Monday, May 30, 2011

Blue Vision Summit 3: interview with organizer David Helvarg on ocean conference

The third Blue Vision Summit, which recently concluded in Washington, DC, brought together a diverse group of participants, ranging from noted ocean conservationists and scientists like Dr. Sylvia Earle and David Guggenheim, to government and regulatory agency representatives like NOAA head Dr. Jane Lubchenco and US Senator Sheldon Whitehouse, to a host of filmmakers, artists, and concerned citizen groups.

These are people who, for the most part, know the issues at hand regarding ocean conservation; they are more interested in where we stand regarding solutions. Presentations and discussion panels were held that covered pressing ocean issues from a more policy and politics perspective. The two days of meetings and solution-oriented discussion were offset by more social events in the evening, including the Peter Benchley Awards Ceremony, presented to outstanding individuals in several categories - some of which included ocean science, policy, and youth activism. (Unbeknown to much of the general public, Peter Benchley, following the success of Jaws and seeing the misconceptions it fostered with the general public, devoted a large part of the remainder of his career to ocean and shark conservation.)

As an attendee, I found the Blue Vision Summit to be both a source of optimism and concern. There is progress being made on a variety of specific issues. However, the wheels of governmental progress move agonizingly slow and those involved and committed to ocean conservation must contend with the economic pressures and interests that can often prevent policy makers from making thoughtful long-term decisions regarding our marine resources - the Gulf of Mexico, ravaged by two hurricanes, a major oil spill, and now flooding from the Mississippi River, being a prime example. My hat is off to those who are relentless in their assault on Washington and other centers of government worldwide in defense of the seas.

To best summarize the event, I interviewed the architect behind the Blue Vision Summits, David Helvarg, director of the Blue Frontier Campaign.

RTSea: What was the genesis of the Blue Vision Summits?

DH: Shortly after I wrote my book Blue Frontier I was asked to speak to 1,000 ocean agency and academic types who meet regularly to discuss the status of ocean management. Afterwards, I thought that if you could get an equal number of "seaweed rebels" together you might really turn the tide. In 2003, I recycled my book into the non-profit Blue Frontier Campaign (BFC) hoping to provide an umbrella for local, regional and national groups in the U.S. and in 2004 we had our first Blue Vision Summit in Washington, DC with 250 folks.

RTSea: The timing for the three summits has been spaced out – 2004, 2009, 2011. Why is that?

DH: 2004 was timed to 2 major ocean commissions, the Pew Ocean Commission headed by Leon Panetta that reported in 2003 and the Bush Appointed U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy that reported in 2004. They both suggested that the ecological collapse of our public seas posed a threat to our economy, environment and security and offered a host of solutions. We hoped to spark a BOB ("Big Ocean Bill") as Rep. Sam Farr referred to it, similar to the Clean Air and Clean Water acts of the 20th Century.

For the next 5 years, BFC continued to work on policy, journalistic reporting on the seas - including publication of the book
50 Ways to Save the Ocean, - and regional efforts. With the arrival of the Obama Administration we thought we had another chance to bring the ocean
constituency together and more than 400 attended BVS2 two months after the inauguration. Out of that we saw a lot of momentum around a National Ocean Policy and also established the Peter Benchley Ocean Awards as an annual event. Following the BP oil disaster that I covered in the Gulf and the President's signing off on a National Ocean Policy, we thought we needed another Summit to focus on restoring the Gulf and implementing the Policy. If there is enough marine community support we will try and make the Summits a biannual (every other year) event.

RTSea: One of the key topics of this year’s summit was the legacy of the Gulf of Mexico’s Deepwater Horizon oil spill. Not to downplay that environmental disaster, but why the emphasis?

DH: After Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, the BP oil spill was just the latest insult to an ocean basin that has come to be seen as a national sacrifice area in terms of reckless exploitation. What the Summit focused on both in the "Voices of the Gulf" Plenary organized by the Gulf Restoration Network and the federal panel including NOAA's Jane Lubchenco and Admiral Thad Allen is that, along with low probability/high impact disasters like BP, we have to begin restoration efforts aimed at loss of wetlands, climate change impacts, pollution and a range of ongoing and cascading disasters that are being felt not only in the Gulf but across our living seas.

RTSea: There was a range of responses from the audience, some quite passionate, regarding the oil spill and its aftermath. How do you think the panelists representing government agencies handled themselves and what are your views on government action – federal and state – today in dealing with the spill’s after-affects?

DH: I think the government reps handled themselves well and expected a passionate response from Gulf residents and others. In fact, NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco sent me a positive note on how well she thought the panel she was on went. The larger federal response, unfortunately, has been to work on the impacts from the BP spill while still promoting expanded offshore deep-water drilling. We need to begin a serious effort to transition from fossil fuels. Any new platform is a commitment to at least 30 years of additional greenhouse gas pollution as well as potential marine pollution. The Gulf states' response to the spill has been to try and hoard as much of any settlement fund as they can for themselves individually as states. Until there is a regional commitment to a shared fund focused on restoring the ecosystem and not local infrastructures like roads and convention centers, the state response remains problematic.

RTSea: The Blue Vision Summit was held in Washington D.C. and there was a slant toward policy and regulatory issues. This may not seem particularly “sexy” to some ocean conservationists, but it is, I believe, where many maturing ocean conservation issues ultimately reach a “rubber meets the road” level and either accomplish something concrete or fall to the wayside. How do you see it?

