Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Happy New Year!

Images from National Geographic, John Weller, The Guardian. 

Friday, December 20, 2013

Paddle Away

We were late to the wilds.  Metaphorically for sure -- the area along the Florida Gulf Coast was heavily developed fifty years ago -- but also literally.

The guide said the tide was going out and the wind picking up.  Sunset was a few hours away.  It was less than an ideal time to get on the water but we wanted to go anyway.

Yesterday, a local had said this was the best kayaking in the area.  He also said, "Any day on the water is better than no day on the water."  True that. 

We put the littlest in the tandem between my teenage nephew and I.  She is a total gamer, jumped right into the small boat ready to go.  I got in with my knees bent high behind her back.  Flexible is not a word used to describe me but like I said, the water was calling.

We made a run for the mangroves before it would become too shallow and impassable. 

The cormorants greeted us along the way.  They drop in out of the sky, gliding across the water with their web feet sticking up, so close that the splash from their landing sprays us.  Their "beautiful blue eyes" as my cousin in the middle called them, were on us.

Their eyes were actually on the water under our boats.  The shadows of our kayaks startle fish and the cormorants are there for a snack.  Learned behavior as my buddy called it, but also just plain exciting if you're in one of the kayaks.

One of the birds started a dive a few feet off from the side of our boat and emerged a few fat seconds later on the other side of us.

Several times I looked straight down next to the boat and glimpsed one of their night green backs, a few bubbles trailing off their feathers, swiftly passing underneath.  Their bodies carry the colors of everything around us -- the shadowy mangroves, the green water, and the clumps of submerged, silt-sprinkled algae in the shallows.

One of the birds surfaced inches from the boat with a palm-sized flash of silver in its beak.  A small butterfish or maybe a juvenile mullet.  It rendered me speechless for a moment.

Read Part II

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Hungry People Beat Healthy Oceans Everytime

China recently told the United Nations that they were looking forward to more "openness of the oceans." 

Nowhere to go. Chinese fishing boats surround a reef.

They used the word "harmony", too, but maybe they should have used the word access.  They have over a billion people to feed after all.

South Korea said recently that China was tagged for 4,600 illegal fishing violations in the past decade.

Illegal Chinese fishers move in harmony to avoid capture.

In a wild story from the New York Times, a small band of barefoot seamen in the Philippines are shackled with the ridiculous duty to protect their nation's outermost island reaches from China.  The article was aptly called The Game of Shark and Minnow.

It's not all about China.  Illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing happens all over the world because there is a demand for the fish.

Healthy oceans lose in all of these cases, international violations and regional dominance aside.  When sustainability goes, the health of the oceans follows.  When the oceans go, we all better duck.

The ocean feeds billions of people each day.  Can it keep up?

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Along the Gulf

I sit on the thin edge of the Gulf of Mexico.  I squint and hold up a hand for shade.  Some of the whitest sand I have ever seen amplifies the bright sun.

The sand is a fine powder made up of corals and shells tumbled over each other and pummeled by water for thousands of years.  It feels smooth and cool on my feet.

Barely ankle high waves in the gem-green water lick the shore.  I’ll get into that lovely water in a little bit.  I am lucky, I thought, to be here.

The houses of civilization are easily a quarter mile away behind me.  This is the new beach.  I’d be sitting under four feet of water if I were sitting in the same place only two years ago.  Tides change.  Sand swirls and drops.

To get to the water now, you must walk through small hummocks of green dune grass, little yellow flowers, and vine tendrils stretching out like long spider legs.  I am happy to do so.

Near my chair, flocks of skimmers, plovers, least terns, and other birds crowd the beach facing into the wind, like fighter jets on standby.  The big brown bombers, pelicans, fly in formation up the coast inches from the water’s surface, rarely moving their wings.

A lone great blue heron with its spear-like beak and spring-action neck prowls the shallow water for little fish.  Occasionally a small tern swoops up and then drops straight into the water as if crazy.  I squint to try to see if it has caught anything, looking for that telltale glint of white fish belly in the sun.

