making a difference for the ocean in Sacramento

The California State Capitol is 75 miles from the coast, but the laws forged there can have big impacts on the health of the ocean. That’s why the Monterey Bay Aquarium supported a half-dozen ocean-related bills during the 2015 legislative session. Many were signed into law.

We're active on behalf of ocean issues in California. Photo © Steven Pavlov.
We’re active on behalf of ocean issues in California. Photo © Steven Pavlov.

The Aquarium also hosts the annual Ocean Day California reception in Sacramento, bringing together California legislators, state administrators, businesspeople and ocean conservation leaders to celebrate conservation of the ocean. Each year we honor California ocean champions who took action to advance marine and coastal health – including backers of important legislation.

Here’s our final scorecard for the 2015 legislative session.

Assembly Bill 888: Banning plastic microbeads in personal care products. Enacted.

WHY IT MATTERS

Some brands of face wash, exfoliating scrubs, toothpastes and other personal care products contain tiny plastic balls called microbeads. Most of these microbeads are too small for wastewater treatment plants to capture. In coastal communities, they’re discharged into the ocean, where they absorb other pollutants such as pesticides and industrial chemicals. Marine life may mistake microbeads for fish eggs and ingest them; from there, they enter the food web.  Eight other states, including Illinois and New Jersey, have banned products containing plastic microbeads (often listed in the ingredients as polyethylene, polypropylene or polymethyl methacrylate).

Legislation banning plastic microbeads in personal care products was enacted with support from the Aquarium. Photo courtesy 5 Gyres.
Legislation banning plastic microbeads in personal care products was enacted with support from the Aquarium. Photo courtesy 5 Gyres.

WHAT IT DOES

AB 888 (Asm. Richard Bloom) bans the use of plastic microbeads in rinse-off personal care products, unless the plastic meets the international standard as “compostable” or “marine degradable.” California’s bill sets the highest bar for biodegradability among states that have passed microbead bans so far.

OUR ROLE

The Aquarium wrote letters of support, provided policy advice to bill sponsors, spoke out at legislative hearings, and engaged in media and online outreach. Despite strong industry opposition, AB 888 was passed by the Legislature and signed by the governor. It takes full effect in 2020.

Senate Bill 17: Extending the California Sea Otter Fund. Enacted.

WHY IT MATTERS

Caliifornians can continue to make voluntary contributions to support sea otter conservation programs. (Photo by Ron Eby)
Caliifornians can continue to make voluntary contributions to support sea otter conservation programs. (Photo by Ron Eby)

A 2006 law inspired by a legislator’s family visit to the Aquarium added a check-off box to state income tax forms, giving taxpayers the option of making a voluntary contribution to support research and conservation programs for California sea otters. Despite state and federal protections that helped bring them back from the brink of extinction, sea otters still face a long road to recovery. The California Sea Otter Fund supports research into the factors impacting their survival and the management steps needed to help them. Since 2007, taxpayers have donated more than $2.7 million to the fund, but the check-off option was scheduled to expire in January 2016.

WHAT IT DOES
SB 17 (Sen. Bill Monning) extends the California Sea Otter Fund sunset date another five years, to January 2021. The fund supports sea otter conservation and near-shore habitat restoration projects. It also provides competitive grants and contracts for research, projects and programs related to the Federal Sea Otter Recovery Plan.

OUR ROLE

The Aquarium wrote letters supporting the bill and voiced support at select hearings. The Legislature passed SB 17 and the governor signed it, keeping the California Sea Otter Fund check-off box on state income tax forms for another five years.

Assembly Bill 298: Strengthening enforcement in state marine protected areas. Enacted.

Marine protected areas like this one at Point Lobos State Reserve get new safeguards. Photo by Bill Morgan
Marine protected areas like this one at Point Lobos State Reserve get new safeguards. Photo by Bill Morgan

WHY IT MATTERS

California’s 1999 Marine Life Protection Act created a network of 124 marine protected areas (MPAs), which encompass about 16 percent of California’s coastal waters. One of the main purposes of the MPA network is to protect marine life and preserve intact habitats. But some misdemeanor offenses committed in MPAs, like illegally fishing or trapping protected species, have not been prosecuted. Conservationists say this has allowed poachers to ignore the law, threatening both marine habitats and legal fishing activities.

WHAT IT DOES

AB 298 (Asm. Lorena Gonzalez) makes it easier for law enforcement to crack down on violations that harm wildlife in state marine protected areas. Under the bill, Department of Fish & Wildlife officials can issue citations, much like traffic tickets. These monetary fines minimize the need for resource-intensive follow-through by district and city attorneys.

OUR ROLE

The Aquarium and other ocean conservation groups supported this bill with letters and comments at hearings. The Legislature passed AB 298 and the governor signed it. It takes effect in January 2016.

Assembly Bill 96: Closing a loophole on the illegal ivory trade. Enacted.

