It’s easy to be pessimistic about the ocean’s future when you scroll through the headlines: Overfishing has decimated fish populations around the world; beaches are thick with plastic; carbon dioxide dumped into the ocean by the burning of fossil fuels is killing off coral reefs; water temperatures around the globe are rising; etc., etc., etc.
Maybe it’s because things have begun to look so dire that there is a renewed concern and interest in all things ocean lately, ranging from economic symposiums and new laws to entrepreneurial investments and a public-awareness boom.
I was nudged last week to think about a variety of good ocean news after reading a post by Peter Seligmann, cofounder, chairman and CEO of Conservation International. He had just attended a couple of big think tanks on ocean issues—at the World Economic Forum in Davos and The Economist’s World Oceans Summit in Singapore—and was moved by how ocean issues seem to have been pushed to the top of a variety of agendas.
““Ocean issues have grown from being a concern of environmental organizations to an urgent topic in corporate boardrooms and the offices of heads of state—an important shift in attitude…””
“In my 36 years of work in conservation, I have never before witnessed as much attention and concern being paid to the deteriorating health of our oceans,” Seligmann wrote. “Ocean issues have grown from being a concern of environmental organizations to an urgent topic in corporate boardrooms and the offices of heads of state—an important shift in attitude that gives me reason for hope.”
With Seligmann’s words as a jumpstart, here are 10 reasons for hope for the planet’s one ocean:
1) JAMES CAMERON’S DEEPSEA CHALLENGER
Filmmaker and undersea explorer James Cameron’s solo drive to the deepest void in the ocean in his chartreuse Deepsea Challenger garnered praise from his peers as well as billions of Internet eyeballs for both its success and innovation. Since 1960, 22 people have walked on the moon; only three people have gone that deep. Given that 90 percent of the ocean is still barely explored, there’s a lot of underwater territory to map out, and Cameron has made it seem exciting. His success will soon be hopefully emulated by Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic, which the entrepreneur activist intends to pilot to the deeps of the Atlantic Ocean before the end of 2012.
2) TARGETING SPECIFIC FIXES WITH THE OCEAN HEALTH INDEX
One thing that has made fixing what’s wrong with the ocean so tricky is that all that water has always seemed massive and uncontrollable, a giant waste dump that will take care of itself without our help. Clearly that’s not true. Conservation International’s soon-to-be-released Ocean Health Index should help governments and businessmen focus on specific fixes, region by region, which will help both ocean health and the economies of the people who live and depend on it. Its scientists have assessed the waters off 172 countries, measuring ten factors—from climate change and acidification to human well-being and conservation plans—in order to come up with numerical rankings to help decide what are the biggest needs and best fixes for that particular corner of the ocean.
3) NEW SPECIES FOUND!
Similarly, for 10 years 2,700 scientists from 80 countries have focused on life below sea level, producing in 2010 an unparalleled look at ocean life dubbed the Census of Marine Life. What did they find? 1,200 new species to add to the 250,000 already-named sea creatures. But perhaps the most exciting—and challenging—part of the research lies in the future: The CoML estimates there are another 750,000 species out there that are still unnamed, swimming around a place long-considered by many to be cold, dark and inhospitable to life.
4) A GLOBAL PARTNERSHIP FOR OCEANS
Just because you convene in big groups to talk about how dire the ocean’s future is does not mean anything will get done, especially if it involves raising and spending money. The recently formed Global Partnership for Oceans is an alliance of governments, environmental groups and the private sector (i.e. bankers) intent on putting money where it’s talking points are, focused on sustainable fisheries and ecosystems as well as jobs.
5) KEEPING THE OCEAN’S “HOPE SPOTS” HEALTHY
It’s hard not to be affected by the enthusiasm for the ocean whenever the Queen of the Deep (Sylvia Earle) speaks, which is often, since she remains the go-to person at virtually every ocean conference around the world. Near to her heart and public role are “Hope Spots” she and her team have identified around the planet. For now, these are 16 marine areas scattered around the globe that are critical to the health of the ocean, which Earle calls “Earth’s blue heart.” Some Hope Spots are already protected as marine preserves, while others are deserving of the same accreditation and protection.