A boat comes into view.  It looks as if it’s going to drive right onto the beach.  It’s a shallow water skimmer with a flat bow and a big black outboard on the back.  Two men in full waders and green baseball caps stand on the bow and focus on the water in front of them.

Draped on their arms are small white nets like they’re holding someone’s shawl at coat check.  The boat gets in even closer, probably knee deep.

The men toss the white cast nets into the water.  The nets are specifically designed to catch small fish.  They call them bait fish, and marine biologists call them forage fish, or one of the most important parts of the food chain.

Two days ago, I read that Florida marine birds are finding fewer forage fish.  Two reputable organizations studied it, and came to the conclusion: forage fish are depleting too rapidly to keep up.

The men toss their nets once more.  The weights on the edges of the nets splash into the water.

The men pull up the nets quickly and one of them lowers his head as if in disappointment.  I am glad for their empty nets but feel a little guilty – I have no idea their intent.  Maybe what they’re doing is sustainable.

Then again, if their nets are empty, where are the fish?

I don’t know much, but I do know the birds will not win the long term competition with people for forage fish.  We’re too good at hunting and taking everything we want from nature.

Another least tern makes a headfirst -- almost desperate -- dive into the shallows not too far from the boat.

Are the birds getting enough food to have the energy to make more birds?  Are they getting enough food to have the energy to evade predators or fly out over the water to hunt?  Are they getting enough food to have the energy to migrate when their eternal clock says it’s time?  I do not know.

Maybe they are.  Maybe they’re not.  Optimism is as fleeting as a gulf ripple.

Maybe the men on the boat are actually scientists counting the small forage fish.  Trying to find answers.  Maybe people are beginning to understand and care that the health of the planet depends on the health of the ocean.

I resolve to believe that, and stop giving the men on the boat the evil eye, stop daydreaming about wading out and asking them what the hell they’re doing, stop imagining grabbing their nets out of the water and running away down the beach like a madman.

The horizon stretches away, flat and epic.  It asks the questions with a little more edge: what is the future and is it going to be a good thing?

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Don't Ever Give Up

It shouldn't be so hard to save the world.  That's what I thought leaving an event about communicating climate change recently.  I saw what I've seen for a long while -- good, earnest people racking their brains and bodies trying to get people to care.

Talking about what to say, how to say it.  Should we be combative? Should we tie extreme weather to climate change? Should we even use the term 'climate change'?

All the time we're talking, the world continues to burn.

People talked about successes, because you have to try to stay positive, but it was all about more "regular" people -- still not a huge amount -- finally agreeing with the peer-reviewed results of 99% of climatologists.

How do we go from that to people actually doing things right now?

The urgency is not getting through to the public.  To see clean energy as the answer.

Frankly, I don't like the odds of salvaging anything from this nosedive.

Maybe Duncan Meisel of 350.org summed it up best.  He said it's simple:  there are bad people who are making a huge profit by destroying the planet.  They are the enemy.  They must be targeted and stopped.  Now. 

Are those fossil fuel companies really going to leave the reserves in the ground that scientists and economists say has to happen to avoid the point of no return?  Not on their life.  That would require steadfast adoption of clean energy, which they are sworn against.  They will protect their profits because profits are king.   

Pretty soon it won't be a fight anymore.  There will be that guy who thinks he won standing there smiling waiting for the cheers.  There will be no cheers.   We all lose in this game.

I don't want to believe that's our future.  This planet is too incredibly beautiful.  

Divest.  Organize.  Vote.  Speak out.  Get arrested.  Don't give up.  Don't ever give up.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Ocean Art Wins the Day

A bit beaten down by waves of bad ocean news, here's some refreshing pictures.  These are the winners of the California Ocean Art Contest, grades K-12.  Lovely stuff, don't you think?

