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A Blue Vision and the Politics of the Ocean

“Our oceans face an unprecedented set of challenges from climate change, pollution, energy extraction, and more,” warned Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, the opening speaker at the 4th Blue Vision Summit in Washington D.C. held earlier this month. He went on to suggest we have the power to move from, “takers to caretakers of...


“Our oceans face an unprecedented set of challenges from climate change, pollution, energy extraction, and more,” warned Senator Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, the opening speaker at the 4th Blue Vision Summit in Washington D.C. held earlier this month. He went on to suggest we have the power to move from, “takers to caretakers of the sea.” That power was on full display during this seaweed (marine grassroots) gathering May 13-16 where hundreds of ocean supporters from more than twenty states came together and later participated in the largest ever Healthy Ocean Hill Day on Capitol Hill including more than 100 meetings with House and Senate offices and direct meetings with six Senators and more than a dozen House members.

The Summit opened on a Monday with a Celebration of the Sea at the historic Carnegie Institution whose marble rotunda was decorated with hanging plants that resembled a kelp forest. Blue tables groaned with good organic food and spirits and spirits soared as 3-400 revelers wandered among stunning underwater images from an “Oceans in Focus” display by the International League of Conservation Photographers. They ate, drank, watched ocean films, listened to music and enjoyed an artists panel moderated by Sherman’s Lagoon cartoonist Jim Toomey. This “Arts & Ocean Roundtable” was well reported on in an earlier Ocean Views blog post written by Brian Howard.

Tuesday’s keynote by Senator Whitehouse was followed by Vice Admiral Peter Neffenger of the Coast Guard who spoke of living in a “wet world without state and coastal boundaries,” and how his service now has to deal with a “new ocean” in the Arctic where melting ice from climate change is opening up blue water trade routes and a rush for oil, fish and other resources. “The Arctic used to be a place to explore, now everyone’s going up there,” he noted but also expressed a belief that, “we have a chance to get it right in a new ocean.” 25-year-old research submersible pilot Erika Bergman spoke of the challenges and thrills of getting it right in the oceans we still have but have failed to fully explore, and how she went from a Star Trek fan to a young scientist diving 1,000 feet below the surface of our own alien ocean world.

The rest of the day was as jam packed as a school of pilchard with great panels and workshops on Disaster & Restoration (and lessons learned from BP and Sandy), Climate as a Blue Issue, Youth Leadership for a Blue Planet, Working with Congress, Working with Donors and Thinking Story like a Journalist. A few random highlights included Eric Schwaab of NOAA pointing out that with more extreme weather events, billion-dollar-plus disasters are on the increase, including 25 in the U.S. just in 2011 and 2012. On the Climate panel Mike Tidwell of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network stressed the need to “build big coalitions and never ever give up,” using as an example the coalition built to pass the “Maryland Offshore Wind Act,” that should get offshore wind power production up and running in the next few years. The immediacy of the crisis was emphasized by Gordon King of Taylor Shellfish, a large aquaculture company in Washington state whose oysters are already being impacted by ocean acidification, with larval survival declining since 2006.

The Youth leadership panel emphasized new ways of thinking and finding solutions to the challenges facing our blue world. Organized by this year’s Benchley Youth Award winner Sean Russell, the panel included former Benchley winner Rudy Sanchez and representatives from Teens4Oceans, 5 Gyres, EarthEcho, Youth Service America and the New York Harbor School with its “billion oyster project,” to restore New York Harbor. “Youth are not our leaders of the future,” one panelist noted, “but today’s change makers that adults need to partner with.”

That evening saw a number of Summit spin-offs including a screening of the film “Ocean Frontiers,” a Georgetown reception to promote marine “Hope Spots” in the Arctic and Antarctica, that Sylvia Earle called “a bipolar occasion,” and a Seaweed Happy Hour at Stoney’s Bar and Grill where, admittedly, a few activists drank like fish.

“Be yourself and don’t be afraid to let your passion for the sea show,” Ocean Champion’s Dave Wilmot instructed the blue troops who gathered at 8AM the next morning in the Dirkson Senate Office building for a long day of “walking the marble.” Among the largest state contingents were 34 watermen and women from California and 20 from Colorado who understand that every state is a coastal state. They were greeted by Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii (see photo). He recalled the beginning of his own calling as an ocean and climate advocate when at 16 he couldn’t go bodysurfing on Oahu because the water was too polluted. Other greeters included Representatives Jared Huffman and Lois Capps of California, Chellie Pingree of Maine and Kathy Castor of Florida. The ocean delegations then spent the rest of the day hiking the labyrinth hallways, basements and trolleys of the Capitol complex.

In countless seeming meetings (actually just over 100) they advocated for President Obama’s commonsense National Ocean Policy now getting implemented (despite opposition from the offshore oil industry), thanked Senators who voted for Sheldon Whitehouse’s National Endowment for the Oceans that would fund research and marine conservation and promoted a safe seafood act and another bill to fight pirate fishing.
That evening was both elegant and inspiring as the 6th annual Peter Benchley Ocean Awards, co-hosted by Wendy Benchley and Blue Frontier, got underway at the Carnegie. “Her deepness,” Sylvia Earle was this year’s Master of Ceremonies. Both presenters and award winners spoke passionately of their work to restore and protect our blue home. This year’s winners included President Macky Sall of Senegal, Rep. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, Dr. Boris Worm and Dr. Heike Lotze, Nancy Baron and COMPASS, Sean Russell, Karen Garrison and Kaitilin Gaffney. For more about these outstanding ocean heroes please check out my earlier ocean blog here.

Representative Ed Markey of Massachusetts was delayed and so received his Policy Award from Senator Whitehouse at the Benchley awards dinner after the official ceremony with the Rhode Island Senator joking about “typical House disorganization” (Markey is running for the Senate after three decades in the House).

Thursday morning Sean Cosgrove of the Conservation Law Foundation led ‘report backs,’ from state delegations who’d been on the Hill and most folks spoke of how empowered they felt speaking truth to power and realizing they could be an influence. “This is my first trip to DC since eighth grade and we met seven people yesterday and I got to speak with my Congressman,” said one not untypical participant.

“It doesn’t always take millions of dollars. At the end of the day you can change the course of history…you can build relationships from the bottom up,” anti-offshore oil activist Richard Charter told the group in a talk on next steps that everyone can take. He was joined by Blue Frontier board member and Rainforest Action Network founder Randy Hayes who gave examples of guerilla-theater protests and acts of civil disobedience he’s launched that can also be effective tactics to turn the tide for our blue planet. The Summit’s final speaker was Representative Sam Farr of Monterey, California who’s been a part of every summit since the first in 2004 and who recounted the anti-offshore oil battles of the 1980s that led to protection of California’s central coast. He believes that more can and will be accomplished to protect our public seas and restore the blue in the red, white and blue. “The politics of the ocean is still fresh,” he explained, “and the blue revolution’s still young.”

His aide indicated that the Summit’s seaweed rebels were schooling in the right direction by pointing out that more than twenty members of Congress had newly signed onto Farr’s ‘Dear Colleague,’ letter in support of National Ocean Policy as a result of the previous day’s Healthy Ocean Hill visits.

The Blue revolution appears to be both young and growing.

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