6) COMMITMENT TO CREATING MORE MARINE PROTECTED AREAS
While 12 percent of land is protected by international, national or local designation as reserves or park, far less than one percent of the ocean is similarly protected. Like the Hope Spots, there is a boom in creating new Marine Protected Areas, from California to the Chagos Islands, the Great Barrier Reef to the Baa Atoll in the Maldives. While protecting specific species is often a key reason for protection, so is keeping these areas as viable economies for locals who have depended on them for food and jobs for generations.
7) NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY’S OCEAN INITIATIVE
It’s impossible to miss the National Geographic Society’s fingerprints on many of these ongoing ocean projects, from its early and very public support of Cameron’s deep dive to the Ocean Health Index and Earle’s Hope Spots. Its own Ocean Initiative is driven by the passion of executive vice president Terry Garcia, former deputy administrator of NOAA, and extends to all of its media platforms, from its website to specials on its television channel.
MORE FUNDING FOR OCEAN EXPLORATION
It turns out Cameron isn’t the only mega-rich guy desiring credibility as an ocean explorer. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos funded the project that just discovered—using high-tech sonar technology—the giant F-1 rocket engines that powered the Apollo 11 moon shot and have been lost at sea since 1969. Google chief executive Eric Schmidt funds the eponymous Schmidt Ocean Institute, intent on mounting seaborne expeditions using state-of-the-art-technology to explore—and share—scientific information about the ocean.
9) THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION’S NATIONAL OCEAN POLICY
Until the Obama Administration, no presidency had even proposed a National Ocean Policy. Aimed at coordinating regional efforts on fishing rules and regulations, marine protected areas, pollution, and America’s coastlines, the policy has not been adopted as law yet but an executive order signed by the president in July 2010 directs federal agencies to work together on policies that strengthen ocean governance.
10) BIG CHAIN SUPERMARKETS THAT SUPPORT SUSTAINABLE SHOPPING
At the consumer level, supermarkets—including a number of big chains —are very publicly onboard with trying to educate shoppers about which fish are most sustainable and which are not. On Earth Day (April 22) Whole Foods, for example, will announce that it will no longer carry wild-caught fish regarded as at-risk, including Albacore tuna, bluefin tuna, imported shrimp, as well as most mahi mahi, shark, red snapper and tilapia. Armed with research done by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the Blue Ocean Institute’s Seafood Guide, modern-day fishmongers and buyers are increasingly knowledgeable about which fish are abundant, and which are not.
Kunahadhoo Island — On a very hot, very typical, mid-morning in the Maldives, I walked the streets of this tiny island just north of the equator.
Indian film director Shekhar Kapur, Photo: Scott Needham/Six Senses
Most of its 800 residents had gathered at the shoreline to greet visitors from a nearby island. While they focused on a first-of-a-kind beach cleanup along the rocky coast, accompanied by a drum band and dancing, I took a small walking tour looking for something the Maldives doesn’t have much of: drinking water.
(A late morning visit to its elementary school provided another interesting glimpse into island life. While most of the students raised their hands and said they knew how to swim, virtually none had ever worn a mask and snorkel, so had no idea of the rich life that surrounded their island home.)
It was quickly evident from the jury-rigged plumbing systems fitted to the exteriors of most of the one-story cement homes that the options for delivering clean water were few. Some homes had barrels for collecting rainwater; others had wells dug into the rocky island terrain. Most of them, they admitted, leaked.
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A recent news story from another Maldivian island group exemplified the problem, reporting that a dozen islands had nearly run out of water completely. Everyone on the island also admitted that if it weren’t for the arrival of the weekly cargo boat, and its bottles of water in plastic, they wouldn’t last a week on what they had in storage.
“I am very upset with the government because we need water,” 42-year-old Jameela Aboobakuru from Gaafaru had explained to the Maldives Bug. “We ran out of water, so we borrowed water from our brother. When he ran out of water we started buying bottled water imported from Male.”
She said her 12-member family was spending $22 a day to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking, on a combined daily income of just $26.
