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Guardians of the Sea

Find out how Oceana, the world's largest ocean conservation organization, and other Orange County environmental groups, are working to protect our most important resource.

How can you not want to help this face? A sea lion rescued and rehabilitated by the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, prepares for its release.
Mindy Schauer/The Orange County Register

Changing the Sea: Oceana
Covering at least 70% of the earth and providing an essential source of protein for nearly half the planet’s population, it’s undeniable that the ocean is one of man’s greatest resources. Unfortunately, the oceans also face significant problems, such as massive over-fishing, rapid acidification and rampant pollution. Yet, unlike, say, the clear-cutting of a pristine Amazon jungle or factories that spew black smoke into a clear blue sky, or even far away glaciers melting into the sea, for the most part, the destruction of the world’s oceans and its sealife goes on below a pristine-looking blue surface of calm. Unless a supertanker dumps its load right offshore, where we witness the turmoil first-hand, the ocean is still pretty to look at and refreshing on a hot summer day. This may explain why, until very recently, less than one percent of dollars raised for nature conservation worldwide has been spent on marine conservation.

But that hasn’t defeated the protectors of the sea, especially Oceana, the world’s largest international marine conservation organization. With more than 300,000 members in more than 150 countries, Oceana’s team of scientists and economists, lawyers and advocates strive to win specific and concrete policy changes to reduce pollution, to prevent irreversible collapse of fish populations, marine mammals and other sea life and to ensure that vibrant job-creating fishing enterprises and communities still exist.

Orange County is doing its part, most notably with the annual SeaChange Summer Party, a celebrity-studded Oceana fundraiser, which last year honored actors Harrison Ford, “Law & Order’s” Sam Waterston and internationally acclaimed sustainability entrepreneur John Picard, and raised $900,000. This year, the event, which will host 400 guests and honor Glenn Close and Morgan Freeman, is ahead of its fundraising goal despite the sluggish economy and is shooting for a cool million dollars.

We sat down with Laguna Beach’s Valarie Whiting, the event co-chair (along with Ted Danson), who commented on everything from why that salmon may be more fishy than you think, to how fishing in Bangladesh affects the OC and why in the future you may be competing with whales for a grill full of krill.

How did you get involved with Oceana?
I’ve always been interested in environmental trends and traveling the world has opened up my horizons. I’m also an avid diver and what I saw personally led me to want to preserve and restore the oceans and that led me to Oceana because of its international scope and business model approach to setting goals and attaining concrete results.

How is Oceana’s approach different than other ocean conservation organizations?
Oceana’s approach is based on a sense of urgency. Leading scientists say we have only about two decades to turn things around, so we didn’t want to wait for the next generation to do it; we want to do something now for the next generation. Our goal is to encourage the enactment of new laws or, more importantly, enforcing the laws that are already on the books.

Though Oceana has only been around a decade, it’s racked up some impressive victories. Can you list a few?
In March, after serious campaigning from Oceana, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Shark Conservation Act, which improves current laws to prevent shark finning. In February, we convinced the North Pacific fishery management council to prevent the expansion of industrial fishing into all U.S. waters north of the Bering Strait. Added to other victories, that’s over one million square miles in the Pacific Ocean that’s protected thanks to Oceana’s efforts. In January, after months and months of pressure, the Gulf of Mexico Fishing Management Council initiated a six-month emergency rule preventing long-line fishing in waters where sea turtles forage. This is important because every species of sea turtle in the U.S. is threatened or endangered. In July last year, the National Marine Fisheries service will adopt Oceana’s Freeze the Bottom Trawl Footprint approach by closing [tens of millions of] acres of the Bering Sea to bottom trawling. I could go on and on.

Why is bottom trawling so destructive and does the fact that it happens far below the ocean surface make that more difficult to convey to the public?
Bottom trawling is to the ocean floor what clear cutting or strip mining [is to terra firma]. And yes, we wrestle all the time with trying to adequately describe what’s happening under the ocean. It’s difficult to convey the story and create the sense of urgency in the same way that forest fires or clear-cutting does for the land, which is so much more readily available to the human eye and the media.