Monday, November 4, 2013

Frantic Powers Blink and We Fight On

Is it just me or are the powers that be coming down especially hard on activists?  Two cases make me wonder.  One Russian and one American.

I'm not surprised about the Russians, and I'm an idiot for being surprised about the Americans.

We know the Russians are hardcore and not in a good way.  They still hold a young female rock band behind bars for criticizing the government.  A few days ago, the Russians crushed a multi-nation proposal to set aside part of Antarctica, including the fantastically wild Ross Sea, from inevitable exploitation.

Meanwhile, 30 Greenpeace activists, known as the Arctic 30, are locked up in a Russian prison in the grey coastal city of Murmansk.  They say it's cold in their cells and are let outside only one hour a day.

They could spend 7 years in a Russian jail.  That's 7 years for...trying to climb an oil platform and unfurl one of their trademark banners.  For trying to protect the Arctic, one of the last relatively untouched commons, from even more human destruction.

Is it just me or is the Russian government's reaction wild overkill?

Back in the land of the free and home of the brave, Tim DeChristopher was released from a federal prison last April.  He's making the rounds across the US.  The anti-fracksters and climate change activists treat him like a rock star.  As well they should.

He's the one who was locked up for two years -- two years in jail -- for making fake bids at a land auction in Utah.  He accepted bids for 22 parcels with no intention to pay them.  He was protesting the sale of the public land to fossil fuel companies.   

I think the message here in the land of the free and home of the brave is: you're not as free as you think and don't be brave about anything that might expose the dirty money exchanging hands between the US government and Big Oil.

People who care about a livable planet are locked up for seemingly small infractions.  For speaking their mind.  For acts of civil disobedience of the sort the United States was founded on.

But I'm optimistic for two reasons about both the Russian and U.S. cases.  The overreaction from these powerful governments is really an expression of  insecurity -- that people are starting to see through their scams and are sick of eating the costs of pollution.  These are acts of desperation on the federal level; they know they are losing the all important battle of hearts and minds and this problem is not going away.

It's a classic reaction from those in power and frantic to stay so:  Come down extra hard and set an example.  Which brings me to reason for optimism number two.  That never works for long.  They have only emboldened people.  People's fears and suspicions about the powers that be, especially in the U.S., appear dead on and they look at it and say: we have to fight for the future.

As Tim put it at his trial, "the power of the Justice Department is based on its ability to take things away from people.  The more that people feel that they have nothing to lose, the more that power begins to shrivel.  The people who are committed to fighting for a livable future will not be discouraged or intimidated by anything that happens here today."

Footnote: Sea Shepherd's founder is currently defending himself against civil lawsuits from Japanese whalers.  He is being called a terrorist and a pirate by the whalers and at least one U.S. circuit court agrees.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Sign on for Another NJ Comeback Story

How great would it be for oysters to make a comeback in New York and New Jersey's waters?

This is where they were once so abundant that ships could not navigate up the Hudson River during low tide because oyster reefs rose out of the water like massive boulders.

Where oysters the size of dinner plates were so sweet they were fit only for Europe's princes -- hence the name: Princes Bay, Staten Island.

The symbolism alone would be a wonderful thing not to mention that oysters clean the water as they filter it and their reefs provide natural resilience to storm surges.

Sign this petition to encourage Governor Christie to life the ban on oyster projects in New Jersey's northern waters.

How great would it be for oysters to make a comeback in New York and New Jersey's waters?

Really great.

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Sea Serpents Roam

A snorkeler found an 18 foot oarfish in California.  Wild.

Looks a lot like this early image of a sea serpent.

There's even a three masted ship in both pics.  The sea -- where sea serpents and imaginations roam.  

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Frank the Pug was Right

Good things come in small packages. One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.  What's the running joke?  It's not the size of the boat, it's the...

And the black-faced pug, Frank, chides in Men in Black:  "When will you humans learn?  Just because something is important doesn't mean that it's not very small."

Darn pug was all too right.  Phytoplankton, which illuminate like beautiful, tiny jewels under a microscope, are the foundation of the ocean's food web.  They're incredibly important.