“She said her 12-member family was spending $22 a day to buy bottled water for drinking and cooking, on a combined daily income of just $26.”
That means 85 percent of their income was going to buy fresh water.
The response from the government in Male was that it was installing water makers in a boat that could travel from island to island to help out in such emergencies.
Just two days before my walk around Kunahadhoo, the tiny Pacific island nation of Tuvalu had actually declared a state of emergency due to a severe shortage of fresh water. Officials in that Indian Ocean island group were reporting that some parts of the country had only two days of water left. Its tiny island of Nukulaelae reported it had just 60 liters of drinking water left for 330 people.
Like the Maldives, Tuvalu relies almost exclusively on rainwater collected from the roofs of homes and government buildings to supply a population of 10,000.
“Like the Maldives, Tuvalu relies almost exclusively on rainwater collected from the roofs of homes and government buildings to supply a population of 10,000.”
Speaking at the WaterWoMen conference I was attending on the neighboring island in Laamu Atoll, Dr. Jacqueline Chan, president of Water Charity, which helps communities around the world find clean water and sanitation, reminded us all that the lack of clean water was certainly not a problem faced by the Maldives or Tuvalu alone.
“There are 884 million people in the world without access to safe water,” she said. “That’s the equivalent of the populations of the U.S., Vietnam, Germany, the U.K., Kuwait, Russia, Thailand, France, Italy and Qatar combined. “If all those countries had no water, would we do something? Or just stand by and watch?”
In a lively debate that concluded the day, Indian filmmaker Shekhar Kapur (Elizabeth and Elizabeth: The Golden Age) was specific in his prediction about the planet’s future when it comes to clean water: “Long before we run out of water, we’ll go to war over it.
“Nature loves cockroaches and algae as much as it does people, and it’s possible only they will survive.”
California has long had the reputation as the country’s “greenest” state. But a recent report mandated by the federal Clean Water Act suggests the state’s rivers, lakes and coastline are more polluted today than they were five years ago.
Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
According to the state’s EPA, between 2006 and 2011 overall toxicity of its waters increased by 170 percent.
“California has some of the most magnificent rivers, lakes and coastal waters in the country,” California EPA spokesman Nahal Mogharabi said in a news release. “However, of its 3.0 million acres of lakes, bays, wetlands and estuaries, 1.6 million acres are not meeting water quality goals and 1.4 million acres still need pollution clean-up plans.”
The twist on the report is that the state has improved its water monitoring system and uses better assessment tools today than it did five years ago. Unfortunately, the results of the testing have worsened.
“According to the state’s EPA, between 2006 and 2011 overall toxicity of its waters increased by 170 percent.”
The California study is especially timely because the state is on the verge of instituting its so-called Marine Life Protection Initiative, a controversial law requiring set asides of coastal areas into Marine Protected Areas, which has been heavily criticized by environmentalists as “greenwashing.” Its critics say the legislation—pushed by former Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger—is weak on protection from corporate aquaculture, oil exploration and spills, military testing and more, only putting real limits on fishermen.
Even the highly vaunted Monterey Bay Aquarium has come in for criticism, in part thanks to its support of the MPLA law. The museum was recently granted an exemption from a state ban on dumping wastewater into a Marine Protected Area (MPA) in the bay, according to a report in California Watch. Critics of the exemption wonder why the museum is being allowed to dump its wastewater into a protected area while fishermen are not allowed to fish in the same area.
Museum communications director Ken Peterson told California Watch that the “so-called waste” was water originally taken from Monterey Bay and returned after circulating through the aquariums exhibits. “It is virtually as clean when returns to the ocean as it was when it came into the aquarium hours earlier.”
That’s just one example of the new law’s flaws, say critics, insisting the one thing the legislation fails to do is “protect water quality.” As evidenced by the state’s own recent studies, clean water is already a dubious issue in California.
Those opposed to the new law have suggested that in California MPA does not stand for Marine Protected Area, but rather Marine Poaching Area or Marine Polluted Areas.
(For the rest of my dispatches go to TakePart.com)
In a place where things couldn’t seem to get any worse, the remote island nation of Tuvalu has announced that parts of the country are just days away from running out of drinking water.