You mentioned we have only two decades. So are the problems solvable?
Definitely. Otherwise, frankly, I personally wouldn’t be involved. I don’t want to spin my wheels. I want to see tangible, quantifiable, meaningful improvements. The fact that most life in the ocean is found on the continental shelves means that its control is under national, not international jurisdiction. It’s the exclusive economic zone that goes out 200 miles. This makes it much easier to deal with since we can deal with individual nations separately.

Why is it important to Orange County what happens hundreds of miles out to sea?
I’ll go further and ask, why do we care about illegal and unsustainable fishing practices that are going on in Sri Lanka or Angola or Bangladesh? Why do we care that giant factory ships are clear-cutting the ocean floor? Why do we care that powerful pollutants are being discarded far offshore? Why do we care that the ocean is one-third more acidic than it was just 40 years ago?

OK, why?
Because we are one of the world’s main consumers of the fish, importing [5.3 billion pounds] of seafood a year, and 80% of the fish we eat in America is imported from all those places I just mentioned. Also, we as taxpayers are paying excessive subsidies to keep [American] fishing fleets going and it’s all unsustainable. There are 2.5 times the sustainable amount of fishing boats. In fact, since 1988 we have been on a steady decline in the amount of fish we are catching, despite all the massive improvements in technology. So there are more and more boats chasing less and less fish. We literally have the technology to catch the last fish. So, if we want something left for our children, we have to be concerned about sustainable practices throughout the world.

So is Oceana opposed to commercial or recreational fishing?
Exactly the opposite; we want people fishing 100 years from now. We want to ensure vibrant fishing communities and businesses in the future. We want sustainability, for both recreational fishing reasons and world health. For over one billion people in the world, fish is the main source of protein. So we definitely want fish around. That’s why some basic statistics are so concerning: 30% of the fisheries in the world are in collapse because of over-fishing and habitat destruction, and 90% of the large fish – like tuna and swordfish – are gone, just in the last four or five decades.

Is aquaculture or fish farming the answer?
Aquaculture has been around for centuries and there is definitely some responsible, sustainable fish farming, but at present, in general, it’s considered a rape-and-run industry. The farms quickly destroy the environment and the local economies and then move on. Another tragic aspect is their protein conversion ratios. It takes two to three pounds of wild-caught fish to produce one pound of farm-raised fish. So they go out and catch wild fish to raise less farm-raised fish. Then there are all the toxins they use. They use borax, antibiotics, caustic soda [and other harmful products] and the fish are swimming in overcrowded pens, literally in their own filth.

It surprised me to learn that very little of our seafood is inspected.
It is shocking that less than one percent of it is inspected. So we really don’t know much about what we’re eating. That scares me. I’m always surprised that there isn’t more of a public outcry for inspection of seafood. It’s a huge part of our diet. Next year, just the worldwide farmed fish will surpass beef production, yet there is virtually no inspection of the fish.

Have the minimal inspections ever turned anything around?
Yes, much of our farm-raised fish comes from China. The U.S. government has turned away, in the last few years, containers of shrimp, tilapia and other fish from China because it was infected. [U.S. government officials] cited reasons such as salmonella, unsafe additives, melamine, and unapproved drugs, just by performing minimal inspections. The basic problem is that we don’t know what fish we’re eating or what’s in it or how it was raised. Given the correct information, people will at least have the option to make an informed decision. The new head of the FDA and President Obama have both indicated that they agree and that they are very interested in food safety.

Protecting sharks, even from shark finning, is a controversial issue. Why?
I think there’s a general fear and a genuine misunderstanding thanks to the portrayal of sharks as man-eaters, such as in movies like Jaws, and the sensational accounts of the annual few shark attacks. But sharks are a key predator, a keystone species in the [ocean’s] ecosystem. And the loss of [sharks] has a cascading negative effect on the entire food chain. An example is that the mid-Atlantic scallop industry has collapsed, because rays are eating all the scallops. This is because there are now too many rays because the main predator of the rays are sharks. That’s just one small example.

