BLUE NOTES #96: Benchley Winners, Sweet Home Alabama and Otter things
February 21, 2012
By David Helvarg
The Peter Benchley Ocean Awards inspire hope by honoring those who are putting broad solutions into practice every day and thus challenge each of us to strive to do as well.
On Valentine’s Day—because they love the ocean—the 5th annual Benchley Award winners were announced. The official awards ceremony and dinner will take place June 1 at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. This year’s winners include:
For Excellence in Science: Dr. Nancy Rabalais. Nancy is the Executive Director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON) in the coastal Bayou town of Cocodrie, which is French for water-saturated crocodile and she did in fact spot an alligator (as opposed to our now endangered American crocodiles) 7 miles out at sea after Hurricane Katrina. She is often credited with discovering the Gulf of Mexico’s oxygen depleted Dead Zone that has grown to the size of New Jersey. While advancing the science on hypoxia for the past 29 years, she has also worked tirelessly to find ways to reduce the surplus fertilizer running down the Mississippi that feeds this seasonal disaster by testifying in front of Congress, meeting with farmers and agriculture associations up and down the river and in the U.S. heartland that drains into it.
For Excellence in Policy: Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (RI). From the “Ocean State” of Rhode Island, Senator Whitehouse has become a major champion of marine protection in Congress. He recently introduced legislation for a National Endowment for the Oceans to be partly funded out of the Restore Act that would direct most of the billions of dollars of Clean Water Act penalties expected to be levied against BP for the oil disaster of 2010 to ecological restoration in the Gulf (see Seaweed Spotlight below). Along with Republican Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine this progressive democrat helped create the bipartisan Senate Ocean Caucus this past year (see Blue Notes # 91), bipartisanship being an otherwise endangered species on Capitol Hill. His depth of knowledge on coastal and ocean issues isn’t hurt by the fact that his wife Sandra Whitehouse is also a highly respected marine biologist.
For Excellence In Solutions: Dr. Geraldine Knatz. Knatz is the Executive Director of the Port of Los Angeles, “America’s Port.” She is both the first woman and first marine biologist to run a major port, Knatz has been leading the clean-up of the largest port complex in the Western Hemisphere where a billion dollars of goods a day are moved. Since taking charge in 2006 she’s helped replace 5,000 diesel-spewing trucks with cleaner vehicles and gotten dockside electric outlets for ships to plug in to (they call it ‘cold ironing’) reducing the burning of smoky ship fuel for in-port power. Air quality has improved over 75 percent while water quality is such that sea lions and sharks now visit the harbor whose waters were once black and full of garbage. “I wasn’t hired to maintain the status quo,” she admits happily. She’s now also leading the global greening ports movement as president of the International Association of Harbors and Ports.
For Excellence In Media: Brian Skerry. Skerry’s photography is often seen in the pages of National Geographic Magazine. He balances the wonder of the living seas with thoughtful warnings about global threats including overfishing, climate change and pollution. He shares the wonder and warnings in his many public talks, through his photographs and in his visually stunning new book Ocean Soul in which he explains, “I have been blessed to realize my dream of becoming an underwater photojournalist, but with that I feel an obligation and sense of urgency to share what I have seen with others.”
For Excellence in Exploration: Ocean in Google Earth. Inspired by a challenge from ocean explorer Sylvia Earle, Ocean in Google Earth has become a portal for anyone with a computer to virtually explore the wonders of our blue ocean planet in ways that in the past could only be experienced by a handful of adventurers like Don Walsh, a past Benchley winner and one of only two humans to have gone to the deepest part of the sea back in 1960. Don will be presenting Google this award.
The Christopher Benchley Youth Award goes to Ta’Kaiya Blaney. Ta’Kaiya is a ten-year-old first-nations Canadian activist and singer fighting a proposed tar sands oil pipeline and tanker terminal planned for British Columbia’s coastal waters. When she learned oil kills sea otters, her favorite animals, she became an activist with Greenpeace and others. Her beautifully sung protest song, “Shallow Waters” is a Youtube sensation. Her new song, introduced at an Occupy Vancouver rally, is “Earth Revolution“.
