December 17, 2013
By David Helvarg
December 31st will be the final day nominations are accepted for the 7th annual Peter Benchley Ocean Awards. The Benchleys have been called “the Academy Awards of the Ocean” (past recipients include Louie Psihoyos, the Academy Award winning Director of “The Cove”). They also honor solution-oriented leaders in science, policy, youth activism, exploration, media and a grassroots ‘Hero of the Seas.’ The 2014 awards will take place May 30th 2014 at San Francisco’s Academy of Sciences. The next day we will hold the first ever Peter Benchley Ocean Seminar at the Aquarium of the Bay. If you have a solution-oriented and inspirational leader or leaders you’d like to nominate now is the time.
The 2012 Peter Benchley Excellence in Policy recipient, Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), recently introduced his National Endowment for the Oceans (NEO) into the Senate version of the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA), which funds the Army Corps of Engineers. NEO would establish a permanent fund – based on offshore energy revenue – to provide states and universities the support needed for research and restoration efforts on our coasts and ocean.
On the House side Republicans want to cut any WRDA funding that would allow the Army Corps to be part of the administration’s National Ocean Policy (see Blue Notes #117). Unlike the constructive approach of NEO, this is just the latest partisan impediment to the creation of an ocean policy that could coordinate commercial and other ocean uses in ways that reduce conflict and promote ecological health, “putting urban planning in the water column,” in the words of former Commandant of the Coast Guard (and 2011 Benchley Winner) Thad Allen.
Unfortunately progress towards a major reorganization of how we as a nation value and benefit from our public seas continues to advance with all the deliberate speed of a sea hare (marine snail).
In 2004 at the first Blue Vision Summit, ocean champion and 2009 Benchley award recipient, Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) advocated for a “Big Ocean Bill,” to incorporate many of the 2003 and 2004 recommendations of the Pew Ocean Commission and U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, the first blue ribbon panels to examine the state of America’s blue frontier in 35-years. During his presidency, George W. Bush established major marine reserves in the Pacific, but otherwise ignored his own federal commission’s recommendations and those of the Pew group headed by future Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta. As a result America’s seas continue to be badly served by 24 different federal agencies taking a piecemeal approach to their oversight under 144 separate laws.
In the fall of 2008, marine ecologist (and yes, Benchley award recipient), Dr. Jane Lubchenco met with President-elect Obama in Chicago. There, he offered her the job of running The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and she asked him to promote a national ocean policy that he agreed to do.
By the time of the 2nd Blue Vision Summit in 2009 it was clear that Congress had become too polarized to pass major ocean reform legislation at the level of the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the last century. Still, hundreds of seaweed rebels gathered there were thrilled to hear the new White House Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) Chair, Nancy Sutley, Sen. Whitehouse and others talk about a new National Ocean Policy initiative from the Obama administration. This was followed by a series of six public hearings over the next 12 months in different parts of the country (Blue Frontier attended 5). The marine conservation community was able to mobilize thousands of people and 80 percent of public comments favored moving forward. In early 2010, when it looked like President Obama might finally sign the policy, Blue Frontier held a strategy meeting in Washington, DC. Out of the meeting came a ‘Wear Blue for the Ocean’ day with demonstrations and press-conferences in a dozen cities; including in front of the White House. Hundreds of photos of people dressed in blue (including school kids, divers and scientists) popped up on social media. From the Wear Blue Day, emerged the Healthy Oceans Coalition that aims to continue citizen action on behalf of sound ocean policy. Still, it took until July 2010, in the wake of the BP oil blowout disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, for President Obama to finally sign the National Ocean Policy. NOAA and other agencies then held a series of additional hearings on implementation at which the oil and gas industry tried to apply the brakes (why support an even playing field when you already own the field). In 2012, the CEQ finally announced there would be nine regional planning bodies established.
In May 2013, during the 4th Blue Vision Summit we organized the largest Healthy Ocean Hill Day in history, a citizen lobby from 21 states that held over 100 meetings with Senators, House members and their staffs to advocate for the National Ocean Policy; along with the Safe Seafood Act and Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated (IUU) Fishing legislation.
