David Helvarg is an award-winning journalist who once covered wars in Central America and Ireland, and now focuses on writing about the oceans. The San Francisco-based activist has written several books about the need to defend our marine environment. His most recent book, Rescue Warriors, gives an in-depth look at the U.S. Coast Guard. Helvarg insists that these altruistic adrenaline junkies have a key role in protecting our oceans. He is an advocate of President Barack Obama’s new National Ocean Policy Task Force and will be in town next week to promote his new book and share his ideas at the local ocean policy task force meeting in Honolulu on Sept. 29. Helvarg took the time to catch up with the Weekly in advance of that meeting.
Originally, the National Ocean Policy Task Force was not scheduled to come to Hawaii. What changed their minds and inspired you to come out here?
There’s always good reason to come to Oahu and the Islands. But pressure from the folks in the Pacific (Hawaii, Guam and elsewhere) got the Ocean Policy Task Force to realize that they couldn’t develop new national policies on our oceans without coming out to Hawaii and talking to the people who are most engaged with the seas around us. I’ve been working to promote the idea that we need a healthy oceans policy. We passed a Clean Air Act and a Clean Water Act in the last century, and now we need a new Healthy Oceans Act for this century… So I want to make sure that we’re able to mobilize citizens to show the different federal agencies represented on this task force that there really is a large and broad constituency for the protection and restoration of the living seas. People need to understand that healthy and abundant oceans are also essential for our coastal economies and our security and our way of life.
What are the most compelling reasons for a National Ocean Policy?
Right now, we’re seeing a series of cascading disasters, including industrial over-fishing, chemical, nutrient and plastic pollution, coastal sprawl and fossil-fuel-fired climate change that’s altering the nature of the ocean. Ninety percent of the big fish in the Pacific have been killed since I was born, just in the last five decades. We’re seeing climate impacts that are changing the basic chemistry of the ocean, making it more acidic and more difficult for corals to survive. Seeing these cascading threats impacting the ocean, we have to come up with a more systematic response, which we haven’t seen to date. Both the PEW Ocean Commission and the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy came to the same conclusion that the ecological collapse of our public seas is a threat not only to our environment but to our economy and security as well.
Do you think we have the solutions and enough momentum to create a National Ocean Policy?
We know what some of the solutions are, but what we haven’t done is create the political will to drive our government to do the right thing. When we as individuals, consumers and citizens do the right thing for the ocean, it tends to come back as something right for ourselves.
Tell me about your new book Rescue Warriors, which seems like a departure from the previous environmental works you’ve written.
I’ve always been drawn to the ocean and early-on saw the Coast Guard as a life-saving force that is also very involved in protecting marine resources, whether it’s fisheries or marine mammals. I looked for a good book about the Coast Guard but couldn’t find one. When I went down to New Orleans to cover Hurricane Katrina, I realized that the Coast Guard was the only part of the government that was successfully operating there. They saved over 33,000 lives. At that point, I decided that if there wasn’t a good book about them, I ought to write one. My interest is in all aspects of the ocean, and we have to protect it. It’s not God’s green earth, it’s God’s blue marble. And the Coast Guard is capable of operating in any water environment on the planet, whether it’s fresh, brackish or salty.
If you were to advise President Obama and the new National Ocean Policy Task Force, what recommendations would you make to them?
At this point, I think you need to double the Coast Guard’s size in the next decade and double it again by 2030 so it’s closer in size to the Marine Corps. My idea, and this has been suggested by several ocean commissions over time, is to take the Coast Guard out of its latest home in the Department of Homeland Security and take NOAA (the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration) out of the Department of Commerce and create a Department of the Oceans. We need to recognize that our greatest frontier is our ocean commons, which is a more hazardous and challenging frontier than anything we’ve faced on land. We need to expand on a model that started in Hawaii to protect large areas of the ocean as reserves, and we need to build a planning system that could replace fossil fuel drilling offshore with ocean energy systems. We can protect this frontier and maintain it for future generations; or we can follow the path we’ve been on–short-term exploitation, taking out the resources and replacing them with plastic waste and other garbage. It’s our choice.
50 Ways to Save the Ocean
David Helvarg presents “50 Ways to Save the Ocean,” practical, easily implemented actions everyone can take to protect and conserve the ocean.