Their energy kick starts and travels all the way up the food web.  Slightly larger animals like krill, copepods, and immature versions of clams and fish, known as zooplankton, eat the exquisite gems.  Bigger creatures like herring and anchovy eat the zooplankton. 

Along comes tuna and cod to eat the herring and anchovy.  Next come the top predators like sharks that eat the tuna and cod.  If any of these links break, especially the first one, most marine life would not survive.

Which is lousy because scientists recently reported a dramatic and consistent decline in phytoplankton. 

Why is this happening?  All fingers point to the ill effects of burning fossil fuels to run our vehicles and power our lives.

What can we do about it?  Support clean energy and marine protected areas, and evoke Frank the pug when someone tries to deny the unprecedented impact humans are having on our big blue marble spinning through space.   

Monday, October 7, 2013

Ten Thousand Walrus with Nowhere to Go

It's one of the first threats to nature I ever heard about -- habitat loss.  Somehow it sounded innocuous enough.  I thought, how bad can it be, so the animals just relocate to another place.  Their new home may be even better.  Certainly, I was in denial or maybe just plain dull.

Think about taking away anyone's home, a home that has always been their home, a home that is part of their DNA.  A snake or a honey bee or a walrus.  Without it, where do they rest?  Where do they eat?  How can they relax and be healthy and happy?  Some can adapt but most cannot.    

When I saw this picture, I wasn't quite sure what it was.  Are those ants?

No, these are over 10,000 walruses, a horde, scrambling and huddling on a strip of land in Alaska because  their habitat -- sea ice -- is nowhere to be found.  Their sea ice home has always been there until now. These are refugees of an overheated planet because humans burn fossil fuels to run our vehicles, TVs, and factories.

Awhile ago I read about a polar bear that swam huge miles.  Turns out polar bears are amazingly strong swimmers but even they cannot tread water forever.  They need sea ice to live on and raise their young.  Next time you hear about an unprecedented polar bear swim, ask why the bear had to swim that far and long.

Thing is, it doesn't have to be this way.  We can do it differently and better.  There are technologies and options and growing awareness.  Let's stop making nature a climate refugee and extend a helping hand to that exhausted polar bear.  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

It's True, People Die from Pollution

Two pieces of news caught in my throat like the moment before a cough.

A new study concluded "that improvements in U.S. air quality since 1990 have sparked a 35 percent reduction in deaths and disability specifically attributable to air pollution."

Another report, this one from China, determined that the country's heavy air pollution from burning coal reduces life expectancy by 5 years.   That's 500 million people dying before their countrymen simply based on their source of energy.

Yet no one's making a great deal of noise about it.  It's barely picking up.  The message that air pollution is literally killing people seems so crazy in its complacency.

Isn't one death from pollution enough?  These aren't industrial accidents or unpreventable results.  It's us poisoning ourselves and our planet for a few extra coins.

Somewhere eyes sting and Dylan Thomas's fierce tears flow.  We can do better than this.  

Friday, September 27, 2013

Breathtaking Free Diver Images

These gorgeous images were taken by free divers Eusebio and Christina Saenz de Santamaria who swim far and deep on one breath.  See more images.

Friday, September 20, 2013

How Would You Like Your Guilt-Free Red Snapper?

Red snapper just got a little less red. and that's good news in a sea of not so much.

The delicious fish has moved from the Monterrey Bay Aquarium's red list of seafood to avoid where it sat for years because of unsustainable fishing practices.

Today it was placed on the seafood benchmark's good alternative list.  This is good news for everyone including fishermen and conscientious seafood lovers like myself.  

The bonus is that this fresh red snapper update proves that sound fishery management works.  As EDFish, the organization that helped make this happen, puts it:   

"Gulf of Mexico red snapper used to be a poster child for unsafe, wasteful fishing. In the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s the fishery was ruled by derby seasons where fishermen raced to catch as much fish as possible a few days every month. This had tremendous consequences for both fish and fishermen, as quality and profitability suffered and the red snapper population dwindled.