WHY IT MATTERS

Thirty-eight years ago, the state of California made it illegal to buy, import, sell or possess with the intention of selling elephant tusks or rhinoceros horns. Yet the law didn’t do much to curb the illegal slaughter of African elephants – possibly because a loophole allowed the sale of ivory imported before 1977, and law enforcement didn’t have an easy way to verify its age.

WHAT IT DOES

AB 96 (Asm. Toni Atkins) closes that loophole, making it illegal to buy and sell the tusks, teeth or horns of animals such as elephants, rhinos, whales and walruses – regardless of when they were procured. The bill number is a reference to the average number of African elephants poachers kill every day for their ivory.

OUR ROLE

The Aquarium was part of a coalition, led by the Wildlife Conservation Society and U.S. Humane Society, that strongly supported the bill. We also spoke up at hearings and did public outreach through our blog and social media. The Legislature passed AB 96, and the governor signed it into law. It takes effect in July 2016.

Looking ahead: Key issues in 2016

In the upcoming 2016 legislative session, the Aquarium will continue to track and support several bills that were not resolved this year, including two that address offshore oil operations. The Aquarium will engage state legislators on bills newly introduced in 2016 that are relevant to our ocean conservation mission. We’ll keep you posted.

We'll work to uphold California's ban on single-use plastic bags and protect ocean wildlife like this sea otter pup. (Fortunately mom was able to remove the bag.) Photo © Terry McCormack.
We’ll work to uphold California’s ban on single-use plastic bags and protect ocean wildlife like this sea otter pup. (Fortunately mom was able to remove the bag.) Photo © Terry McCormack.

Also on our radar: a referendum set for the November 2016 ballot that would repeal SB 270, a law restricting single-use plastic retail bags. The Legislature passed the bill in 2014, and Gov. Jerry Brown signed it into law. Before it could take effect in July 2015, the plastics industry successfully placed a referendum on the 2016 ballot, stalling its implementation. We will work in support of a vote to affirm that California will be a leader in eliminating single-use plastic retail bags in our state.

These are the carryover bills from the 2015 session on which we’ll be active next year:

 Senate Bill 788: Prohibiting oil extraction in sensitive habitats.

WHY IT MATTERS

In 1969, the offshore oil blowout in the Santa Barbara Channel killed thousands of seabirds and  marine mammals. It also helped inspire a new wave of both state and federal environmental protections, as well as the first Earth Day. In May 2015, history repeated itself – on a much smaller scale – when an oil spill on Santa Barbara County’s Refugio Beach reminded us that oil operations in environmentally sensitive areas still pose risks to marine life.

WHAT IT DOES

SB 788 (Sens. Mike McGuire and Hannah-Beth Jackson) would amend the 1994 California Coastal Sanctuary Act by repealing a provision allowing the state to lease out its tidelands and submerged lands for oil and gas extraction.

OUR ROLE

The Aquarium submitted letters and contacted individual legislators urging support of the bill, which aligns with our efforts to support California’s marine protected areas. SB 788 passed the Senate but stalled in the Assembly. It is unclear whether the bill will be revived in 2016.

Senate Bill 233: Partial removal of offshore oil rigs.

WHY IT MATTERS

A 2010 law, AB 2503, allowed oil companies to remove only the top part of obsolete offshore drilling platforms in state and federal waters, leaving the lower portion intact to serve as reef habitat for marine life. This “partial decommissioning” process is voluntary and allowed on a case-by-case basis, when regulators believe there’s a net environmental benefit to leaving the rig structure in place. The money that oil companies save by taking down only part of a platform, rather than all of it, is shared with the state, to be used for the benefit of coastal marine resources. Several of the state’s 27 oil platforms, all off the coast of southern California, are close to decommissioning. But in the five years since the bill’s passage, no companies have filed applications for the partial decommissioning of their rigs.

We support incentives that will protect ocean resources as offshore oil rigs are decommissioned. Photo by Wayne Brown/ Coalition for Enhanced Marine Resources.
We support incentives that will protect ocean resources as offshore oil rigs are decommissioned. Photo by Wayne Brown/ Coalition for Enhanced Marine Resources.

WHAT IT DOES

SB 233 (Sen. Robert Hertzberg) aims to streamline the permit process for oil companies to partially decommission their offshore rigs while maintaining environmental protections. The Aquarium was one of the ocean conservation community’s lead negotiators on the bill, pushing for scientifically sound decision-making and high environmental standards.

OUR ROLE

The Aquarium would like to ensure that the oil industry pays for the costs of partial decommissioning up front, and that the cost savings are applied by the state to ocean research and conservation programs. Both the Senate and the Assembly passed SB 233 in the 2015 legislative session, but a number of affected state agencies have proposed significant changes. Those negotiations have been pushed to 2016.

-Kera Abraham Panni

Learn more about our conservation policy work on behalf of healthy oceans here.

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