How does the acidification of the ocean work and why is it so alarming?
The ocean absorbs an enormous amount of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, which then reacts with the water to produce carbonic acid, which reduces the amount of calcium carbonate that corals and lobsters, [and other crustaceans] depend on to produce their skeletons and shells. And those shell fish are an integral link in the food chain for many species, including us. Leading scientists believe there will be no coral reefs occurring anywhere on earth within 20 years due to ocean acidification.

But we are seeing real effects now?
Yes, because the ocean is a full third more acidic than just a few decades ago, and shellfish and coral reefs are in trouble, in addition to the rapid decline in big fish like the tunas and marlin, the trend in the oceans is for the invertebrates to take over. That’s why the Japanese are now eating krill. We humans are now in competition with the whales for food.

Does the recent global recession make it hard to raise funds and awareness?
The economy makes it tough but if fishing was done more sustainably, then we could put a lot more people to work. For instance, retiring some of these 400-foot factory ships that don’t employ very many people and are doing unbelievable environmental damage would actually create jobs. But right now in Washington the topics du jour are the recession, healthcare and the two wars we’ve got going. So this does get pushed down the ladder, even though this issue actually touches on every one of those issues.

What’s the good news?
That mostly, it’s merely a cessation of unsustainable human activity. It’s not creating some complicated and expensive gizmo. We need to manage our fish stocks, set conservative catch limits and not fish in breeding hot spots. These are basic things. The fact that scientists think that we have a couple of decades to turn things around, if we act now, is the ultimate good news.

How can people get involved?
Join Oceana and become a Wavemaker or join another ocean conservation organization. When you buy seafood, ask about the fish. There are a lot of resources to help people decide which fish are safest and most sustainable. Montereyaquarium.org is a good source, for example. Also, reduce your carbon footprint and conserve energy. That’s huge. Eliminate plastic waste. Reduce lawn pesticides. Clean beaches. Most of what we do ends up in the ocean, so there’s a lot that can be done.

Why did you get involved?
I don’t want future generations coming to me and saying what did you know and when did you know it and why didn’t you do anything about it? I don’t want them to ask, why did you eat the last fish?

Visit Oceana at oceana.org


Photo By Jennifer Johnson

Elizabeth and Duffy Healey, authors of 'Sea Voices,' which hits bookstores later this year, with their kids

Voices of the Sea
San Clemente’s Elizabeth Healey is no stranger to the environmental movement. In fact, she was the kid with the “weird” mom who pontificated on the evils of man’s polluting ways. “We were some of those people out on Jamboree in the ’70s picketing big oil. I’d be standing there praying my friends didn’t see me when they drove by,” says Healey. But now, she is more like her mom than she ever thought possible – she’s known for picking up hundreds of pieces of trash on her beach walks – and proud of it. “The oceans are in such need of repair, and educating people has become our quest,” she says. So she and her husband Duffy sold their main business, Distinctive Homes magazine, and are concentrating on publishing more coffee table books, as well as spending most of their spare time teaching their children about the ocean. Their next book will be entitled Sea Voices. Including beautiful photography, the book will be a collection of interviews with scientists, pro surfers, artists, businesspeople, and celebrities. “We realize the power of celebrities to capture people’s attention and we don’t want to have some esoteric book that preaches to the choir. That doesn’t help,” she says. “Our goal is a book that people will be proud to display in their home. Because if people don’t read it, what’s the point?” An example of eye-popping facts people might learn while they casually flip pages and sip coffee? “One of our goals is to let people know about the massive swirling vortexes of plastics floating around the five subtropical gyre systems that make up about 40% of the world’s oceans. The North Pacific Gyre alone is estimated to have 150 million tons of plastic in it. It’s the size of Texas. But the most mind-blowing thing is that none of the world governments are talking about it.” Look for the book to drop – and people to start talking – in bookstores in late 2009. Visit seavoices.com for more information.

