On the Blue Frontier

Laura Urian / Florida Keys NMS

Across America, Activists are Fighting to Save Our Living Oceans

Just a few miles south of Crocodile Lake in the Florida Keys, the Marine Mammal Conservancy is working to sustain and restore the world’s oceans one fish at a time. As a volunteer, I’m one of 16 people, including five children, standing thigh-deep in clear tropical water. We are gently guiding Sheri and Florence, two five-foot-long nurse sharks, in a circle. They’re both a little disoriented after a long day’s flight and the drive down from Miami to this small, temporarily enclosed cove near Captain Slate’s Atlantis Dive Center. A video crew from Miami’s Channel 7 is wading around the edges of the site. Their news tease tonight will be, "Sharks gone wild in south Florida."

Laura Francis

Captured as little nippers, the sharks grew up in the Seashell Pet Shop in Chicago, where they eventually became too large for their pool. That’s when Wendy Rhodes, an animal rights activist from Los Angeles, found them and decided to launch a rescue mission. She called Rick Trout, an ex-Navy dolphin trainer who now works as a salvage diver and coordinator of marine animal rescues. He planned the shark release and is now pushing Florence in my direction. She seems to be losing a little of her jet-lag lethargy. Her skin feels more like raw silk than sandpaper, and I can feel her muscles working beneath it.

Shark wrangling could almost feel macho except for the fact that Sky, a seven-year-old blond pixie in a blue wetsuit, is now hugging Sheri. "No hugging the shark; you have to pass her along," her mother gently chides. Soon the sharks are swimming on their own, and we quickly leave them to their adjustment. Back on shore, I talk to Clifford Glade, a medical doctor and veterinarian who’s here with his young daughter Nikki. I mention how this release may only be a net gain of one shark for the reef. Earlier in the day, while on patrol with marine sanctuary cop Dave McDaniel, we spotted a woman on the cabin cruiser Sea E Oh hauling in a large nurse shark with a rod and reel.

"You have to start somewhere," Dr. Glade says. "I"m 48. Nikki is 10. I want her to grow up where there are still sharks and wild birds and a coral reef she can enjoy."

The next morning, we take the sharks out to Elbow Reef, a popular diving spot, in the 42-foot Coral Princess. The Channel 7 crew is interviewing Rick. "Hopefully, this will show people that this is where sharks belong, and keeping them as pets is just a bad habit that they should get over," he says. Small ribbon tags are stapled onto the animals for future identification. Then 17 divers accompany the two sharks to the bottom. Half a dozen sealed cameras are recording the event in a kind of media feeding frenzy.

Six months later, Sheri and Florence are feeding themselves and exploring deeper water. Wendy Rhodes has also released three more nurse sharks from a Pizza A Go Go in San Jose, California. Of course, it’s going to take more than a few news stories to educate the public about marine wildlife. A few days after the nurse shark release, a tourist from St. Petersburg saw a bunch of fins in the water off Key Colony Beach. Deciding that he was going to go swimming with wild dolphins, he jumped into the middle of a school of aggressive, seven-foot bull sharks, one of which bit him in the foot.

Getting Organized

All across coastal America, people who care about the oceans are beginning to act on their beliefs. The number of ocean-related groups is growing, along with public awareness. Major activist organizations include: The Center for Marine Conservation, which sponsors a National Beach Cleanup Day every year; the Surfrider Foundation; the Cousteau Society; the American Oceans Campaign, which was founded by actor and ocean activist Ted Danson; Coast Alliance; SeaWeb; and the Waterkeepers, which is made up of more than 40 boat-based operatives who work to protect rivers, bays and estuaries from coastal Georgia to Cook Inlet, Alaska. Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. is the Waterkeepers" Chief Attorney.

Southern sea otters are a common sight in Monterey Bay, but their population is endangered because of threats to the kelp forests on which they depend.
Kip F. Evans

Coalitions of groups have also formed, including Restore America’s Estuaries, the Marine Fish Conservation Network, Clean Water Network and Ocean Wildlife Campaign. There are more regionally based groups like the American Littoral Society, Clean Ocean Action, Reef Relief and the Reef Environmental Education Foundation (REEF), which co-sponsors the Great American Fish Count every July, when divers help scientists count local fish populations.

There is the influential Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the venerable Save San Francisco Bay Association, the North Carolina Coastal Federation, Friends of Long Island Sound, Tampa BayWatch, People for Puget Sound and the Gulf Restoration Network among others. There are a number of groups that focus on specific marine wildlife such as the Pelagic Shark Research Foundation, Save Our Wild Salmon Coalition, Friends of the Sea Otter, Save the Manatee Club (co-founded by Jimmy Buffett) and the Sea Turtle Restoration Project.