Hero Of The Seas: Peter Douglas. Peter helped create the California Coastal Commission and organized efforts to get it passed as a popular initiative in 1972. He wrote the language of the Coastal Act passed into law in 1976 and went on to work for the Commission to assure public access and deny reckless development along California’s 1,100 miles of stunning coastline. Executive Director from 1985 to 2011 when he resigned following a long and ongoing battle with cancer, Peter has been compared to John Muir and Ansel Adams as a hero of the state’s environment. “The coast is never saved,” he points out to today’s citizen activists. “The coast is always being saved.” Peter was recently featured in an original short film by the Oprah Winfrey Network.
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 Mobile Baykeeper.
With close to 4,000 members Mobile Baykeeper is one of 190 Waterkeeper Alliance members across the United States and in 19 countries, boat-based pollution fighters founded by attorney Robert Kennedy Jr. in 1999. Starting as riverkeepers in New York, they followed the flow of gravity so that now they’re also bay, channel and coastal protectors including on the Gulf of Mexico where Alabama’s 413-square-mile Mobile Bay, the 4th largest estuary in the U.S., pulses with life from storm-battered Dauphin Island on the Gulf side to the city of Mobile at the head of the Bay to its bucolic eastern shore. Along with its activities as a watchdog and advocate for cleaning up storm water, sewage and industrial waste with programs such as the citizens’ Muddy Water Watch, Mobile Baykeeper has been deeply involved in the response to the BP oil blowout in the Gulf. They have trained over 300 volunteers doing long-term monitoring of tidal influenced shoreline for oil-impacts and other changes resulting from the disaster less than two years ago.
“We just found oil tar mats from Macondo [the BP well] at Navy Bay last week and got the Coast Guard to order BP people to clean it up. We see oil washing ashore every day somewhere,” says Baykeeper Casi Callaway, a native of Mobile who I last saw at the 2011 Blue Vision Summit in D.C. where she was advocating for the Restore Act that will guarantee 80 percent of federal fines and settlements with BP goes back to the Gulf states. “I spent eight years working in Washington [for Clean Water Action],” she tells me. “But within months of coming home I saw lasting changes here at the local level. And while [federal and state] legislation is key to long-term change working at the community level can change people’s attitudes and that makes for lasting change where you live.” Or at least until the world explodes a mile below the surface and gushes millions of barrels of oil into your coastal waters.
“This past year [2011-2012] we’ve seen whiting [fish] and red snapper with lesions on them and lots of dead pelicans and high dolphin mortalities and it’s not clear if it’s linked to the BP spill but it’s got people worried,” Casi reports. “Restoration is how you have a good day when you’ve had the largest environmental disaster ever on your front door,” she adds.
In 2011 on one of the coldest days Alabamans ever experienced [temperatures in the teens] over 600 volunteers turned out to build the first quarter mile of what Baykeeper hopes will eventually be 100 miles of new oyster reefs and 1,000 acres of restored marsh and sea grasses. This year they’re working with The Nature Conservancy and others to see the next mile of historic oyster reef rebuilt. Working with local fishermen, government agencies, volunteers, even developers—who they’re educating to reduce runoff of red clay soil into their rivers—Mobile Baykeeper aims to turn the tide for Alabama’s 53 miles of beachfront and 670 miles of tidal waterfront.
“Among other things we want to replace land dams from the 1920s with flow through causeways [along Mobile’s urban waterfront] to restore natural tidal flows,” Casi explains. “These kind of good projects are huge in scope and could bring jobs and prosperity for our community.”
But of all their work this Baykeeper most likes to get out on her group’s 17.5-foot boat and show visitors and concerned citizens the beauty, wonder and challenges of her home waters.
What is it these sea otters holding paws just squeaked? Listen to the sound of otters.
Sounds to me like something about how your donation to Blue Frontier Campaign can help continue our work building a blue movement to protect public seas and healthy habitat for voracious (yet terminally cute) marine weasels.
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