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Seaweed Rebellion

By Stuart Coleman // July 5, 2006 // Originally published on

For a long time, environmentalists in America have been viewed as little more than prophets crying out in the wilderness. Few heeded their apocalyptic warnings about environmental degradation, species extinction and global warming. That is, until recently.

With the announcement that President George W. Bush had declared the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands (NWHI) a national monument, the release of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth and other developments, the tide may finally be turning. However, ocean conservationist David Helvarg hopes the message to save our seas will be heard before it’s too late.

Director of the Blue Frontier Campaign and author of The Blue Frontier: Dispatches From America’s Ocean Wilderness, Helvarg was in town earlier this month to promote his new book 50 Ways to Save Our Oceans. A guest of the Hawaiian advocacy group KAHEA-The Hawaiian Environmental Alliance, Helvarg arrived on the same day that unlikely conservationist Bush made the surprising move to protect the NWHI.

With his prematurely gray hair and youthful blue-green eyes, Helvarg appeared both exhausted and exhilarated during a recent meeting with Honolulu Weekly. Tired from continually trying to convince leaders to support conservation, the Blue Frontier director ([]) was clearly excited about the news of the NWHI and grateful towards the environmental groups that helped make it happen.

‘Bush said he watched Cousteau’s documentary on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and that’s what inspired him [to make it a national monument]. But when asked if he was going to see Al Gore’s film, he said, ‘No, I’m not going to watch that movie.’

‘This is very much parallel to the creation of our national parks system because it’s really our first great wilderness park in the ocean that will be fully protected,’ Helvarg says.

The ocean activist believes that Bush’s recent declaration was the result of a marine grassroots movement that he calls the ’seaweed rebellion.’ And although environmental activists can claim the monument designation a victory, it is only one battle in a much larger war. Here in Hawai’i and across the world, oceans are losing against the forces of coastal sprawl, industrial overfishing, pollution and wetland destruction.

Under Bush’s watch, the government has rolled back environmental protections and given free reign to big business and the military. In the guise of ‘wise use’ policy, forests, rivers and oceans have been handed over to the lumber, agribusiness and fishing industries.

But does the president’s decision to preserve the NWHI mean that his administration has now joined the fight for ocean conservation? ‘George Bush may be recorded as the worst environmental president in U.S. history,’ Helvarg says, ‘but he now has an asterisk by his name for giving monumental status to the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands.’

A brief history of ocean conservation

Helvarg says that research at the nation’s top marine science centers started out with an emphasis on ecology, but then shifted to the physical science of oceanography due to the outbreak of World War II. About 80 years ago, the founder of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography began talking about the inter-relationship of living systems in the near-shore waters, and this became the fledgling field of ecology. ‘And that’s what a lot of marine science was until about World War II,’ Helvarg says.

But after Pearl Harbor, things changed suddenly, and what the Navy needed was to fight a war. ‘To fight it on the ocean, they needed physical oceanographers, people who understood sound and salinity, so we could develop sonar capacity in the submarines, and people who understood wave trains and beach dynamics, so we could do amphibious landings.’

After WWII, the Navy saw the importance of these scientists, and they continued funding them during the Cold War. ‘The physical oceanographers became the leaders of the science centers,’ Helvarg explains. ‘This was also a time when the near-shore ecosystems were collapsing and marine scientists were not alerting us to this reality. So at the end of the Cold War, we started seeing this return to biology.’

Some progress was made in the 1970s with the passage of the Clean Water Act–many of whose regulations were recently dismantled by the Bush administration–and the creation of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). But in a blatantly political move, President Richard Nixon moved NOAA to the Department of Commerce, where it would be more subservient to the same corporate interests who were polluting rivers or overfishing the oceans. Some say that it should have gone to the Department of the Interior, which is in charge of the nation’s wildlife and parks.

Since then, Helvarg writes in Blue Frontier, ‘NOAA’s various directors, designated as under-secretaries of commerce, have come from Navy-linked institutions’ or the Navy itself. Instead of managing and protecting the ocean’s natural resources, these directors appear to be often swayed by the interests of the military and big business. Recent examples include the Navy’s decision to go ahead with testing their submarine sonar program in the face of documented damage to whales and dolphins who have beached themselves in testing areas and the devastation of the lobster program by commercial fishermen. Meanwhile, scientists at NOAA have been more focused on developing their research in hopes of influencing policy makers rather than taking active stands against the destruction of our wetlands, beaches and marine life.