Hundreds of local organizations are also making their presence felt through constructive engagement with their fellow citizens, resource users and government agencies. In Santa Cruz, California, for example, Save Our Shores, originally founded to protest offshore oil drilling, has evolved into a citizen-watchdog and resource group for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Concern over coastal sprawl is leading to the creation of countless new groups like Seeking A New Direction (SAND), a recent merger of Gulfport and Biloxi, Mississippi neighborhood groups opposed to the proliferation of malls, gravel pits, condo towers and casinos along their once-scenic shoreline. Green groups like the San Diego Environmental Health Coalition are also taking on maritime causes, as they have been addressing problems related to the porting of Navy nuclear aircraft carriers.

Eric Brown

Greenpeace first gained a global reputation when its members used inflatable Zodiacs to block the harpoon guns of whaling ships. Today, Greenpeace continues to maintain a strong interest in marine issues like overfishing, calling for a ban on factory trawlers. The more-militant Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, founded by Greenpeace dropout Paul Watson, has gained a Corsair-like reputation for using its ships to ram pirate whalers and drift net vessels.

In the last decade, mainstream environmental groups including the National Audubon Society, Sierra Club, Natural Resources Defense Council, National Wildlife Federation, Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund and Environmental Defense have also begun focusing on the blue frontier. The San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute, along with its efforts to return the orca Keiko (screen name "Willy") to the wild, also led the successful tuna boycott that resulted in "dolphin-safe" labeling. One of its spin-offs is now working on "turtle-safe" labeling for shrimp harvested using special nets that protect turtles.

Despite resistance from free-trade absolutists and the World Trade Organization, the idea of labeling sustainable seafood has become increasingly popular. In 1999, both the National Audubon Society an

d the Monterey Bay Aquarium distributed consumer guides to seafood practices, suggesting that people might choose to eat wild Alaskan salmon, for example, rather than farmed salmon, whose wastes can pollute surrounding waters; or they might choose to order abundant species like calamari, mahi-mahi and striped bass, rather than overfished species such as Chilean sea bass, scallops and swordfish. In 2000, this labeling effort expanded under the sponsorship of the Marine Stewardship Council, which was set up by the World Wildlife Fund and the Dutch-based multinational company Unilever, one of the largest commercial buyers of fish in the world. (Gorton’s Sea Foods is one of its subsidiaries.) Among the first human prey items to win the Council’s "Fish Forever" seal (certified sustainable by independent experts) were West Australian rock lobster and Alaskan wild salmon. The Boston-based Legal Sea Foods restaurant chain, which buys 100 tons of fish and shellfish every week, was one of the first U.S. companies to adopt the Fish Forever seal. "We’ve been in the fish business for 50 years, and I’m interested in being in the business another 50 years," explains Legal Sea Foods CEO Roger Berkowitz. "The only way we can do this is to participate in some kind of conservation effort. What I like about this program is that it’s a positive approach that can help motivate people. It’s a way we can help educate our consumers and also encourage fisheries to sustain themselves."

Local Leaders

I head south to Key West, where I reconnect with an attractive, sun-etched couple named Craig and DeeVon Quirolo. Several years ago, I produced a PBS report on Reef Relief, the group they founded. Today, Reef Relief has some 5,000 members, with an equal number turning out for their annual Cayo Caribbean Music Festival (and fundraiser) by the old fort in Key West.

Michael Blades

Craig, a former charter boat captain, and DeeVon, who used to produce illustrated tour guides, started designing and placing mooring buoys in 1986 so dive boats wouldn’t drop their anchors on live coral. They also began to educate divers and snorkelers not to touch the coral (which can remove a protective layer of slime and expose the polyps to infection). Their work to improve water quality in the Keys led to a local ban on phosphates and helped establish the National Marine Sanctuary. Today, through Reef Relief, they continue to install dive buoys and promote marine parks in the Bahamas, Jamaica, Cuba and other parts of the Caribbean. Corporate and governmental sponsors include American Express and the South Florida Water District.

"For years, we worked mainly on a grassroots level," Craig tells guests at a Reef Awareness Week dinner at the Pier House. "After working here in the Keys, we decided to go to Washington, D.C. and lobby for a federal marine sanctuary, which we got. We figured the government would get involved and save the reef, only it hasn"t. Then we thought science would save the reef, only there’s all this disagreement among the scientists. So now we’re back to saying it’s up to us to save it. We can’t expect the government or the scientists to save our reef for us. We’re going to have to do it ourselves, by educating young people and reaching out to people in other parts of the nation and the world, and by telling them about this living treasure we’ve got down here."