As we enter 2014, four of the nine regional bodies have held their first meetings. In New England, participation by the states, tribes, fishermen, environmentalists and others has guaranteed a healthy launch. In the mid-Atlantic, it still seems to be more a case of different federal agencies talking to each other without enough transparency or public participation. First meetings have also been held in the Caribbean and the Western Pacific, including Hawaii. Although the road ahead remains challenging, it’s clear that the public wants action to restore and protect the blue in our red, white and blue. What is less clear is when this will finally come. Blue Frontier hopes that by the end of the Obama presidency in 2016 we will be able to see real achievements in our public seas and Great Lakes through better coordination and ecosystem-based planning among all stakeholders under a National Ocean Policy. If this happens and the public is engaged in the process, then our public seas might finally become part of our public policy debate and we can again talk about making this solution-oriented approach to our blue frontier the law of the land and of the sea.
To date eight states including Hawaii and California have banned the possession, transportation and sale of shark fins in response to popular demand from concerned citizens. Worldwide sharks are endangered and overfished by the millions, usually hacked up for shark fin soup; a tasteless (until seasoned) but popular status symbol in China.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) banned the brutal and wasteful practice of shark finning at sea back in 2000, but now NOAA is claiming federal “pre-emption” over state laws banning shark fins, arguing they restrict federal fisheries management and a fishermen’s “right” to catch a whole shark and then sell its top fin in those states. It even filed a brief in support of a lawsuit aimed at overturning California’s Shark Conservation Act. Maybe this reflects on original sin going back to 1972 when Richard Nixon sank NOAA in the trade-driven Department of Commerce. Or maybe NOAA’s lawyers just need to consult with their colleagues in the Department of Justice who have decided not to claim federal pre-emption in Colorado and Washington State where recreational use of marijuana has been legalized and they’re going to see how these popular state actions play out.
The global marine organization Oceana has placed ads at the Silver Spring Metro in Silver Spring, Maryland, near NOAA headquarters asking if they’re for sharks or shark finners. I recently saw a video of fishermen and women on a beach in Australia returning a big tiger shark that had been caught back to the ocean. In Nebraska, high school biology students are leading the effort to ban shark fins in their state. In China, the national government just banned shark fin soup at public banquets to fight corruption and ostentation. As the world finally moves to protect one of its endangered keystone predators it’s time for NOAA to show conservation leadership by supporting rather than opposing state shark fin bans.
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 the Sea Stewards.
“We’re trying to build a public presence of support for Jared’s efforts,” explains Sea Stewards founder, filmmaker and scientist Dave McGuire who earlier worked with COARE, Ocean Conservancy and many other groups to pass the California shark fin ban (a ban co-authored by Huffman when he was a state senator).
Essentially a one-person operation but with plenty of interns and volunteers, the San Francisco Bay Area based Sea Stewards was founded ten years ago after McGuire returned from a coral reef research trip to the isolated Tuamotu Archipelago of French Polynesia. It was there, among its living marine wonders, he first encountered tuna boats catching and killing sharks and loading hundreds of their fins onto a Taiwanese mother ship.
“After that I made my first documentary ‘Shark Stewards of the Reef’” he recalls. He worked on the film with Enric Sala, Sonia Fordham, Peter Knights and other of the world’s top shark protection advocates. He produced both English and Chinese versions of the film and then began his group’s ongoing campaign to stop shark killing while also working to establish shark sanctuaries and promote marine friendly eco-tourism. Incorporated as a non-profit under the Earth Island Institute, one of Sea Steward’s most popular events is Sharktober Fest a series of traveling exhibits and film showings held every October in the Bay Area along with talks to over 5,000 school children.
More recently Sea Stewards organized a 3.5-mile swim around Alcatraz Island from San Francisco’s famed Dolphin Club. Dave led six other bare skinned swimmers through frigid 55-degree water while 14 more hypothermia-averse shark fans provided support from boats and kayaks. Around the same time a satellite tag from a great white shark was found at nearby Angel Island.
Sea Stewards is now working to establish a marine sanctuary in San Francisco Bay where seven gill, leopard, soupfin, dogfish and other sharks breed and many more come to visit, also better protections for Guadalupe Island off Baja where he goes to film white sharks every year. Sea Stewards is also working with Malaysian activists to create a shark sanctuary in the Semporna peninsula region of Borneo, another popular dive destination. Dave McGuire is excited about working to create these new sanctuaries along with Sea Stewards’ ongoing education actions against shark finning because, as he explains it, “It’s more fun to say yes than to say no.”
This is our oh-fish-eel appeal. Sand dollars to us this holiday sea sun and we’ll beach shore and tank you for your kelp at keeping us afloat another year oar two for which porpoise whale commit to expanding the seaweed rebellion with no shellfish intent but to serve you manatees and rays hope with waves of activism and a blue vision of healthy seas for communities both human and otter.
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