Photo by Jon Bowermaster
Long the poster child for the pessimistic future of low-lying islands, thanks to rising sea levels due to climate change, the Pacific Ocean archipelago of Tuvalu—four reef islands and five atolls halfway between Australia and Hawaii—declared a state of emergency last week. It hasn’t rained in Tuvalu in seven months, due to a combination of climate change, a three-year long el Nina and subsequent drought. One of its islands, Nukulaelae, claimed to have just 60 liters of drinking water for its 330 people.
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The tiny nation has been in the headlines for the past decade, ever since one of its prime ministers announced the country would one day be forced to move its entire population to New Zealand, Australia or Fiji before the expected sea level rise of 8 to 16 inches by the end of the century made the islands unlivable.
A very short-term fix to the water shortage arrived on Monday when Tuvalu’s closest neighbors in New Zealand sent desalination units and containers of fresh water to the country of 11,000 (the fourth smallest in the world). A Tuvaluan Navy ship distributed water and Red Cross volunteers earlier this week throughout the chain. Most needed were collapsible water containers, hand sanitizers and tarpaulins (to capture any rare rain that may fall). Rationing of water across the Pacific is now part of daily life. Families in Tuvalu, which can be up to 10 people, are living on 40 liters a day.
A lack of sanitation is also having an impact on human health. This week Tuvalu’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced a travel alert after suspected cases of cholera were discovered.
“One of its islands, Nukulaelae, claimed to have just 60 liters of drinking water for its 330 people.”
Unfortunately Tuvalu’s problem is not isolated and is spreading across the Pacific. Three-hundred miles east, the tiny New Zealand-administered island of Tokelau has also declared a state of emergency, claiming to have less than a week’s worth of drinking water. Even big islands like Samoa are in desperate need of fresh water; its riverbeds and farms are drying up.
As the region’s leaders wrestle with how to provide its populace with clean drinking water, other impacts of climate change continue apace: In March saline saltwater seeped inland on the atoll of Funafuti, the capital of Tuvalu, due to rising sea levels, poisoning wells and killing crops. Perhaps its population will have to emigrate sooner than expected.
(For the rest of my dispatches go to TakePart.com)
A little more than two decades ago I was among the first national journalists to question the social and economic impact of the fast spreading “Walmart-ization” of the U.S.
An Ocean Conservancy beach cleanup on South Padre Island, Texas. Walmart donated $3.7 million to the conservancy last year. (Photo: Ho New/Reuters)
The already huge, volume-buying, deep-discounting, low-wage-paying giant box stores were proliferating across rural America, many of them sucking business away from already bad small-town economies. For stories published in The New York Times Magazine and Mother Jones, I spent several weeks in the heart of Iowa—Independence, population 6,100—talking with Main Street shop owners, realtors, county politicians, and the town’s mayor about their fears and hopes as the economic landscape shifted around them. Given the inevitable loss of homegrown business they knew would accompany Walmart’s arrival, it was hard not to see it as bad for the town.
Back then, in 1989, there were 1,400 Walmart’s spread across the U.S., generating sales of $20.6 billion a year; Sam Walton was the richest man in the country, with an estimated worth of $6.7 billion.
Today the now-global enterprise has 9,600 retail units under 69 different banners in 28 countries, with sales in 2011 of $419 billion. While Bill Gates topped 2010’s Forbes list of wealthiest Americans ($54 billion), coming in at numbers 7, 8 and 9 were Sam Walton’s three kids (Jim, Alice and Rob, worth about $20 billion each). If papa were still alive and heading the company he started, he’d easily be the richest man in America.
Which is a circuitous way of attempting to weigh the pros and cons of what the Walton family chooses to spend its money on. In recent years the Walton Family Foundation has “tiptoed” into giving to environmental issues, particularly efforts to protect ocean and freshwater.
