July 11-13th, 2004
By David Helvarg
“They call themselves seaweed rebels, their logo an upraised fistful of the stuff that almost militantly declares the oceans an issue that the United States can no longer handle in half measures.” So reads the opening paragraph from one of a series of articles in the Naples (Florida) Daily News, reporting on the coming together of some 250 people from 170 coastal and ocean organizations for the Blue Vision Conference that took place July 11-13, in Washington DC. The conference was held in the stagnant heat of a Capitol summer, far from participants’ beloved shores but well within the Chesapeake Bay watershed that still connected them to the sea.
The need to begin constructing a ‘Blue Movement’ that can not only help expand our understanding of the oceans but also create an active and educated political constituency for our public seas drew activists like chum draws seagulls.
Terms like, “inspiring,” “refreshing,” and “historic” were soon being used by conference goers from more than 25 states and territories including Alaska, Hawaii and Puerto Rico. From the Lobster Conservancy of Maine to the WildCoast of Baja, Mexico they came, also from New Jersey, North and South Carolina, Louisiana, Texas, Alabama and Oregon. California sent one of the larger contingents with some 35 participants including surfers, sailors and scientists.
One of the first signs that this was something new and different was a ‘Dear Colleague’ letter sent out by the US House Oceans Caucus on July 9. It suggested that “in the wake of two historic reports from the U.S. Commission Ocean Policy and the Pew Oceans Commission,” their more than 50 house members should participate in the conference or else send staffers. It was signed by the four co-chairs, Representatives Curt Weldon (R – PA), Sam Farr (D – CA), Jim Greenwood (R – PA) and Tom Allen (D – MA). “We need this seaweed campaign to move things forward,” Greenwood later told conferees visiting on the Hill.
The conference itself opened on Sunday July 11 at Jurys Hotel on Dupont Circle. The main ballroom was enlivened with displays of underwater photographs and exotic flowers donated by a grower on the Big Island of Hawaii. Along with conference programs attendees also received a book (‘Blue Frontier – Saving America’s Living Seas’), a sustainable seafood guide, Mardi Gras style fish beads and marine wildlife treats from the Endangered Species Chocolate Company.
Marine conservationist and ‘Jaws’ author Peter Benchley regaled the crowd with tales of his many shark encounters. He contrasted his youth on Nantucket Island, when you couldn’t haul in a tuna or swordfish without a shark taking a chunk out of it, with today’s rapid decline of large predators. He recalled a dive off Costa Rica where he found the bottom littered with dead sharks killed for their fins (used in a tasteless but expensive soup).
US Marine Sanctuaries Director Dan Basta then introduced members of both the Pew and US Ocean Commissions. They told the crowd of their efforts to document the cascading series of environmental abuses impacting our seas and the solutions they’ve recommended to Congress including ecosystems based management and regional watershed councils.
The first conference luncheon included the first annual Blue Frontier Awards. Introduced by US Commission member Andy Rosenberg, Ransom Meyers of Dalhousie University received the Excellence in Marine Science award for his extensive work documenting the decline of ocean wildlife. This body of work includes a report published in Nature magazine showing how 90% of the large fish in the world’s oceans have been eliminated since industrial fishing expanded in the mid-20th century. A second award went to the Naples Daily News of Florida for their 15-part series on the Gulf of Mexico called ‘Deep Trouble – The Gulf in Peril’. A final ‘Hero of the Seas’ award was presented by Cindy Zipf of New Jersey’s Clean Ocean Action to Seaweed Rebel Dery Bennett of the American Littoral Society. A former Navy demolitions man, journalist and Executive Director of the Jersey based ALS from 1968 to 2003, Dery, although surprised by his award, still managed to remain both surly and inspiring. Along with framed certificates, each winner received a ‘Kissing Dolphins’ sculpture donated by famed marine artist Wyland.
After lunch there were panels on Ocean Governance and Regional Programs that work, including pollution reduction in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island (following a massive fish die-off last summer), the establishment of an Ocean Council for Massachusetts, and a watershed restoration effort that’s saving salmon and uniting communities in northern California.
In the afternoon there were a series of breakout sessions considering the ‘good, the bad and the missing’ from the two ocean commissions’ recommendations. These sessions on Fishing, Sustainable Coasts, Pollution Reduction, Aquaculture, and Ocean Science allowed for a free exchange of ideas between panelists and participants. Panelists included leading marine conservationists, commercial and recreational fishermen, a shellfish farm employee, an aquarium president and the head of a university marine lab.
By late afternoon the halls and hotel bar had begun bustling with watermen and women engaged in free flowing discussions on how to better coordinate and more effectively work together from the bottom up and the top down. Government officials like the director of the National Marine Fisheries Service exchanged views with citizen activists from groups such as the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.
By the time the buses rolled to the ‘Celebration of the Sea’ Reception at the US Botanic Garden Conservatory people were experiencing the kind of ‘stoke’ usually associated with good waves and clear waters.
The conservancy itself was a visually stunning location, a living jungle under glass (a kind of kelp forest of the land). Along with a mix of banana trees, suits, sun dresses and aloha shirts there were also delicious food choices including sustainable farm-raised scallops, passable Virginia wines and a mellow jazz quartet. Philippe Cousteau, a third generation family activist, spoke briefly about the need to restore our living seas and develop new non-polluting energy technologies including ocean-based thermal and tidal power.
