Sunday, June 3, 2012

Peter Benchley Ocean Awards: ocean conservationists recognized at gala event

This past Friday, I attended the 5th Annual Peter Benchley Ocean Awards, held at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco.  The awards are presented by Wendy Benchley and David Helvarg's Blue Frontier Campaign to honor those people who have made quantifiable contributions to ocean conservation.
"For all the challenges we face, people like those we honor tonight offer practical, common sense solutions to help assure abundant, healthy and sustainable coasts, oceans and the communities that depend on them." - Peter Benchley Ocean Awards
To many outside of the ocean conservation community, Peter Benchley is known as the author of JAWS which, over the passage of time, proved to be a two-edged sword for shark awareness.  Peter recognized that, while he wrote a novel based on known perceptions (and some misconceptions) of sharks at the time, much work needed to be done to take the public's initial awareness and fear of sharks and turn it into appreciation and protection. So, while the fame of JAWS would be forever with him, Peter became an ardent and passionate ocean and shark conservationist until he passed away in 2006.
The California Academy of Sciences, situated in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, served as a fitting place to hold the awards.  The Academy brings together several of San Francisco's great science museums and institutions, like the Steinhart Aquarium, in a setting that stresses the importance of science in solving many of the environmental and social problems facing the world today.  The evening started with the usual reception where you could meet recognized ocean conservation luminaries, catch up with colleagues, and make new acquaintances.  But this was more than just an ocean celebrity event.  As the crowd moved to the dining area and the award presentations began, you realized that while many of the award recipients were well known to the audience, they were unknown to most of the broader public.  Their hard work and successes were not motivated by fame and fortune - if there is such a thing in ocean conservation - but by an understanding that our futures are inextricably tied to a healthy blue planet.
A total of eight awards were presented in various categories including national stewardship, policy, science, media, and exploration.  Here are a few highlights:
President Anote Tong of the Republic of Kirabati received the award for Excellence in National Stewardship of the Ocean for his efforts in developing the Phoenix Islands Protected Area, at the time the world's largest marine protected area (150,000 square miles), situated in the Pacific Ocean.  President Tong worked with his government and his people to help realize the importance of PIPA to the long-term survival of Kiribati both environmentally and economically.  The UN recognized PIPA as a World Heritage Site and President Tong is working with other Pacific island nations to form a coalition of linked marine parks that would rival any in size to date.
U.S. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island received the award for Excellence in Policy for his work as a member of the Senate's Environment and Public Works Committee, his efforts to establish the Senate Ocean Caucus, and his introduction of legislation for an Ocean Trust Fund.  As a policy maker in today's political climate where there are those who would like to not only stall any efforts on behalf of the oceans and the environment in general, but would prefer to undo much of the progress that has been made to date, it is a hard row to hoe for someone like Senator Whitehouse.  In his accepting remarks to the audience, he emphasized that perseverance will be needed in the face of some tough opposition ahead.
Underwater photographer Brian Skerry was awarded for his body of work that includes many photos and photo articles for National Geographic.  While his underwater work is spectacular, Brian realized an obligation to go beyond just pretty pictures and to show the whole truth - the beauty of what is worth saving and the tragedy of what is too often taking place.  With his work through National Geographic books and articles and his speaking engagements, Brian brings both enlightenment and a warning that the oceans contain incredible beauty which in many ways is under siege.
Awards were also presented to Dr. Nancy Rabalias for her 30-years of research in the Gulf of Mexico's oxygen-depleted Dead Zone that threatens the Gulf ecology, commercial fishing, and tourism.  Dr. Geraldine Katz was recognized for her work as Executive Director of the Port of Los Angeles, working to reduce the pollution from port equipment, facilities and ships by 75% - way over the original mandate of 20% proposed by the San Pedro Bay ports' Clean Air Action Plan.  Google was recognized for its efforts in developing the Ocean layer component of its Google Earth interactive experience.  With a computer and Google Ocean, any citizen of the world can visit ocean locations, both above and below the surface, to learn more about a world that may be completely foreign to the them and, in the process, come to understand the importance of preserving and protecting it.
The young and the old were recognized: a Hero of the Seas award was presented to posthumously to Peter Douglas who helped create the California Coastal Commission in 1972 and, as Executive Director from 1985 to 2011, faced off with developers, industrialists, and even governors to ensure that the California coast was healthy and safe from destructive development, making it the state treasure that it should always be for the people of California.  Sadly, Peter passed away this past April.
A true David and Goliath story, eleven-year old Ta'Kaiya Blaney, a native First Nations Canadian, was awarded the Christopher Benchley Youth Award, named for the Benchley's late son.  Ta'Kaiya has been taking on the big oil companies that are seeking to build tar-sands pipelines, refineries and shipping terminals in British Columbia.  Concerned with the fate of oil spills on the local sea otters she loves, she has focused her activism through song and has had considerable YouTube exposure for her song, Shallow Waters.  She has more songs on the way and is now working with Greenpeace and First Nations to continue her fight to protect her homeland ecology.

It was a great evening to hear what is being accomplished by a wide range of people who all share a common passion for preserving the environment.  No one is naive; all understand the challenges ahead and all are prepared to work towards real change.
"May we all have our spirits renewed and refreshed while we rededicate ourselves to the protection of our last great commons from sea to shining sea and across this great blue marble planet we call home."
Photo Credits:
Top: Deb Castellana
Bottom: Jennifer Foulkes

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