Multinational Monitor

SEP 2003
VOL 24 No. 9


Fishing Off the Deep End - And Back
by Carl Safina

Dead Seas: Nutrient Pollution in Coastal Waters
by Doug Daigle

Coasts at Risk: Coastal Sprawl and the Shore
by David Helvarg

Deep Trouble: Corporate and Military Designs on the Deep Seas
by Deborah Cramer

The Seaweed Rebellion: Marine Grassroots Movements to Protect Coastal and Ocean Ecosystems
by David Helvarg


Working for a New Ocean Ethos: Ocean Activism on the Shorelines
an interview with Christopher Evans


Behind the Lines

A Sea Change to Reverse the Oceans Crisis

The Front
Executive Excess

The Lawrence Summers Memorial Award

Names In the News


The Seaweed Rebellion: The Marine Grassroots Movement to Protect Coastal and Ocean Ecosystems

by David Helvarg

Faced with the collapse of marine wildlife from overfishing, habitat-destroying coastal sprawl, increased beach closures from polluted runoff and intensified hurricanes driven by fossil-fuel fired climate change, most people might wonder what they can possibly do to have an impact. Sociologist Margaret Mead gave the answer to that question more than half a century ago.

"Never doubt that a small group of dedicated people can change the world," she said. "Indeed, nothing else ever has."

All across the United States, small groups of people who care have begun to act on their beliefs. As a result, seaweed citizen-activism -- grassroots activism to protect the oceans, seas and coasts -- is rising up faster than giant kelp, finding its hold fast in a public 54 percent of whose members now live near a marine coastline.

Major activist organizations within this new blue movement include the 120,000-member Ocean Conservancy, which sponsors an annual Beach Clean-Up Day and is headed by a former Coast Guard admiral. The Surfrider Foundation is a chapter-based group made up of thousands of surfers and other watermen and women who got fed up with oil and waste turning their ocean stoke into water-borne infections. There's Oceana, founded by the Pew Charitable Trusts, which is targeting ëdirty' fishing practices and threatening to sue the barnacles off polluting ocean-liners. Seaweb is an outfit that's spawned work on sustainable seafood, aquaculture and aquarium conservation. Jean-Michel Cousteau's Ocean Futures Society, located by Santa Barbara's golden strand, sponsors ocean camps for kids in California, Hawaii and the Pacific, while

Titanic Discoverer Bob Ballard is bringing the ocean into thousands of classrooms through his JASON project, using remote sensing underwater cameras.

Then there's the increasingly salty Water Keepers Alliance, made up of more than 114 boat-based ëKeepers' who work to protect rivers, bays, estuaries and coastlines from Cook Inlet, Alaska to the warm-but-not-so-pristine waters of Puerto Rico. "The future of the environment is in God's hands. I just want to be able to tell my children that I did all I could do," explains Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., their president.

Across the nation, there are coalitions of blue groups like the Marine Fish Conservation Network, Restore America's Estuaries, the Coast Alliance, Clean Water Network and Ocean Wildlife Campaign.

There are regionally based groupings like the New Jersey-based American Littoral Society, Gulf Restoration Network, and REEF which co-sponsors the "Great American Fish Count" every June during which scuba divers help scientists census local fish populations.

There's the influential Chesapeake Bay Foundation in Maryland, which is fighting to restore the largest U.S. estuary to at least 76 percent of its pre-colonial natural state. Presently, it rates the estuary at 26 percent. There's the venerable Save San Francisco Bay, the North Carolina Coastal Federation, and People for Puget Sound.

Many groups focus on specific marine wildlife. These include the Pelagic Shark Foundation, Protect Our Wild Salmon, Friends of the Sea Otter, Sea Turtle Restoration Project and Save the Manatee, co-chaired by singer-songwriter Jimmy Buffett, who notes that "each species is the spoke in a magic wheel: to lose one is to diminish the whole."

