Blue Notes Reports from the Frontlines of Ocean Advocacy

We call it planet earth but it’s really planet ocean. Seventy one percent of the surface and 97 percent of the livable habitat of our amazing spherical space pool is saltwater. It’s the crucible of life and source of delight for so many of us. We all gain much from the ocean including transportation, recreation, trade, energy, protein, medicine and a sense of awe and wonder at being part of something so much larger than ourselves. We feel a natural connection to the sea. We all come from saltwater, both on an individual and evolutionary basis. Our bodies are 71 percent saltwater just like our planet. Our blood is salty as the sea. That may explain why I’ve always found it easier to sleep by the shore. The beat of the waves is like our mother’s heartbeat.

Unfortunately our species could now be accused of parental abuse with the cascading disasters we’re creating in the ocean that could soon turn it into a dead sea: from industrial over-fishing to coastal sprawl, runoff pollution to fossil-fuel fired climate change. That’s why the Blue Frontier Campaign is working to build up a seaweed (marine grassroots) constituency to fight for our living seas and against the salt-water special interests. We think only a bottom up seaweed revolution of concerned citizens can change the tide. And we still believe there’s time.

I founded the Blue Frontier Campaign in 2003. The group works to support seaweed (marine grassroots) efforts at the local, regional and national level, with an emphasis on bottom-up organizing to bring the voice of citizen-activists into national decision-making that will impact our public seas. There are now some 2,000 blue groups working on ocean and coastal conservation but largely operating in isolation, and with little coordinated effort among them. Blue Frontier”s mission is to strengthen this ocean constituency through building unity, providing tools, and enhancing public awareness of both the challenges and solutions being offered by these groups to the various threats facing our living oceans.”

Blue Frontier organized a three-day conference in 2004 that drew 250 people from 170 organizations in 23 states and Puerto Rico. The group also organized the first regional “Blue Vision Mid-Atlantic” conference in April 2005 at the National Aquarium in Baltimore for 50 people from 30 blue groups between New York and North Carolina who agreed to work more closely in the future.

These dispatches are from “Blue Notes,” reports on ocean policy sent regularly to Blue Frontier members. You can read them in their entirety at

Bush’s Blue Asterisk

A strong case can be made that the Bush administration has had the worst environmental record of any presidency. But just as Barry Bond’s homerun record will always come with an asterisk relating to his alleged steroid use, any recounting of the Bush Administration”s environmental stances will now have to come with an asterisk noting the establishment of America”s first great and fully-protected wilderness park in the sea, the Northwest Hawaiian Islands Monument.

I had the luck and privilege of being in Honolulu on the day the president announced that some 140,000 square miles of small islands and vast atolls and coral reefs will remain forever wild. I was speaking about my book 50 Ways to Save the Ocean at the invitation of KAHEA, an alliance of Native Hawaiian and environmental activists. KAHEA is also one of the key seaweed citizens” groups that helped win protection for this unique marine ecosystem that stretches 1,200 miles northwest from the main islands. They had turned out hundreds of people at public hearings over the last five years helping inspire Hawaii”s Republican Governor and state Congressional delegation to join their call for full protection of the area. That in turn made it easier for the President to take positive action.

The Northwest Hawaiian reef system was first given transitional protection as an “ecosystem reserve” under President Bill Clinton. This was back in 2000, after he was informed that if he did so he would have protected more wilderness area than Teddy Roosevelt. Still, there has been fierce opposition to final protection from the Western Pacific Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional advisory groups that, because they”re the only federal regulatory bodies exempted from conflict of interest laws, are also dominated by the commercial and recreational fishing industries they”re supposed to manage.

Because there”s been so little extractive pressure in the remote islands area to date (only eight commercial boats had permits to make the long, fuel-costly journey) it retains many of the pristine characteristics of the ocean before human impacts. One of these is that, like Denali or Yellowstone national parks on land, it”s a predator-dominated ecosystem with 50 percent of its biomass made up of big carnivorous critters like sharks, jacks and groupers. In the populated part of the Hawaiian chain that figure has been reduced to under five percent.

One of the other great things about Northwest Hawaii is that its reef system is at the low end of temperature tolerances for tropical corals. That means it has a far better chance of surviving coral bleaching linked to fossil-fuel driven climate disruption than many other reef systems such as the Florida Keys. This cooler waters advantage was not mentioned by the President in announcing the new Monument. What the President and others did discuss was the problem of marine debris, particularly plastic waste that drifts into the area on Pacific currents.

The President”s interest in this and other marine topics was piqued in April when he attended a White House screening of a PBS documentary on Northwest Hawaii produced by Jean-Michael Cousteau. The screening was arranged by White House Council on Environmental Quality Chair (and diving enthusiast) Jim Connaughton in collaboration with the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation, and was attended by a number of Marine Conservationists including Sylvia Earle. Sylvia was science director for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration under the President”s father and spent much of the evening briefing George W. on the state of the reef. Perhaps she assured him that while the rare Hawaiian monk seals that thrive in Northwest Hawaii are endangered, they are not religiously persecuted.

In any case the President, who is known not to be much of a reader, was clearly inspired to action by the Cousteau documentary and subsequent discussion. After cleaning up the marine debris that has accumulated in the new monument, the main threat to our vast new (and relatively cool) wilderness range will probably come from human-enhanced climate change. It”s too bad the president has said he won’t watch Al Gore”s movie.