There was a contest impersonating marine species for tee shirts inked that day by ‘Sherman’s Lagoon’ cartoonist Jim Toomey, who was also in attendance. The sea lion and kelp imitators were impressive while the leaping dolphin just squeaked by. After the busses rolled back to Dupont Circle many conversations continued late into the night among folks who’d heard of each other’s work but never before gotten a chance to meet personally.
“Presidential campaigns weigh in on ocean policy” was one of the media headlines from day two. This followed an inspired presentation by Congressman Sam Farr who spoke of the need to build a community-based seaweed rebellion in support of the Ocean Caucus’s planned ‘BOB’ (Big Ocean Bill) on marine governance. An even more comprehensive ocean bill (that some attendees labeled GOB, the Gigantic Ocean Bill) was soon to be introduced in the Senate.
The ‘Blue Vision’ conferees began moving towards a consensus that, like the Clean Air and Clean Water Acts of the last century the time is right to begin working on a solution-oriented American Oceans Act for the 21st century.
Along with considering possible legislation, the Conference also became the first venue in which both the White House and Kerry Campaign spoke out on coastal and ocean issues. Third party presidential candidate Ralph Nader also dropped by, standing at the back of the main ballroom for a time, listening to White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair Jim Connaughton defend the Bush administration’s ocean policies, including expansion of market-based fishing quotas. Connaughton also responded to some pointed questions on why the White House was not pushing for a Senate vote to ratify the Law of the Seas Convention. This is a global treaty that some have called a “constitution for the seas,” but that right-wing activists oppose because it’s administered through the United Nations.
Roger Ballantine, John Kerry’s senior advisor on energy and the environment attacked the administration for what he said were a series of environmental rollbacks. While pledging to make ocean protection a priority under a Kerry administration he was not very specific about what actions it might take.
After premiering some amusing TV spots from The Surfrider Foundation and Shifting Baselines the conference was treated to a Blue Beat luncheon panel on reporting. It included journalists Tom Hayden from US News and World Report, Seth Borenstein from Knight Ridder, Jeff Burnside from WTVJ (NBC) Miami, and former Time writer and author Eugene Linden. Jackleen deLa Harpe from the Metcalf Institute for Marine and Environmental Reporting moderated the session.
Afternoon panels discussed what ocean protection legislation is presently in play, how to mobilize and expand a national seaweed constituency, and how to educate or otherwise motivate our elected representatives both in Washington and in their home districts.
By late afternoon on the second day there was still a high level of energy evident among the ‘weeds’ during an open discussion that included some frank talk on how to resolve tensions between national organizations and local and regional groups in building a bottom-up ‘Blue Movement.
The workday ended with two outstanding sessions titled, “Beyond the Beltway,” One was on corporate campaigns and Direct Action. It was led by Texas Shrimper and anti-pollution activist Diane Wilson and included Seafood Choice’s Mike Boots, Greenpeace Executive Director John Passacantando, Rainforest Action Network founder Randy Hayes and Sea Shepherd founder, Captain Paul Watson.
Across the hall a discussion on Expanding our Blue Constituencies was led by Tony Macdonald of the Coastal States Organization. Speakers included John Hill of the United Methodists discussing the role of religion, Dr. Paul Epstein of Harvard discussing public health aspects of ocean change, Richard Nichols of Coastwalk representing the recreational perspective and Steve Robinson from the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission talking about the role of the tribes.The evening ended with a rowdy party, including fish painting and surf movies at the Big Hunt, a local tavern, sponsored by the Capitol Chapter of the Surfriders Foundation.
On Tuesday July 13 some fifty conferees went to the Capitol where they were greeted by three of the four Co-Chairs of the House Oceans Caucus. From there they dispersed to a series of meetings with three Senators, a dozen House members and several dozen staffers from their various home districts. Those without representation including Puerto Rican fishermen and DC based activists tagged along with their more enfranchised friends.
Discussions at these meetings included the need for the pols to support a comprehensive approach to the problems identified by the two ocean commissions (co-sponsoring BOB or the Senate bill for example). They also discussed existing legislation for fisheries reform, cruise ship clean-up and deep-sea coral protection as well as addressing local concerns ranging from the transportation of plutonium through Charleston harbor to funding research on declining otter populations off the California coast.
At one point a live Buffalo was encountered on the Capitol grounds. The animal, “Harvey Wallbanger” was there to promote the reintroduction of the Buffalo Nickel. Once there were 60 million bison running wild across the American plains and none were given cute names or had a paid handler. It brought home why we were there that day, to protect the sharks and tuna and billfish so that they not become the next bison, and to help restore our last great public trust and physical frontier from sea to shining sea.
What was begun at this Blue Vision Conference may just be the first ripple in a rising tide of citizen action to save our seas. Still there are no guarantees. We can’t know if we’ll organize ourselves and educate and mobilize the public in time to keep the crucible of life on our blue marble planet from becoming a dead sea.
All we know for sure is that if we don’t try we lose.