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Date of Issue: March 30, 2005

Sandscript

Carrier coming to Panhandle, baby seal hunt back on

It's not as local as the "Regina," but Panhandle divers and fishers will have a new, huge artificial reef in the near future.

Gulf of Mexico waters about 20 miles south of Pensacola will be the final resting place for the aircraft carrier "Oriskany," an 888-foot decommissioned vessel.

The "Oriskany" will be the largest ship ever sunk in U.S. waters as an artificial reef, according to U.S. Navy officials.

Florida edged out applications from Texas, Mississippi and a joint application from South Carolina and Georgia to get the aircraft carrier.

Officials gushed about the federal decision to sink the ship off Florida.

Gov. Jeb Bush called the action "an economic windfall and a recreational treasure for the Northwest Florida area. It has the potential to attract divers and anglers from all over the world."

Former Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission member Edwin Roberts said landing the "Oriskany" is "the greatest thing that ever happened for scuba divers in Florida and will provide a much-needed boost for fishermen. And the site offshore from Pensacola is the most appropriate, considering the city's history. It will be a fitting and honorable memorial resting place to have the carrier near Pensacola - the Cradle of Navy Aviation."

FWC Chair Rodney Barreto said the "Oriskany" is "a fabulous beginning to a new era in Florida. The value of well-planned artificial reefs is enormous" - hence the apparent designation of the "Regina," a molasses carrier that sank just off Bradenton Beach in 1940 and the heir-apparent to becoming the 10th shipwreck listed on the state's archeological preserves.

The "Oriskany" is a Ticonderoga-class attack aircraft carrier, commissioned in 1950. During its days of service, it had a crew of 3,460 and carried 80 aircraft. The ship served in Korea and Viet Nam and earned seven battle stars. It has been out of service since 1975.

And the sinking will save taxpayer dollars, too. A study by the Navy indicated that cleaning decommissioned ships and awarding them to states for artificial reef enhancements is less expensive than scrapping the vessels.

No word yet on when the ship will reach the bottom, although it probably won't be any time real soon. The announcement of where the big boat would be dropped was supposed to have been made around Christmas last year; the final decision was reached last week.

Horrifying news from the Great White North
It was a scene that captivated and horrified people across the globe: hunters clubbing baby harp seals on ice floes in Canada, then skinning the pups for their coats. Television news programs and newspapers in the 1970s were filled with the carnage, and the ecological and human outcry spurred a boycott on fur that is still felt today.

Or maybe not.

The baby harp seal hunt is back with a vengeance.

Canadian officials have relaxed quotas for seal killing to allow about 350,000 skins a year to be taken. The fur market has seen a resurgence in recent years, mostly in Russia, Ukraine and Poland, in hats and accessories. China is also expected to become a major fur market.

The United States and most of Western Europe enacted a ban on seal fur in the 1970s and early '80s. By 1985, only about 15,000 seals were killed, mostly for food.

Officials apparently relaxed the kill totals because of a bolstered population of the seals. They've also slightly changed the target from the pure-white newborns to pups that are at least all of 3 weeks old. The older pups have a silvery-black spotted coat.

There is also a lame complaint that the estimated 5 million seals are gobbling up the cod fishery. A seal will eat about a ton of fish a year. Gotta protect those fish sticks, eh?

No, we don't have seals in the Gulf, although fossil records show that they once flourished here until - guess what? - humans reached the region and found a plentiful source of protein.

And no, the chances of your getting a sealskin hat, or needing one, are probably slim.

But jeez, 350,000 dead baby seals a year? And the carcasses are useless to the seal industry, so the bodies are just left on the ice to rot. What a horrific waste.

Does this mean that the next thing you know we'll start seeing sea-turtle soup on restaurant menus again?

It makes me think of the old, bad joke of the hunter who got lost in the Everglades. He was starving, and was just about done for when a Florida panther appeared. He grabbed his gun and shot the big cat, skinned it and ate a few big steaks.

Just as he finished his meal, a game warden appeared and arrested the guy and hauled him up in front of a judge for killing an endangered species of animal. The hunter told his story - starving, hopelessly lost - and the judge let him off.

As the hunter was leaving the courthouse, the judge came up to the guy and admitted that he too was a hunter and wondered how the panther steak tasted.

The guy thought a minute, and said, "Well, it tasted sorta like a cross between a bald eagle and a manatee."

Another Cross story
What could have been a pretty grim event turned into a heartwarming social gathering last week.

My buddy Tom Cross from Casey Key was diagnosed with lung cancer a while back. He started chemotherapy, and the docs are "cautiously optimistic" as to his response to the treatment. He's kept his appetite, has no nausea or other ill effects, but of course he's lost his hair.

So he and wife Patty threw a little gathering, and seven guys decided to join the "Casey Key Hair Club For Men" and got their heads shorn in a show of solidarity.

There was a lot of hooting and hollering and laughing as the hair piled up around the basketball court in back of Tom's house. He did the honors, of course, with limited bloodshed, and I've got to admit that a few of the guys looked better - or at least thinner - without the locks, my buddy Bob Ardren included.

We wish Tom and Patty all the best during this less-than-great time.

And to anticipate your probable question, no, I couldn't work up the courage for the party shave.

Smart knife
Most of the people I know - women and men - have a pocket knife in a purse or pocket or car or somewhere close by, and a lot of them are Swiss army knives. Hey, where else can you find a compact set of blades, bottle openers, scissors, tweezers and even a toothpick in one small package?

Now, the Swiss army knife even has a brain.

Victorinox, the manufacturer, is offering a Swissmemory USB knife that features a USB memory key that can hold up to 128 megs of data. Imagine downloading a bunch of stuff from your computer or digital camera, then folding the data up and opening a cardboard box.

Cost is about $90. You can go to the Internet for more information: www.victorinox.com.

Sandscript factoid
The 350,000 baby harp seal kill allowed by Canadian officials represents about one-out-of three pups born annually. Top-quality sealskin is worth about $42 per pup.

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