Alaskan Corals also Rock

OK, they”re not rocks, they’re little polypy animals. The point is 370,000 square miles of Alaska”s cold-water coral gardens will also be protected under a new federal rule setting these areas off-limits to bottom trawl fishing that could topple and decimate deep-sea coral communities in a single sweep and haul. NOAA established the protections in response to a six-year-old lawsuit filed by Oceana and other marine conservation groups. Along with thickets of red tree corals the closed are as will also protect hard bottom habitat for rockfish, who of course also rock.

California Rocks The Ocean

“I know this convention center. This is where we shot Last Action Hero. We filled all the rooms with gunpowder…” Reminiscing about his life on screen wasn’t the only reason California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger came to the Long Beach Convention Center September 18 (joined live on screen by Washington and Oregon Governors Gregoire and Kulongoski). He and his colleagues chose that moment to announce a regional compact to protect and restore the ocean. “We now join forces to make sure we are doing everything in our power to maintain clean water and beaches along our coasts,” Arnold declared. Not coincidentally, the governor is running for re-election in a state where people really do “vote the coast,” and are hugely upset over federal attempts to expand offshore oil drilling.

The three governors’ announcement was made on the opening day of the 2006 California and World Ocean conference that drew more than 1,000 people from the “blue movement,” including numerous Blue Frontier friends and advisors.

The conference was sponsored by the new California Ocean Protection Council. With hoped-for passage of Prop. 84, a state-wide initiative that could bring over $5 billion to the protection of watersheds, coasts and oceans, this was the kind of pragmatic, roll-up-your-pant-legs gathering that makes me believe there still might be time to create a bottom-up seaweed revolution before our public oceans become dead seas.

The conference’s three days of panels and plenaries ranged from developing ocean research priorities to talks by reporters, pols and ocean explorers, reflections on the state of aquaculture, marine education, and California’s maritime industries. That’s where I learned it’s the “Golden Age of Ports.” What with a $37 billion trade deficit with China—thanks, Wal-Mart—I can’t wait for the “Platinum Age of Ports,” or however you might say that in Mandarin.

Still it was nice to be inspired. My only worry is that we can’t save the ocean along just one coast. That’s why the Blue Frontier Campaign is now planning for the next national BLUE VISION CONFERENCE to be held in Washington, DC, in the summer of 2008. Blue Vision ‘04 drew 250 people from 170 organizations. This time we hope to draw 1,000 ocean constituents from hundreds of groups throughout the U.S. to make sure that Congress and the ‘08 Presidential candidates understand that “voting the ocean and coast” is not just a California thing. We look forward to partnering with many blue groups and hope yours will be one of them!

Herding Catfish in Florida

Experience has taught me that getting various ocean constituents together makes tuna ranching look easy (and environmentally sustainable). That’s why it’s so impressive to see twenty ocean conservation, recreation and civic groups come together to author and endorse a blueprint for Florida’s Coastal and Ocean Future. I accompanied DeeVon Quirolo of Reef Relief as she presented a copy to her Representative, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R-Fl) on Capitol Hill September 28. The 25-page report (primary author Julie Hauserman) is designed to make the candidates for Florida governor and other state offices take action to reduce pollution, keep oil away from Florida’s coasts, end over-fishing, establish somewhat more sane coastal development plans before the next half dozen hurricanes hit, and generally think about being at least as good on ocean governance as say New Jersey, if not California.

The Earth’s Future Tantrums

The earth is the warmest it’s been in at least 12,000 years, and close to as warm as it’s been in a million, according to a new report in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. NASA’s Jim Hansen, a leading climate scientist (that the Bush Administration has also tried to censor) is the lead author of the study. The study estimates, that, among other effects, there will be stronger and more destructive El Nino cycles that batter the Pacific coast with storms and disrupt global weather patterns leading to regional droughts, forest fires and coral bleaching.

Alien Rights Bill

Congress recessed at the end of September with out reconciling a bad Senate bill and far-worse House bill that would open up presently protected offshore waters to fossil-fuel drilling. The aim of the House bill is to complete the task of Representative Dick Pombo’s alien overlords who want to terraform earth into a hot, stormy, carbon and bug-infested habitat like their home planet. For more information on the human-resistance contact the OCS Coalition (BlueNotes #28).

Fish Farming Scales Up

According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) we’re at that point where we’ve killed off most of the buffalo and converted their habitat to raise domestic cattle. While the report doesn’t use that language it does state that fish farms are now close to matching fishing fleets that target wild fish in terms of supplying seafood for the world market. Another new study finds that up to 95% of young wild salmon migrating to sea past commercial salmon farms are killed by sea lice from those farms.

Don’t Make Us Shoot This Seal!

We thought of a marketing campaign: “Buy this book or we shoot the seal,” but then decided we might run into trouble with the Marine Mammal Protection Act, plus what with those ears sticking out it’s probably a sea lion anyway. The point is, too few seaweed groups seem to believe us when we say that for 40 percent of cover price (plus shipping) non-profits can purchase 50 Ways for around $5.25, and sell the book for $12.95 (or give it away) at your special events, celebrations, as promotions, on your online bookstores, etc. This way you not only help educate the public but make a tidal profit in the bargain. Commercial enterprises can purchase bulk orders for 50 percent of cover price. Just contact Inner Ocean Publishing’s Ani Chamichian at And don’t forget, 50 Ways makes a great holiday gift of the sea/sun.

DAVID HELVARG is the author of Blue Frontier: Dispatches from America”s Ocean Wilderness (W.H. Freeman) and The Ocean and Coastal Conservation Guide, 2005-2006: The Blue Movement Directory (Island Press).


Blue Frontier Campaign