Dauphin Island, Alabama reminds me of Key West when I was a kid; a kind of laid-back island without a lot of commercial distractions from the magic of its open sky and rainbow-streaked waters. George Crozier, director of the Dauphin Island Sea Lab, is talking to Ray Vaughan and me about nutrient runoff and its possible link to blooms of stinging jellyfish in the Mississippi Sound and Mobile Bay. "Hey," Ray says with a grin, "we"ll tell the rich folks on the beach that if they bring in more hog farms, they"ll never swim again."

George laughs, "That’s a WildLaw statement for ya."

Ray is a tough ""bama boy" born and raised with a taste for fishing, barbecue and guns. He’s also Alabama’s leading environmental lawyer and founder of the nonprofit WildLaw Foundation in Montgomery. He and his buddies, fellow lawyer Ned Mudd and trading post operator and trapper Lamar Marshall, have filed about 95 percent of the state’s environmental lawsuits, gaining themselves a reputation as being among the South’s pre-eminent Eco-Rednecks. Ray recently forced the state’s Department of Environmental Management to hold public hearings before issuing permits for corporate hog farms to operate along the state’s waterways. "Alabamans aren’t stupid," he says. "We can see what’s going on in North Carolina," where nutrient runoff from hog factory waste has created biological dead zones along the coast.

George Crozier is older than Ray, with blond hair turning white, a craggy, sun-reddened face, and a fun-loving, hyper-kinetic style not often found among scientists. "Our lab started in 1971 on a mosquito- and bug-infested peninsula," he tells me. "Now we’re on a mosquito- and bug-infested barrier island."

Ric Moore / Black Star

Fourteen miles by 1.5 miles at its thickest, with some 2,000 winter residents and as many as 15,000 summer visitors, Dauphin has been repeatedly hit and reshaped by tropical hurricanes. From the water, the island’s narrow west end looks like a forest of wooden stilts, on top of which several hundred houses have been temporarily secured. You could fish off the decks or out the windows of many of them where the storm-eroded sand has retreated underneath their pilings. After Hurricane George, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) agreed to spend millions of tax dollars to protect the single road out here but didn’t require any additional public access to what’s left of the beach.

"I"ll be damned if public money should be spent for these owners to be making more money than they already do with their summer rentals, and with no benefit to the public," Crozier declares as we rock in a windy chop a hundred yards offshore in one of the lab’s 26-foot research vessels.

© Joe Heath

Innocent childhood pleasures, such as exploring a tide pool, are imperiled by relentless coastal development.
Joe Heath

Later, I go walking down the west end with Ray, whose mother used to bring him to Dauphin Island when he was a child. Now he’s 38 with three kids of his own whom he likes to bring out here. Just past the last stilt house, the road ends at a barbed-wire-topped hurricane fence marked "Private Property." The island beyond this point is little more than an eight-mile-long sandbar that’s been washed over by the sea at least half the time during the past 50 years. It takes two minutes to walk its width from the ocean to the Mississippi Sound. Nonetheless, the owner tried to have it exempted from its federal Coastal Barrier Resources Act listing in order to qualify it for government subsidies. He’d hoped to get FEMA flood insurance so people would be willing to buy $200,000 home sites (200 of them) on 1.5 miles of this narrow sand spit. He would raise the money needed to install roads, sewers and electrical lines by selling the rest of the spit to the state as a park for $20 million, a figure far above its assessed value.

Working with a group of local resi

dents called Forever Dauphin Island, Ray sued the state and managed to kill the deal. "It was insane to build here," he says pointing to the west end houses behind us. "But it would have been more insane to build further out." Ironically, the land’s owner, businessman Riley Boykin Smith, is also Alabama’s State Commissioner of Conservation and Natural Resources.

Conservation, Dude

The Surfrider Foundation is holding another Clean Water Paddle Out, this time at San Francisco’s Aquatic Park. Surprisingly, despite Mark Twain’s observation that the coldest winter he ever spent was a summer in San Francisco, the sun is shining without even a wisp of fog on the water. The Bay’s water temperature is, however, a brisk 57 degrees. Although the Bay Chapter has 1,000 members, only about 50 brave hearts have shown up this morning on the walled beach below the Ghiradelli chocolate factory. Todd Walsh, the slim, unshaven chapter chair, suggests a four-millimeter-thick wetsuit for today.