Hundreds of local organizations are also making their presence felt through engagement with their fellow citizens. In Santa Cruz, California, for example, Save Our Shores (SOS), a group that was founded to protest offshore oil drilling, has evolved into a citizen-watchdog and resource for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. It counts among its allies and supporters commercial whale-watching and other businesses on the bay.

In Key West, Florida, a sun-etched couple named Craig and DeeVon Quirolo founded Reef Relief in 1987. Today, Reef Relief has some 5,000 members, with an equal number turning out for their annual Cayo Caribbean Music festival by the old fort in Key West.

Craig, a former charter boat captain, and DeeVon, who used to produce illustrated tour guides, started designing and placing mooring buoys in 1986 so dive boats wouldn't drop their anchors on live coral. They also began to educate divers not to touch the coral (which can remove a protective layer of slime and expose the polyps to infection). They have worked to improve water quality in the Keys and helped win a new sewer system in Key West that strips nutrients from waste-water in order to protect the reef. They have also expanded their work to the Bahamas, Cuba, Jamaica and other parts of the Caribbean.

"For years we worked mainly on a grassroots level," Craig tells a Reef Awareness Week dinner at the Pier House. The local event has drawn a tanned, rum-friendly crowd made up of a cross section of waterfront society: a school teacher, dive-charter operator, motel manager, commercial fisher, nature guide and some 70 other movers, shakers and swimmers.

"After working here in the Keys we decided to go to D.C. and lobby for a sanctuary, which we got," Craig tells them. "We figured the government would get involved and save the reef, only it hasn't. Then we thought science would save the reef, only there's all this disagreement among the scientists. So now we're back to saying it's up to us to save it. We can't expect the government or the scientists to save our reef for us. We're going to have to do it ourselves, by educating young people and reaching out to people in other parts of the nation, and the world, and telling them about this living treasure we've got here."

Concern over the impacts of coastal development isn't limited to Florida where some 4,000 people a week are now settling, or southern California with its 3,500 weekly arrivals.

SAND, Seeking A New Direction, is a multiracial merger of Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi neighborhood groups opposed to the proliferation of malls and casinos along their once scenic shoreline. And on New York's Staten Island, the Crescent Beach Civic Association, organized by housewife/activist Eileen Monreal, is fighting to prevent developers from putting hundreds of upscale condos on top of a popular recreational beach where working families swim, fish and kayak. In ports and fishing towns from San Pedro to Cape May, in poor communities of color from Molokai to Richmond to Sapalo Island, and in laid back surfer towns, people are struggling to maintain their maritime cultures and heritage.

Dauphin Island, Alabama is a kind of relaxed island without a lot of commercial distractions from the magic of its open sky and rainbow-streaked waters, like a Key West of decades ago. It is home to the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, directed by Dr. George Crozier. George is a tough old salt with blond hair turning white, a craggy, sun-reddened face, and fun-loving hyper-kinetic style not often found among the more staid, northern breed of scientist.

"Our lab started in 1971 on a mosquito, bug-infested peninsula," he says. "Now we're on a mosquito, bug-infested barrier island."

Fourteen-miles-by-1.5 at its thickest, with some 2,000 winter residents and as many as 15,000 summer visitors, Dauphin has been repeatedly hit and reshaped by tropical hurricanes.

From the water, aboard one of the lab's 26-foot boats, the island's narrow west end looks like a forest of wooden stilts on top of which several hundred houses have been temporarily secured. You could fish off the decks or out the bedroom windows of many of them where the storm-eroded sand has retreated underneath their pilings. After Hurricane George in 1998, the Federal Emergency Management Agency spent millions of tax dollars to protect the single road out here, but without requiring any additional public access to what's left of the beach.

"I'll be damned if public money should be spent for these owners to be making more money than they already do with their summer rentals, and with no benefit to the public," Crozier gripes as he rocks in a windy chop a hundred yards offshore.