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While the bulk of the family foundation giving goes to education reform and much of it stays in their home state of Arkansas, it has generously given to environmental initiative. Last year alone they nearly donated $72 million, including more than $36 million to grantees working on ocean issues—the Ocean Conservancy ($3.7 million), Conservation International Foundation ($18.6 million), Nature Conservancy ($9.3 million) the Marine Stewardship Council ($4.5 million), the World Wildlife Fund and Environmental Defense Fund ($7 million)—and nearly $23 million earmarked for freshwater conservation.
“In recent years the Walton Family Foundation has ‘tiptoed’ into giving to environmental issues, particularly efforts to protect ocean and freshwater.”
“We focus our work in the United States’ primary river systems and in some of the world’s most ecologically significant marine areas,” says the foundation’s director of Environment Focus, Scott Burns. “It’s important to us to protect and conserve natural resources while also recognizing the roles these waters play in the livelihoods of those who live nearby.” The specific projects it funds are mostly aimed at encouraging sustainability and efforts to get fishermen working together with environmentalists.
The foundation’s effort has ironically been muddied by fishermen, who protest that one goal of the big environmental groups Walmart supports is to put more and more U.S. waters off-limits…to fishermen. New Jersey’s Recreational Fishing Alliance, for one, calls the gifts an effort to “fund the demise of both the recreational and commercial fishing industry.” The group’s biggest concern is the spreading of Marine Protected Areas, which it regards as taking away the inalienable right to fish wherever/whenever for whatever.
The RFA and others have organized boycotts of Walmart (Safeway, too, which has also supported the creation of MPAs). Protestors suggest the Waltons’ charitable giving may one day directly impact their stores cash registers; no sense buying all those fishing lures and tackle from Walmart if the fishing grounds are closed off.
The very real problem of “overfishing” clearly does not register with the protestors.
“Walmart apparently prefers customers buy farm-raised fish and seafood caught by foreign countries outside of U.S. waters, while denying individual anglers the ability to head down to the ocean to score a few fish for their own table,” says executive director of the RFA Jim Donofrio.
For their part, the recipients of Walmart’s charitable largesse have mostly kept quiet about the kerfuffle. EDF spokesman Tom Lalley represents the distancing the marine groups have tried to put between themselves and at least the reputation of the box stores: “It was the family, and specifically the family’s foundation, that made a contribution for sustainable fishing and ocean conservation, not the store.”
Regardless, Walmart the corporation has been invested in at least seeming environmentally responsible in more recent years. Wisely viewing it as both the right thing to do for the environment and simultaneously good for the bottom line, the company has been a leader among big corporations trying to green operations. Its environmental efforts include reducing waste, encouraging environmentally friendly packaging, using as much renewable energy as possible, promoting energy efficiency, improving its delivery trucks’ fuel efficiency and requiring factories around the world to comply with local environmental regulations. Specific examples on the shelves include being a top seller of concentrated laundry detergent, convincing CD, DVD and videogame makers to make lighter cases to reduce transport carbon emissions and encouraging light bulb makers to refine designs.
But Walmart is responsible for creating a variety of environmental messes that no amount of greenwashing can make go away, and some in the environmental community think that it’s all too little, too late. Walmart Watch, a nonprofit group run by the Center for Community and Corporate Ethics, says the company has paid numerous fines over the last decade for violating air and water pollution rules, and that its green initiatives will easily be erased by its sheer growth, which will mean more energy usage, more delivery truck trips and even more miles driven by consumers to get to Walmart stores that displaced smaller, more local ones.
In addition, many of its stores run 24 hours a day, using up much more energy than the majority of other retail stores. The large parking lots are major contributors to “no point source” water pollution (a leading cause of water pollution in the U.S.). In 2010 Walmart was forced to pay $27.6 million to the government of California for violating environmental laws, a suit initiated after a health inspector observed a Walmart employee dumping bleach down a drain.
And what transpired in Independence, Iowa, after Walmart came to town? Main Street continued to shutter and its population dropped. Five years ago Walmart opened a 99,000-square-foot Supercenter in the town, one of 35 in the state. Five hundred people lined up to apply for the 125 new “associates” jobs, paying $10.30 an hour.
