Blue Notes #115: Benchley Nominations & More
September 17, 2013
By David Helvarg
In this Issue
2014 Benchley Award Nominations Now Open
Who will Rescue the Coast Guard?
The Storm Next Time
Blue Groups Say No to Oil Money
Seaweed Spotlight: 5 Gyres
Inspiring the Next Generation
From Sea to Mountain High
The Peter Benchley Ocean Awards are the top honors for people, from a wide range of endeavors, providing solutions to the environmental challenges facing our living seas and all who depend on them.
Our past winners include an inspiring array of scientists, policy-makers, explorers, youths, grassroots activists, journalists and heads of state making a difference for our blue planet.
Nominations are now open for the 7th annual Peter Benchley Ocean Awards that will take place Friday, May 30, 2014, at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.
Speaking of heroes . . . As we work to protect our public seas under the National Ocean Policy, we should also ask who will stand the watch? Like the Clean Water Act or Coastal Zone Management, citizen engagement is essential to making sure that good laws and policies are supported and enforced. At the federal level coordination among various agencies working together and with state and tribal governments to begin ecosystem-based planning and practices may fall to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But for licensing and operational enforcement it will be up to the Coast Guard to make sure fishermen don’t cheat or turn pirate, vessels keep to the shipping lanes and reduced speeds that will limit whale strikes and carbon emissions and that no one dumps waste illegally. Assuring safety at sea and in port will prevent disasters and when they happen, the Coast Guard will work to respond with speed and courage as reported in my book, Rescue Warriors.
Unfortunately the Coast Guard, the only one of the five armed service not located in the pork-laden Department of Defense, is facing a 10 percent budget cut this year, half from the Obama administration and half from the federal sequester. With a $10 billion budget (about one fifteenth that of the Navy’s) and only 42,000 active duty members the Coast Guard has been forced to reduce its offshore patrols some 15 percent this year. At the same time the service’s ability to function in the Arctic – where loss of sea ice from climate change is opening the ocean to oil drilling, shipping and other risky activities – has been severely restricted. Instead of launching a Sector (area) command in Barrow Alaska on the Arctic Sea, they will spend the next decade diverting one of their new National Security Cutters up there each summer. With only three of these large new vessels now in operation that means less drug interdiction and pirate fishing enforcement in the Pacific.
Budget cuts will also reduce the rate of replacement for the service’s mostly aged fleet. In 2011 the Coast Guard led U.S. forces into Haiti following that nation’s devastating earthquake but ten of the dozen rusting Cutters sent there suffered breakdowns including two that required emergency repairs and one that had to be dry docked. Luckily by the time Super-storm Sandy hit the eastern seaboard in 2012 the federal disaster response system had been fixed so that the Coast Guard didn’t have to act alone as it did following 2005’s Hurricane Katrina when it rescued 33,000 people. With more demands and fewer resources than ever the Coast Guard has now passed the point of diminishing returns, having to give up some missions to accomplish others (like saving an average of ten lives a day). Long an institutional orphan in Washington it used to take pride in claiming it could do, “More with Less.” But imagine what it could do if it actually had enough? Of course it doesn’t take imagination to get it the resources it needs, it takes an active political constituency. That base of citizen support for the Coast Guard needs to include the marine conservation community. We lobby and advocate for NOAA’s ocean budget and Marine Sanctuaries and ought to do the same for the guardians of our seas.
So far the 2013 hurricane season has spared the North American mainland but that could change at any time this month or next. The Hurricane Sandy Task Force recently released its report on the devastation of fall 2012. Its 69 policy recommendation include better planning for future storms and taking into account sea level rise and other climate change impacts like a warming ocean that can super-charge a hurricane’s power. It also calls for “hardening” of coastal infrastructure including power, water and communications systems and the creation of a regional Coastal Commission similar to California’s Coastal Commission that Republican Governor Chris Christie of New Jersey strongly opposes. In fact the report includes many long established common sense proposals like not building cities on sand (See link to report). Again, all that’s lacking is the political will to move forward. That’s why we continue our work to grow the bottom up citizen seaweed movement needed to turn the political tide and restore the blue in our red, white and blue.
After last May’s Blue Vision Summit in D.C., that included the panel “Making Climate a Blue Issue”, we put together a sign-on letter that has now been endorsed by 27 marine conservation groups including Greenpeace, Waterkeeper Alliance, Blue Ocean Institute and the Plastic Pollution Coalition. Part of its language was reported in Blue Notes #112, but is worth repeating.