Other marine scientists, including Oregon State's Jane Lubchenko, Louisiana's Nancy Rabalais (discoverer of the Gulf of Mexico's massive dead zone) and Scripps biologist Jeremy Jackson, have begun to speak out on the mismanagement and collapse of the living seas. Much of this work is organized through COMPASS, the Communication Partnership for Science and the Sea.

Groups concerned with human health issues are also getting active, such as the San Diego Environmental Health Coalition that's challenged the bay dredging and home-porting of Navy nuclear aircraft carriers. They recently joined with San Diego Bay Keeper, Sierra Club and other groups to form the Bay Council, which coordinates local marine protection efforts. Among their champions is city council member Donna Frye, wife of famed surfer/board shaper Skip Frye, who is fighting to force the city to obey a longstanding EPA order to upgrade its obsolete sewage system that presently dumps into the ocean.

Mainstream green groups like the Natural Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, Environmental Defense and Greenpeace have also begun to take on a bluer tinge. Greenpeace first gained international recognition when it sent Zodiac rubber rafts to block the harpoons of Russian whalers.

The San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute, along with its efforts to return the Killer Whale Keiko (screen name Willy) to the wild, led the successful tuna boycott that resulted in dolphin-safe labeling. One of its spin-offs is now working on turtle-safe labeling for shrimp. Both labeling programs have been challenged by foreign fishing nations (and Washington politicians) arguing that requiring fishing boats to use gear that saves marine wildlife is an infringement on free trade. The World Trade Organization (WTO) even ruled against a U.S. requirement that imported shrimp be caught with Turtle Excluder Devices. That's why hundreds of protesters at the 1999 Seattle WTO demonstrations were dressed as sea turtles. At the same time, the Longshoremen's Union staged a one-day shutdown of West Coast ports in solidarity with the anti-WTO protesters.

Despite resistance from free-trade absolutists, the idea of labeling sustainable seafood has become increasingly popular.

A number of pocket guides, cookbooks and certification programs are now being produced and embraced by various aquariums, restaurants and activists. Overfishing, explains Julie Packard, director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, is "an environmental problem whose solution is in people's hands every time they buy seafood."

"Where diverse opinions have been sought out, programs like the Monterey Aquarium's have a lot of credibility," adds Pietro Parravano, a commercial fisher from Half Moon Bay, California and president of the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations. One of the most progressive of the commercial fishing groups, PCFFA seeks to maintain sustainable community-based fisheries through value-added direct marketing, protection of habitat and strong opposition to corporate consolidation within the industry.

"I believe all of these ocean issues will get dealt with when people demand we take action," says Representative Curt Weldon, a conservative Republican from Pennsylvania. "My district's not on the ocean but my people go to the ocean to enjoy themselves. I like to boat and fish and I see the ocean as a glue that can bring people together," he adds. "Protecting the oceans is too important to be seen as a partisan issue. No party can own it."

At the same time, neither major party seems willing to step forward and buck the big five salt-water special interests: the Navy, offshore oil & gas, the shipping industry, commercial fisheries and coastal real-estate developers. They refuse to state what the Seaweed Rebellion insists is evident, that the oceans are a public trust and environmental treasure to be managed for the general welfare and protected for posterity.

Medical science has found that live coral implants can act as bone replacements that won't be rejected by the body. But when it comes to strengthening politicians' backbones, intense heat applied directly to their home districts is a far more effective therapy.

Today the Seaweed Rebellion remains a largely localized force, not yet effectively organized to take the fight to every coastal statehouse, the halls of Congress, or beyond.

Still the potential is there. If the Jimmy Buffet Parrot Heads and marine biologists, surfers and Coast Guard cadets, Indian Tribes and dock workers, coastal residents and new urban planners, aquariums and weekend sailors, lifeguards and ocean explorers can unify, they just might be in a position to reclaim the living waters. It's certainly a challenge worthy of a blue movement, and of a public trust that reaches from sea to shining sea.

David Helvarg is the author of Blue Frontier — Saving America’s Living Seas and president of the Blue Frontier Campaign in Washington, D.C.


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