Sidewalk Surfers
Surfers are generally a soulful, organic, green group. The boards they ride? Not so much. In fact, the modern polyester resin, blown foam surfboard is a notch below a 20-pound ball of plastic on the earth-friendly meter. And until very recently, recycling surfers’s magic sticks was unheard of. Until, that is, OC surfers Joey Santley, Steve Cox and OC surfer and master shaper Matt Biolos (founder of Lost Enterprises) founded resurf.org last year, and literally sent old surfboards down a whole new road. Through surf shops and collection centers around the country (over a dozen are located in Orange County), they collect donated “broken, dead and abused surfboards,” as well as shaping waste from participating surfboard makers and manufacturers, then pulverize them into a fine powder to be used in concrete and asphalt mixes to create roads, sidewalks, lightweight fireproof roof tiles, and other consumer products. So next time you’re sitting on the 405 in bumper-to-bumper traffic trying to catch an afternoon session at Trestles, take solace in the thought that you may be “surfing” that long gone magic twin-fin you snapped last year. Visit resurf.org to learn more.

A Winning Wave
They beat city hall, they beat state hall, they beat the Transportation Corridor Agencies (TCA), they even beat the Governator. Who? Plain old surfers, that’s who. Led by the Surfrider Foundation in a fight most thought was quixotic at best, surfers from up and down the state stopped the proposed 241-South [Toll Road] Extension, which would have run through San Onofre State Park land and, according to environmental groups, severely affected the water quality of the fronting waters. Oh, and possibly ruined one of the coast’s most rippable waves – prompting surfers around the state to go green overnight. The ensuing battle culminated in a February 2008 California Coastal Commission eight to two decision to deny the road. But by culminated, we mean, just sort of got going. One, it enraged Governor Schwarzenegger to the point that he fired State Parks Commission members Clint Eastwood and Bobby Shriver, apparently due to their support of the decision, and second, it led to the TCA appealing to the Feds, specifically, the Federal Secretary of Commerce. But surfers got mad too – 3,000 of them, actually, voicing their opinion at a late 2008 hearing. Then, a week before Christmas, they got their present: The decision was upheld. One blue battle won, 15 trillion to go…


Photo By Mindy Schauer/The Orange County Register

How can you not want to help this face? A sea lion rescued and rehabilitated by the Pacific Marine Mammal Center, prepares for its release.

Dive In
We’re guessing that you live in coastal OC because of that big blue Pacific playground that is your backyard. And whether you use it to surf, dive, swim, or just as a nice backdrop for your cocktail parties, you’ll feel better if you’re part of the pollution solution, not problem. So here are a few ways to get involved.

Orange County Coastkeeper
Founded in 1999 by OC native Garry Brown, Coastkeeper is responsible for some major victories along the coast, like saving key Huntington Beach wetlands, protecting Crystal Cove from urban runoff and instigating major bay water testing and cleanups. If you want to help keep our backyard blue, this is a good place to start.

Surfrider Foundation
Yes, they’re dedicated to preserving surfable waves, but they want those waves to be pesticide- and E. coli-free, so grab your board and get on board with one of their three OC chapters. Besides, for just $25 you get their bumper sticker that connotes coolness. That’s a lot cheaper than a new ’do and an iPhone.

Pacific Marine Mammal Center
If you’ve ever been to a seal or sea lion release – when Laguna Beach’s Marine Mammal Center’s recovered “patients” waddle excitedly back to their ocean home, you can’t help but feel pride for the human species. Sometimes, we’re pretty cool. Unfortunately, many times, we’re the reason the little guys end up in the “hospital” in the first place, ensnared by gill nets or fighting infections from polluted waters. So lend a hand in saving some flippers.

Heal the Bay
For their Beach Report Card alone, which tells you, beach by beach, whether you’re swimming in pristine or polluted waters, every beach-goer should give them a buck. But they do more than test the waters; they also protect them and fund education of the next wave of blue warriors. Join the force.

Reef Check California
From their Web site: “California’s reefs look a lot different today than they did 30 years ago. Abalone are almost gone and big fish have become scarce. Our kelp forests resemble ghost towns...” Need we say more? Get out there. Maybe your kids would like some abalone.


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