A Beach Boys song begins to play on the sound system as the small crowd hits the water, paddles out among the moored sailboats and forms a circle for a big whoop before moving past the breakwater and out into the bay. After about 15 minutes of paddling around some buoys, they begin straggling back ashore. People cheer as they hit the sand. "Great." "Cool." "I"m stoked." "I saw a seal."

"It’s a good cause and a good excuse to get in the water on a nice day like this," explains Becca Wheeler, a bright-eyed San Francisco nursing student.

Paige Gill / Florida Keys NMS

The surfers lay their boards out on the grass of a nearby park and kick back with a free luau including salmon and veggie burgers, speeches on how to organize to protect coastal water quality and a performance by a Hawaiian Hula dance group. I talk to Doug Hartley, a buff black man with a cheerful, mellow demeanor and ready rap. Doug is the founder of Afrosurf Shack (now called Youth Expeditions), a nonprofit youth outreach program and website.

"We’re going to schools and setting up adventure trips," says Hartley. "I’ve gone to Visitation Valley and James Wick, Jr. High Schools to reach out to kids. I bring my surfboard with me."

I ask him how long he’s been surfing and how many other African-Americans he’s seen in the waves. "I started surfing four years ago. I never saw too many black people surfing. There’s lots of pollution from oil and chemical refineries in low-income neighborhoods like Richmond (a black and Latino community in the North Bay), and that tends to become the water issue people relate to. When I was 16, I tried surfing on Long Island, but I had a short board and it wasn’t happening for me. I was six miles from the beach and didn’t have any surfer friends in my black New York neighborhood, so I got into skating instead. Later, I went to Taos and became a skier and ski instructor. But when I moved to California, I thought, "This is it." Seeing the surf culture, I decided I’d try again and moved to Pacifica to be by the water, and here I am."

Is Surfrider helping his program, I wonder. "When I first started my thing, Surfrider helped out with information. Respect the Beach was a 17-minute video they gave me, but it was boring. If I were a ninth grader, I’d go to sleep watching it. So I re-edited it with more surfing, skating and snowboarding scenes, kind of dropping the environmental messages in between. Of course, once I’ve got the kids on the bus, that’s a long ride, and I play environmental movies on the bus video, and what can they do?" He grins and says, "They’ve got to watch."

NYC Harbor Blues

I"m in New Jersey with Dery Bennett, the tall, gristled 68-year-old director of the American Littoral Society. He brightens as we step outside his Sandy Hook office and catch the grand view of New York Harbor. He tells me there is a multimillion-dollar clam fishery in the harbor now, a sign of improving water quality, as is the increasing number of harbor seals. His own clamming rake and boots are in the back of his pickup.

We drive over the Shrewsbury River into Sea Bright. Thirty clam boats with big outboards sit by the dock. Three rough-looking clammers are playing with a dog. Inside the "depureing" house sit bags of sorted quahogs; the small tasty ones sell for about 25 cents each. They"ll spend 48 hours in here being washed and exposed to ultraviolet light to cleanse them. Back in the parking lot, Dery takes his turn playing with the dog while I check out some of his bumper-stickers: "Get Hooked on Fish Tagging," "Missing Your Cats? Check Under My Tires," "Invest in America. Buy a Congressman."

We drive through Highlands, an old rumrunner port, and on to the Twin Lighthouse, which was built in 1863. From here, we can see Coney Island, the World Trade Center and downtown Manhattan, along with 30 to 40 miles of Long Island’s south shore.

More than a century ago, young striped bass were caught here in the Navesink River and shipped by train to San Francisco. Today, the descendants of these pioneer stripers are the indicator species for the health of San Francisco Bay. On the East Coast, stripers are heralded as a conservation success story. Fished almost to extinction between the 1970s and 1980s, these feisty predator fish that can grow as large as bulldogs have made a dramatic comeback thanks to cooperative efforts by federal and state agencies, commercial and recreational fishermen, as well as ongoing environmental cleanups of their habitats in the Hudson River and Chesapeake Bay.

We drive to Belford, New Jersey, past wetlands full of geese and egrets and the clacking sound of clapper rails. This working-class fisherman’s holdout on the gentrifying Jersey shore has a sordid reputation. Fish cops have told me Belford is the world capital of undersized lobsters. There are wooden reels for net-drying behind the Pirate Cove Restaurant and fish co-op, where a few guys are off-loading barrels of menhaden, an "industrial fish" used for oil and chicken feed that is itself a victim of overfishing. Across a narrow, black water channel, a young man is taking live horseshoe crabs out of his Boston Whaler and cutting them in half with what looks like a giant paper cutter. He tosses the tails in the water and dumps the crab halves in a box. Used for eel bait, they sell for a dollar an animal.