DH: I liked the panel titled "Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning - What's in it for me?" Until local activists (and coastal businesses) working on a range of marine issues understand how a common-sense national ocean policy benefits them, we won't have a large enough constituency to take the President's good words off the paper he signed and put them into the water column. At the same time the feds should be aiming to catch up with solution-oriented policies already being practiced in Massachusetts, Rhode Island, on the West Coast, and elsewhere. They should be moving towards implementing the national ocean policy through designated regional ocean councils. Instead, I'm left with the strong impression that the administration doesn't want to do this until after the 2012 elections and are using some right-wing republicans opposition as an excuse for not moving aggressively.

RTSea: You mention “coastal and marine spatial planning” and this may be a new term to many people reading this. Can you explain what marine spatial planning is in more detail?

DH: Not the most elegant phrase - Coastal and Marine Spatial Planning (CMSP) is, in the words of Admiral Thad Allen (USCG Ret.), "putting urban planning in the water column." I'd conceive it as working with all the stakeholders in our public seas to clean up our watersheds, green our ports and coastal infrastructure, and designate offshore areas for shipping, clean energy, fishing, national defense, marine wilderness parks and wildlife migration corridors - recognizing that everything needs to be integrated in a way that preserves the ecological services and wild qualities of our seas. This common planning approach also increases regulatory certainty for industry, protects resource dependent jobs and strengthens nationals security since, if you have a better sense of where all the players are, its easier to identify the bad actors like pirates, poachers and terrorists.

RTSea: Shark conservation is reaching a similar point where the emotional issue over the brutality of shark finning has propelled a grass roots movement to a level where now we have legislation and international regulations being implemented or, at least, considered. But this brings in a whole new set of players and agendas into the game – the politicians, economic interests, lobbyists, etc. - to whom or which the morality of shark finning does not necessarily resonate and a different strategy or mindset on the part of the shark advocates is needed. Do you find that to be the case with other ocean issues?

DH: Ocean protection is about more than protecting the ecosystem, which you need a certain science grounding to understand. It is also about protecting the ecological services we all depend on. Fortunately, things like marine spatial planning are also complimentary to maritime domain awareness, a key element of national defense. And of course, the Summit also emphasized the links between a healthy ocean and healthy economy. The role of sharks as keystone species that keep reefs and other habitats as healthy sources of coastal protection and tourist revenues suggest other potential allies including the tourist and insurance industries.

RTSea: President Obama has laid the foundation for a U.S. Ocean Policy. But in your view, where do we stand right now and what needs to be done to bring about concrete change?

DH: We as a community need to work on two fronts - One, to make sure the administration moves forward with the regional implementation of the policy before the 2012 elections. At the same time we have to push back against the oil and gas industry and their front groups, like the National Ocean Policy Coalition whose purpose is to destroy the national ocean policy. When Rep. Doc Hastings (R-WA), whose major campaign contributor last year was the oil and gas industry, calls a common sense policy that will protect millions of jobs a "job killer," I'm reminded of Upton Sinclair when he wrote, "It's hard to understand something when your salary depends on your not understanding it."

RTSea: The Blue Vision Summit 3 culminated with a large group of participants meeting with government representatives at the Capitol building, a polite “storming of the Bastille” as it were. Meetings were scheduled with various senators and other officials. What were you hoping to accomplish and what were the results?

DH: We had over 70 meetings with Congressional staff and a few elected officials from many regions including the Gulf and the Rocky Mountain west (we had a contingent with us from the Colorado Ocean Coalition). We made a number of House and Senate offices aware of ocean policy and funding issues including the Ocean Trust Fund proposal introduced by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI). In just one example of increasing understanding we met with staff from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid's office. They commented on lack of communication issues between the White House and the Hill and said they were vaguely aware of the President's ocean policy but weren't clear who was behind it. We were able to explain that we were part of its constituency and provided the history and background of the policy that connected with their concerns.

RTSea: At the conference, it was mentioned that one of the problems with ocean conservation is that it does not have a constituency – at least one that government can or will respond to. There was an attempt circulating to form an Ocean Caucus. Can you explain what this is about and what it’s benefit would be?

DH: Senator Whitehouse (D-RI) is working with Senator Olympia Snowe (R-ME) and others to create a Senate Ocean Caucus similar to the bipartisan House Ocean Caucus to strengthen recognition among their fellow Senators that ocean issues are national issues and getting things right on our blue frontier is of concern to all Americans. By visiting our elected representatives on the Hill and in their home offices in their districts and states we seaweed (marine grassroots) folks at Blue Vision helped strengthen the position of our handful of ocean champions on the hill and hopefully have begun to elevate our public seas into the public policy arena, putting the blue back in our red, white and blue and impacting the larger blue planet beyond our 200 mile ocean borders.

RTSea: So, what’s next for David Helvarg?

DH: Along with the continued work of Blue Frontier including work with Associate Director Mary Kadzielski and our board of directors, I'll be getting back to researching my next book, Golden Shore - The Epic Tale of California and the Sea.

To learn more about the Blue Vision Summit, click here.

To learn more about the Blue Frontier Campaign, click here


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