(For the rest of my dispatches go to TakePart.com)
Floodwaters and winds wreak havoc on the narrow ravines and shallow-rooted forests of Vermont and New York; wildfires torch the desiccated Texas plains that have gone 300 straight days without rainfall; buckets pour down on the Gulf Coast once again, drowning ecosystems, hopes and dreams; and the great rivers of the American West are running dry. Sounds downright Biblical in its apocalyptic-ness, doesn’t it? Blame whomever you like, from heaven to hell to politicians to the Army Corps of Engineers to mall developers, but this is the reality of our environment in the first decade of the 21st century.
Photo by Pete McBride
Among all that doom and gloom, who would have predicted that those big American rivers—especially the granddaddy of them all, the Colorado River—would today be so imperiled. Yet tapped for the past 80 years for farms, drinking water, urban growth, suburban sprawl and recreation by a human population of more than 25 million, the Colorado currently no longer even reaches the sea. The 1,450-mile-long river, which not so long ago boasted a fertile, life-enriching delta covering 2 million acres, peters out about 90 miles from the Sea of Cortez.
Thanks to the work of two Colorado-based journalists, writer and adventurer Jon Waterman and photographer Pete McBride, the Colorado’s near-demise and its future were the subject of a seven-month-long descent and new accounts in a pair of books, photos and a short film.
In June 2008 Waterman—an experienced wilderness guide, park ranger and writer—set out to paddle the length of the Colorado, from its headwaters to south of the Mexican border; McBride joined him for parts of the descent and spent months capturing powerful photographs of its length from a small plane (often piloted by his father John), often from just a couple hundred feet above.
The river’s complex history of dams and diversions, the construction of massive canals to further drain it down, and its natural power and beauty all lend drama to their modern-day stories. But it is the anecdote about where the river runs dry that is the most powerful of all.
The conclusion of the descent in January 2009, in Waterman’s words, (from an essay for the Patagonia company’s fall catalog), paints the harsh reality: “Two miles into Mexico, my hopes of a complete 1,450-mile descent ended in a foamy pond of congealed fertilizers, distillate of countless American lawns and 3.4 million thirsty farm acres. I splashed out in bare feet, worried that our most iconic white water river would make me physically ill. (Pete) stayed clean by climbing out through the tamarisk trees. We tried to wipe the river shit off our pack rafts with tamarisk fronds, cursing the system that has diminished the Mighty Colorado to a stinking cesspool.”
“The 1,450-mile-long river, which not so long ago boasted a fertile, life-enriching delta covering 2 million acres, peters out about 90 miles from the Sea of Cortez.”
What happened? “Engineered to death” is Waterman’s conclusion, detailed in his book Running Dry: A Journey From Source to Sea Down the Colorado River: “…more than 100 dams and 1,000 miles of canals divert its water to most every farm, industry and city within a 250-mile radius of the river. Each year, seven western states and northern Mexico take 16.5 million acre-feet (enough water to supply 33 million American households) of river water. Amid the 12th year of drought in the Southwest, climate models show that conditions will continue to dry the snowmelt-fed river. Add explosive population growth, increasing the demand for water, and the river’s future becomes a ticking time bomb.”
McBride’s dramatic book of photos and film (Chasing Water) are bringing the river’s sickness to an ever-bigger audience across the West. An exhibit of words and pictures—“The Colorado River: Flowing Through Conflict”—is currently on display at Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Having grown up on a cattle ranch near Aspen, McBride admits to having taken the river’s abundance for granted; now he’s an advocate for its continued protection, “alarmed” by what he’s seen.
Like most of our environmental messes, parts of this one are reparable. The Tucson-based Sonoran Institute is leading an effort to save what remains of the Colorado River delta and has specific steps for how individuals can help. Cooperation between Mexico and the U.S. would be a big help and is being encouraged by the International Boundary & Water Commission. Patagonia’s yearlong “Our Common Waters” campaign points to a handful of organizations working on water-related clean-up projects.
For the full story, check out Waterman’s book-length account and the pair’s book of photo-and-text.
(For the rest of my dispatches go to TakePart.com)
Photo by Pete McBride
Photo by Pete McBride
Photo by Pete McBride
Photo by Pete McBride