June 6th, 2006
By Richard Louv
The Seaweed Revolution is rising, led by, among others, David Helvarg. Surfer, diver, former Ocean Beach resident and war correspondent, Helvarg is that rare environmentalist who can exude despair and hope at exactly the same time.
Most of us – well, some of us – already know the trouble we’re in; that the human race may soon be up to its neck in dead ocean water, which is going to play havoc with the pizza and antique industries in Ocean Beach. One scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla predicts that, within less than a century, there will be no more large sharks in the world’s oceans – unless commercial fishing patterns change.
Soames Summershays, a San Diegan who produces magnificent documentaries about the oceans, describes the even larger threat to the minuscule invertebrates that make up the majority of the oceans’ biomass; and how swarming clouds of forage fish, including anchovies and sardines, are quickly being turned into fishmeal for commercial salmon farms (robbing one fish to feed another). We’re quickly turning much of the coastal ocean into a watery desert.
Yet, Helvarg, author of “Blue Frontier: Dispatches from America’s Ocean Wilderness” and more recently, “50 Ways to Save the Ocean,” points to some good news: Despite the fact that the vast majority of young people never get to touch the ocean, the seas have never been more accessible for adults with disposable income.
“Surfers like Donna Frye got it first; they were getting sick, and Donna got engaged,” says Helvarg. Frye’s political career began when, as a surfer and the owner of a surf shop, she launched her battle against coastal pollution. Helvarg serves as president of the Blue Frontier Campaign, based in Washington, D.C.; Frye serves on his advisory board.
As once rarefied scuba diving, kayaking and other seawater sports become trendier, the Seaweed Revolution gains volume and velocity. A new generation of recreational divers returns year after year to the same reefs, and sees the changes with their own eyes. Helvarg’s strategy is to build a political and cultural constituency out of such folks, linking “seaweed groups” (i.e., grass-roots organizations) into a greater movement.
So far, Blue Frontier has identified about 2,000 seaweed groups, ranging in size from a few dozen activists to big-membership organizations such as the Ocean Conservancy. In San Diego, he works with San Diego Baykeeper, the Surfrider Foundation, the Environmental Health Coalition and other organizations.
Although not everyone agrees with the results, a raft of studies of marine ecological reserves have found higher densities of fish, larger animals, and greater biodiversity in no-take zones. Among Blue Frontier’s goals: 20 percent of U.S. coastal waters should be set aside as no-take commercial fishing zones.
“In Florida, world-record catches of three species of sport fish occurred more frequently near Cape Canaveral (off-limits since 1962 for national security reasons) than in all the rest of the state combined,” Helvarg wrote recently. “At Georges Bank, a New England fishing ground closed in 1994 due to catastrophic overfishing, the scallop population has grown 14-fold, and haddock, yellowtail flounder, and other species have rebounded.”
Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist Paul Dayton, a proponent of such reserves, doesn’t understand the opposition. “In Western Australia, (lobster) fishermen are demanding larger reserves because they’re making so much money off the spillover,” he told Helvarg.
Compared with other states that have coastal waters, California is more attuned to the challenge, and offers more hope. Partly, this is due to the restorative properties of the strong California current. Also, the state’s commercial fishing industry has not been as vocally opposed to marine reserves. One disgruntled fisherman in Bodega Bay told him, “The fishing grounds are like freeways now, and we’re just wiping them out.”
At a meeting of San Diego’s Council of Divers “some three dozen burly recreational divers, men and women in denim, wool and fleece,” as Helvarg describes them, gather to hear a talk on marine reserves by Paul Dayton, who refers to today’s kelp forests as “ghost forests.”
“When Dayton shows a slide of a juvenile abalone hiding under a red urchin, the crowd ‘awwws’ its appreciation. Only divers could find a baby ab cute, I think.”
One diver at the meeting “wonders whether he will ever be able to collect abalone in his lifetime. Another speaks of growing up near beaches that were covered with shells when she was a child – but are no longer.” Only three dozen people attend this meeting, but, as Helvarg points out, they represent some 1,500 local divers.
Such groups, joined with others, are becoming a political force in the state and the nation. These seaweed rebels are committed “to do the right thing for the living seas they love,” says Helvarg. The key to this movement is that these people, unlike the vast majority of Americans, have actually touched the water.