The letter reads in part: “Today science and observation informs us that the burning of fossil fuels contributes to climate disruption including increased coastal storminess, sea level rise, warming seas, loss of Arctic sea ice, coral bleaching and ocean acidification among other dangerous impacts. These changes are already putting millions of people and billions in property at risk along with the marine ecosystems we all depend on…
We need to make climate a blue issue by educating the public on why we have to make a rapid transition from fossil fuels to clean non-carbon renewable energy on and offshore as part of our greater effort to protect and restore the wonders and promise of our blue marble planet. Not taking money from big oil is a minimal step we all can commit to.”
A regular feature of Blue Notes where we shine the light on a group from the Blue Movement Directory in order to create a more self-aware and collaborative movement. This month we feature 5 Gyres.
Plastic is another product of oil and gas drilling. Plastic and Rayon were first developed during World War II as synthetic substitutes for cotton and rubber that were in short supply. Rayon went on to improve the look of the Hawaiian Shirt while plastic became a ubiquitous product and a global polluter of our seas, with half of all plastic production now dedicated to single use (throw-away) packaging.
Based out of Los Angeles but often at sea, 5 Gyres is a 4-year-old organization with a staff of five that conducts both research and communication campaigns about the global impact of plastic pollution in the world’s oceans and works to eliminate the accumulation of plastic pollution in the world’s 5 subtropical gyres, where ocean currents create vast whirlpools that concentrate the waste.
Together with its partners, Pangaea Explorations and Algalita Marine Research Foundation, 5 Gyres organizes at sea expeditions, inviting scientists, journalists and other sailors to join their crews. They then share their findings through multimedia outlets and peer-reviewed science publications. These findings include a traveling exhibition about plastic pollution for museums, science centers and aquariums.
To slow the global plastic pulse 5 Gyres advocates for new non-plastic materials, better-designed products, fair legislation, and informed consumers. After recently discovering plastic microbeads in Lake Erie during a Great Lakes expedition, 5 Gyres led a campaign to get major manufacturers to stop using them in skin care exfoliants. The Body Shop and Johnson & Johnson have now agreed to phase them out by 2015 and Procter & Gambol by 2017 (5 Gyres is urging P&G to comply with the earlier agreed date).
5 Gyres was founded by Dr. Marcus Eriksen and his wife Anna Cummins. Marcus, a science educator and Marine veteran of the first Gulf War has traveled down the Mississippi on a homemade raft and sailed from California to Hawaii aboard a JUNK raft made up of 15,000 plastic bottles, a sail and a small airplane fuselage before graduating to Coast Guard certified vessels for today’s research expeditions.
Before starting 5 Gyres, Executive Director Anna Cummins got an environmental masters degree at Stanford and was active with seaweed groups including Save Our Shores and the Algalita Marine Research Foundation leading bilingual outreach efforts. For their honeymoon she and Marcus biked down the west coast from Canada to Mexico giving talks about plastic pollution along the way. Tres Romantico!
I asked Anna what inspired them to found 5 Gyres. “We had been working on this issue and noticed there was a critical research gap in studying plastic – mainly it focused on the North Pacific gyre. But we were always asked about the other oceans and thought we should find out for ourselves. The advantage of being a small organization is we were able to do this quickly. We incorporated in November 2009 and launched our first expedition in January 2010 and have now done all five subtropical gyres [the North and South Pacific, North and South Atlantic and Indian ocean].”
“We’re interested not only in the global distribution of plastic but also the potential health effects of pollutants absorbed by plastic [that concentrates toxic compounds like PCBs a million times more effectively than seawater] and what happens to micro plastics that break down in the ocean.”
They’ve sailed on a 72-foot racing sloop and a 150 -foot tall ship and recently on the Great Lakes on a State University of New York sailing vessel. “We’ve collected over 500 samples in every ocean and only two [off the coast of Chile] came up clean of plastic. So now we know you can’t go to a gyre anywhere in the world, skim the surface, and not find plastic. It really gives you a sense that the human footprint is everywhere with plastic, but also with overfishing and climate,” she notes.
And about that plastic island the size of Texas in the North Pacific? “It’s not really an island,” she says. “We describe it as a thinly dispersed plastic soup. But it’s much bigger than Texas.”
Blue Frontier has launched a crowd funding campaign with Digital Ocean to raise funds to bring 50 Ways to Save the Ocean to 5 schools around the country. Jim Toomey and I will do our stand-up and draw routine and donate 100 copies of the book to each school. Make a minimum donation of $5 and turn it into $15 for Blue Frontier: Digital Ocean will give you 5 sand dollars (equivalent to $5) for signing up and another $5 when you make your first donation. Help us reach our goal of $8,000 with a donation today.
Despite the tragic floods that have just taken place, the Colorado Ocean Coalition will be holding its 3rd annual ‘Making Waves’ conference in Boulder Sept. 20-22 with Fabien Cousteau, Jim Toomey and many others speakers, panels and events. Blue Frontier is proud to be a sponsor of this event and will be there to support the inland seaweed rebels. We hope to see you there!
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