Marchers in support of protecting the oceans will rally attention tomorrow about serious threats affecting oceans—including offshore drilling and plastics pollution—and risks to coastal communities from hurricanes and rising sea levels. The main event will take place in Washington, D. C. About 100 related events are scheduled for locales across the United States and elsewhere.
The goal for the March for the Ocean is “to raise the profile for critical issues confronting our blue planet,” according to David Helvarg, chair of the march’s steering committee and executive director of the Washington, D. C.–based Blue Frontier Campaign. Helvarg, who previously worked as a journalist, is the author of six books, including Blue Frontier, The War Against the Greens, and 50 Ways to Save the Ocean.
Eos interviewed Helvarg a few days ago about ocean issues and the upcoming event. The discussion has been condensed and edited for flow and grammar. The march organizers have provided information about the Washington, D. C., march’s route, speakers, and other details on the March for the Ocean website.
Eos: What is the March for the Ocean, and why do we need another march?
Helvarg: One of the reasons for marching is to bring the importance of the ocean to all of us and [bring] some of the critical issues of our public seas into the public square to engage more people in civic action. So people might march for the ocean in June and vote for the ocean in November.
Under the Trump administration, the approach to the ocean seems to be that it’s a gas station [with undersea oil reserves], it’s a garbage dump. We’re specifically looking at a range of issues. This isn’t about being another march against Trump. This is about solutions. This is about we have problems, and we know what the answers are.
We’re advocating not just against the administration’s plans to open up over 90% of our public water to oil and gas drilling and inevitable spilling, but we’re advocating for a rapid transition from fossil fuels to generating renewable energy. We’re talking about eliminating plastic pollution of the ocean by focusing on corporate responsibility for this tsunami wave of single-use throwaway plastic packaging and moving beyond that to more practical forms of packaging that don’t contribute to the alteration and pollution of our seas and sea life.
And finally, it’s about coastal resilience. It’s the beginning of [the Atlantic] hurricane season that has the potential to be as wild as last year’s with hurricanes Harvey and Irma and Maria, and we want to promote living infrastructure. We’re advocating for the restoration or the protection of dunes and estuaries and salt marshes and sea grasses and both oyster and coral reefs as natural barriers that will help protect us from rising seas and hurricanes that are intensified by a warming ocean.
We get so much from the ocean in terms of half our oxygen, all our rain, the whole water cycle, but also recreation, transportation, trade, energy, protein, just a sense of awe and wonder to be part of something larger than ourselves, that you want to give something back. This June 9 is an opportunity for people to give back through civic engagement.
What we’re doing on June 9, on World Oceans Day weekend, is we’re showing that there is a growing political will to do the right thing for our seas.
Eos: Is there an overarching or most significant problem affecting oceans?
Helvarg: The biggest problem is that people look out at the ocean and many people still think it’s too vast to impact. In fact, we’ve been impacting it in very negative ways. We know how to turn the tide, we know how to have sustainable seas and healthy blue economies.
The big problem that links the three themes [of the march] of offshore drilling, plastic pollution, and coastal resilience is the need to transition. Coal and oil were great energy systems for [past] centuries. But we’re in the 21st century, and we need to move to the next energy revolution, which will be renewables, which will be carbon-free energy, which is going to generate a lot of jobs.
Eos: How did we get to this point where the oceans are in such trouble?
Helvarg: The oceans are a very challenging environment for us. It’s a salty, liquid medium that’s unbreathable. The pressure on our bodies doubles every 33 feet [~10 meters] down. It’s got currents, tempests, storms, upwellings, biological challenges, things that sting and bite. It’s an extremely hostile environment that we’re not really familiar with.
There are a few million people who dive. There are close to 8 billion of us on the planet, and on any day there are probably only a few million of us that are on the 71% of the planet’s surface that’s salt water. There are not a lot of people who live in a marine environment. A lot of us live on the shore without much knowledge of this wilderness that’s just beyond our doorsteps, until it comes roaring back in a hurricane.
When people begin to make their connection with the sea—and not just people on the coastline—when people like the Inland Ocean Coalition, one of our 200 partners, begin to make the connections between salt water and freshwater and the resources that connect us all to the sea, then we can begin to effectively move forward on promoting solutions.
With a combination of hubris and greed, we took as much as we could from the ocean. We used it as a cornucopia and a garbage dump. And now in the early 21st century we’re seeing the consequences of a kind of reckless approach to what we considered an unending bonanza. If we approach the ocean with some humility and some respect and work in the ocean with the best scientific understanding that the present state of science allows, we just might be able to start to turn the tide.
Eos: Have you witnessed ocean problems?
Helvarg: I’ve seen too much of the damage. Part of me says what we’re doing is we’re not bringing back pristine seas, we’re doing triage. But triage is important, too, if we can save enough, if we can restore enough to have a biological reserve, to have parts of the ocean that are healthy enough that things can come back once we do begin to make the right decisions and do what we can. We don’t want to despair, we don’t want to be passive. We want to take action. In the 1970s, the last time ocean conservation was an issue, people marched to save the whales. Well, we’re back, and these decades later, now we’re marching to save it all, including the whales.
Eos: What gives you hope about the future of the oceans?
Helvarg: The ocean and the climate and the linked system they represent [are facing] an existential threat. In the 20th century, we faced fascism, and we faced the nuclear balance of terror, and we survived them both, and it may not be too late to survive this threat. But first we have to recognize it. We can’t call it a hoax, we can’t deny it. We can’t pretend that the ocean is both a cornucopia of unlimited resources and at the same time a convenient place to dump our garbage and our waste and our mercury from our coal-fired power plants.
That’s why we have to take action. That’s why we are rallying for marine protection, based on the best available science that is telling us what we need to do. Now we just need to do it.
—Randy Showstack (@RandyShowstack), Staff Writer