Unfortunately, many of these scientists were a little naive in thinking they could just go to Washington and educate the politicians about the issues and enact policy changes. ‘This is just like trying to educate sharks,’ Helvarg says. ‘These guys are hard-wired to other stimuli, and those stimuli are money and votes.’

As a journalist himself, Helvarg knows the mainstream media should have done a better job educating the public about the growing environmental crisis. But like schools of fish, they were too busy following the lead of their big corporate owners and darting from one juicy scandal to another.

Helvarg jokes that while scientists tend to be obsessive-compulsive about their research, journalists tend to suffer from Attention-Deficit Disorder, unable to focus on crucial yet complex environmental problems.

The ocean conservationist believes that real change will not come from scientists, journalists or politicians, but from a broader coalition of environmental groups and voters. That is why he considers the executive order to give monument status to the NWHI such a grassroots success story.

‘For the most part, it became a collaborative process from the bottom up, with groups of people like KAHEA here in Hawai’i,’ Helvarg says. ‘Everytime, there were public hearings there were hundreds of people who would come out and advocate for the strongest level of protection. And that really grew up to where the governor endorsed it and the state gave it protection.’

The call to action

Cha Smith, director of KAHEA, began working on this issue six years ago and helped form an alliance of Hawaiian and environmental groups to fight for the preservation of the NWHI. Other groups included the Ilio’ulaokalani, the Sierra Club-Hawai’i and Environmental Defense, all of whom worked with Gov. Linda Lingle to make the area a protected sanctuary.

With monk seals in danger of extinction and the devastation of the lobster population, Smith and the other groups advocated making the NWHI a no-commercial-fishing sanctuary. KAHEA embraced the Hawaiian concept of pu’u honua, ‘a place of true refuge and regeneration.’ Smith says, ‘That’s what this place needs to be.’

KAHEA and other environmental groups have been fighting with the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council (Wespac) over the fate of the NWHI. Some accuse the council, which develops fishery management plans for the Hawaiian Islands and Pacific territories, of overfishing the area and not managing it well. While Wespac Executive Director Kitty Simonds recently insisted that ‘[t]his is a healthy, well-managed fishery,’ Smith claims that Wespac has always emphasized short-term fishing profits over long-term sustainability. Furthermore, the waters under Wespac’s charge only account for ‘2 percent of the entire total U.S. catch’ but receives 25 percent of all federal fishery funds, according to a recent Weekly article.

While the grassroots troops in the seaweed rebellion helped lead the charge to protect the NWHI, in the end it was the son of famous oceanographer Jacques Cousteau, who ultimately convinced Bush to protect the island chain.

In his documentary Journey to Kure, Jean-Michel Cousteau, showed the rest of the world the fragile beauty of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands. With the film, he showed how delicate the ecosystem of the NWHI is and how some fish populations have declined.

After viewing the film, Bush signed an executive order preserving the NWHI as a pristine marine sanctuary and putting a five-year cap on commercial fishing there. After that period, commercial fishing will be off limits. In many ways, the battle between environmental groups and Wespac over the NWHI was over. The seaweed rebellion was victorious.

But, victory or not, the fighting goes on.

5 ways to save our oceans

At the 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro, 190 heads of state came together for the first time to deal with the issue of climate change and environmental protection. There were also activists from around the world who went there to make sure the leaders heard their message. One night, 30,000 people gathered in the streets for a march, half of them activists, half of them poor people from the favelas, the slums, of Rio. They were marching through the streets under a banner that read, ‘When the people lead, the leaders will follow.’ This is what David Helvarg means by the term ’seaweed rebellion,’ which must start from the bottom up. Below are five ways to start the ocean conservation movement and fight for what he calls the Blue Frontier.

Stop industrial overfishing

According to Helvarg, commercial fishermen take the equivalent weight of ‘900 aircraft carriers of living biomass out of the world’s oceans each year. It’s an unsustainable rate. We’re using all the technology we inherited from World War II, sonar, loran, radar and now we’re using satellites and aerial surveillance to track fish into what used to be their sanctuaries.’

Helvarg and environmentalists like Cha Smith believe that it’s important to create fishing limits, set up no-take zones and enforce laws protecting endangered species like the monk seal and blue fin tuna. It’s been reported that 90 percent of the large predator fish population has been eradicated by industrial overfishing.

Lobby to reform NOAA and move it out of the Commerce Department

Both the Pew Foundation and the U.S. Ocean Commission have reported that our oceans are in danger, and they recommended setting up an independent and unified ocean agency. Instead, we have the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which ‘remains firmly attached to [the Department of] Commerce like a barnacle to a commercial wharf piling,’ Helvarg writes in his book Blue Frontier. ‘By emphasizing the uncertainty of science and the need for more study, NOAA’s directors have avoided making policy decisions that might affect corporate interests, which look to the Department Commerce for support, not regulation.’