The Highlands Historical Society has invited Dery to speak this evening. We sit backed up in traffic behind Range Rovers, BMW roadsters and other upscale cars headed to the new ferry terminal connecting northern Jersey and lower Manhattan. "I"m all for more ferry service. I just worry about the yuppies it attracts," he tells me.

© Gulf of the Farallones / NMS

Sport fishermen form an important pressure group for preserving the oceans from pollution and commercial harvesting overkill.
Gulf of the Farallones / NMS

The Community Center is a cheaply built wooden building with a playground next to the beach. A kid’s mural of dolphins and fish graces the wall, and a big picture window overlooks the water. Some 25 people have gathered this evening, mostly seniors. Dery talks to groups like this a c

ouple of times a week. In the age of the Internet and global mass media, he believes personal contact is still the most effective form of organizing.

"I had one of your bumper stickers up in my office," a legal services lawyer who works in Newark tells him. "It said, "Have You Hugged Your Estuary Today?" One of my clients read it, and when I asked her if she had, she hugged me. I thought this was cute and told my boss, but from his reaction I could see he didn’t know what an estuary was either."

"Seventy percent of the Earth is covered by ocean; the other 30 percent is optioned by developers," Dery tells the group before going on to explain that "littoral" is Latin for "the shoreline." Outside, the sky is turning pink above the New York Bight as a small sailboat beats against the wind.

"Wherever you build seawalls and other structures, the ocean curls around behind and begins to erode them," he explains. "If you want to make a beach disappear, build jetties and seawalls. Also, at least on the Atlantic coast, you have both sea level rise and land subsidence going on at the same time. Geologists say it doesn’t matter which, your feet are still going to get wet."

"But things are getting cleaner, aren’t they?" someone asks.

"Some places yes, some no."

"So what’s your feeling about the future?"

"If you’re asking if I’m optimistic or pessimistic, I’d have to say it depends on what day and what time of day." He then starts talking about the local things that make him proud.

David Helvarg

"In New Jersey, crabbing is the number one ocean sport, more than fishing, and it’s all about blue crabs. You can go after dungeness crabs or other crabs elsewhere, but why bother?" He talks about how he used to fish for big eels and how people should eat more local food: steamers, eels and blue crab. Today, people would rather go to the Jersey Shore and eat snapper from the Gulf of Mexico or shrimp farmed in Asia and Latin America. "It’s too easy to eat exotic and forget to protect your own local abundance," he warns.

One younger woman, who recently moved back to Highlands, describes how growing up, her family would catch eels on the shore and take them home, where they would nail them to a tree in their backyard, strip their skin off and boil them, watching the dead eels curl in the bubbling water. She recounts this scene like a mother describing her baby’s first steps. Still, as organizers like Dery

Bennett know, it’s out of just such unique and parochial traditions that ocean protection movements are born.

"I believe all the ocean issues will get dealt with when people demand we take action," says Curt Weldon, a Republican Congressman from Pennsylvania. "My district’s not on the ocean, but my people go to the ocean to enjoy themselves. I like to boat and fish, and I see the ocean as a glue that can bring people together."

In 2000, Weldon, along with Republican Jim Saxton of New Jersey, Democrat Sam Farr of California and a few others, helped form a new Oceans Caucus in the House of Representatives. Weldon hopes to see an Oceans Committee in the House to replace the Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee his party abolished in 1995. "Protecting the oceans is too important to be seen as a partisan issue," he argues. "No party can own it. Fishermen, oil interests, environmentalists—we all need to protect the oceans. We all need to start thinking more about biology, and ocean governance, and security and pollution."

Thirty-five million people a year now visit the Jersey Shore. An equal number go to New York’s Jones Beach. Even after a huge decline due to concerns over water quality, Los Angeles" beaches still attract some 20 million visitors. There are 20 million annual visitors to our national seashores and even more to our marine sanctuaries. Around 12 million Americans enjoy recreational saltwater fishing, and 10 million like to whale-watch. Eight and a half million Americans are certified scuba divers, and at least an equal number surf, windsurf, bodyboard or surf-kayak.

We’re eating more seafood than ever before and moving to the beach in record numbers. We love the ocean, we use the ocean, but we don’t do enough to protect it. We’ve mapped only 10 percent of the seafloor with the resolution that we’ve mapped 100 percent of the moon. Despite all the problems and challenges we face fighting for our living seas, there is still enough to give one hope. John F. Kennedy said at the 1962 America’s Cup races, "I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think… it’s because we all came from the sea."

DAVID HELVARG is the author of Blue Frontier: Saving America’s Living Seas (W.H. Freeman), from which this story is adapted.