Most of the fisheries councils have therefore become dominated by big commercial fishing companies. This conflict of interest is like putting a shark in charge of the fishpond or ‘letting Dracula drive the bloodmobile,’ Smith says.

Although Helvarg has met many well-meaning NOAA employees who are working on behalf of the Blue Frontier, he has found ‘many of them frustrated and demoralized by the institution’s misplaced priorities, misplaced plans and often, literally, misplaced reports, schedules and calendars.’ He adds, ‘This institutional driftÖhas led to a popular insider acronym for NOAA: No Organization At All.’ Instead, we need an independent ocean agency that can stand up to big business and the military and enforce resource management and protection.

Stop coastal sprawl and restore the wetlands

From 1980 to 2004, the number of homeowners moving to coastal communities exploded by 28 percent. Today, more than 53 percent of the country’s population lives within 50 miles of these fragile shores, and another 12 million are expected to move to the coast by 2015. Part of the reason for this movement is cheap federal flood insurance, which allows people to build expensive homes close to the coast and then makes taxpayers cover the costs of rebuilding them after they are damaged by erosion or destroyed by flooding. These coastal communities create massive run-off and untreated sewage that often flows right into the ocean like the recent Ala Wai sewage spill.

Coastal sprawl also destroys the natural wetlands and salt marshes, which Helvarg says are ‘the nurseries for much of our marine wildlife. But we’re overbuilding and tearing them down and replacing them with high-rise condos.’

Helvarg says that the ‘economic push is so strong and the tourism industry so dominant a part of the economy that sometimes it’s hard to see the long-term advantages of protection when the short-term benefits are so pressingÖLook at Turtle Bay. What does O’ahu need more than living ecosystems? How about 3,500 new condominiums?’

While it seems difficult to stop these commercial developments, look at the success of the Save Our Kaka’ako movement, which halted the construction of luxury condo towers on public land.

Beware of global warming and heed this global warning

With the recent release of Al Gore’s documentary An Inconvenient Truth, more and more Americans are awaking to the reality of global warming. We are slowly becoming aware of its documented effects and potentially devastating consequences like the melting of the polar icecaps, rising sea levels and more severe weather patterns, including massive hurricanes, tornadoes and flooding. ‘We sort of recognize that climate change is real, but we’ve done nothing to address the issues,’ Helvarg warns. ‘Bush said he watched Cousteau’s documentary on the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands, and that’s what inspired him [to make it a national monument]. But when asked if he was going to see Al Gore’s film, he said, ‘No, I’m not going to watch that movie.’

It’s time to get our heads out of the sand and start looking at how global warming is affecting our beaches and coastlines. ‘We know 70 percent of sandy beaches around the world are eroding,’ Helvarg writes in Blue Frontier. ‘We saw global bleaching in ‘97, ‘98 and 2005, the hottest years on recordÖAbout one third of the coral in the Caribbean is gone. Half the world’s reefs are gone.’

Smith echoes Helvarg’s concerns about coral bleaching. ‘Our reefs are where it all starts,’ she says. ‘The Kumulipo [the Hawaiian creation story] starts with the coral polyp. It’s the source of life, and when we kill it, we’re dooming ourselves.’


Join the Seaweed Rebellion and create more marine sanctuaries

It’s temping to feel overwhelmed by issues like global warming, but Helvarg says, ‘You can’t feel hopeless–you have to feel outraged!’

He adds that victories like the preservation of the NWHI as a national monument are encouraging. ‘This is a fine example of how people are working together, and creating that marine grassroots or seaweed constituency can really turn things around,’ the ocean activist says. ‘This is how individuals can make a difference.’

Helvarg encourages his audience to become activists for the ocean and join environmental groups. ‘We get so much from the oceans in terms of recreation, transportation, trade, energy and protein, and just that sense of awe and wonder that I think people are ready to give something back,’ Helvarg says.

Finally, Helvarg suggests that we try to get out and enjoy the beauty of the beach and ocean because we tend to protect the things we love. ‘I don’t know what’s going to happen if we don’t act quickly enough to turn the tide. All I know is that if we don’t try, we lose. So we try and hope,’ Helvarg says, ‘and moments like today suggest that that hope is not unfounded.’n

Stuart H. Coleman is the author of Eddie Would Go, a board member of the Surfrider Foundation and an instructor at the East-West Center.

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