Fortunately, fishermen, managers and conservationists finally recognized the severity of the problem and decided to get the fishery back on track. In 2007, an Individual Fishing Quota (IFQ) program, coupled with a scientifically set catch limit, was implemented that put Gulf red snapper on the road to recovery. Since then, rebuilding red snapper populations have supported a 70% increase in fishing quotas, waste of marketable fish has declined by about 50%, and fishermen earn 33% more per pound of fish landed."

So how would you like your red snapper?  Grilled?  Broiled?

Tasty Red Snapper Recipe.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Renewables Cost Less than Fossil Fuels. Period.

A recent study confirms what we have been saying for quite some time:  when the external costs of carbon pollution are considered, renewable energy is cheaper than burning fossil fuels. 

When we talk about external costs, carbon pollution's negative impact on human health and nature are two very big ones that come to mind.    

The findings show the nation can cut carbon pollution from power plants in a cost-effective way, by replacing coal-fired generation with cleaner options like wind, solar, and natural gas, according to the Natural Resources Defense Council, who authored the study.  

"In fact -- using the official U.S. government estimates of health and environmental costs from burning fossil fuels -- the study shows it's cheaper to replace a typical existing coal-fired power plant with a wind turbine than to keep the old plant running. And new electricity generation from wind could be more economically efficient than natural gas," according to a Science Daily story about the new study. 

A retired oil executive of all people lends a more dire assessment:

"Socialism collapsed because it did not allow prices to tell the economic truth. Capitalism may collapse because it does not allow prices to tell the ecological truth," said Oystein Dahle, retired VP of Esso Norway.

At first blush it seems doubtful that something so touchy feely as ecology can impact something as powerful and manly as capitalism.  But it's not about those adjectives. 

It's about failing to include the cost of poor human health and fouling nature in the price of fossil fuels to run our vehicles and to produce our electricity.

It's the value of nature lost.  That's trillions of dollars in countless benefits including bountiful clean air, water, land, and oceans.  And losing money -- any money but especially that much money -- is the enemy of the for-profit system we call capitalism.

So maybe Oystein is right.  But not yet.  We can avoid his dire prediction about the collapse of capitalism by including the true costs of fossil fuel pollution in the prices we pay at the pump and meter.  If and when that happens, capitalism will make sure that the market for clean energy thrives.

Why support clean energy businesses?  Do it for capitalism!  It makes good sense, wallet sense, anyway. 

Read the whole True Cost of Fossil Fuels piece by Peter Lynch in Renewable Energy World.  It's familiar stuff, especially in this blog, but he spells it out in a fresh way.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Is Kiribati's Vaunted Marine Reserve All That?

Is Kiribati's vaunted, famous marine reserve not really all that?

According to Christopher Pala's detailed article pasted below, it's not.  Not at all.  I like this story because he dug deeply and asked the questions that no one else asked. 

It's a shame that the reserve is not all it's cracked up to be as this story implies. In fact, it looks like a reserve with few protections and lots of PR. 

But if it inspires a "real" reserve and draws attention to the loss of a entire island nation due to rising sea levels, which nobody seems to care about especially those churning out the most carbon, then maybe there's some good to come out of it.  

Also interesting is Pala's visit to the island and his description.  When I think about a small island in the Pacific, I think paradise and gorgeous waters.  Not sure if it's wishful thinking or naivete but time to dry behind my ears.  There are people on it, yes?  There's your answer right there. 

Meet President Anote Tong of Kiribati, a Central Pacific country of three-dozen postcard-pretty coral atolls that may become uninhabitable some day because global warming is causing ocean levels to rise. Tong, 61, has been in power for a decade, during which time he has become a darling of the environmental community, a fixture at climate change conferences who is showered with prizes and praise.

His signal achievement? Under his leadership, Kiribati (pronounced KEE-ree-bahss) created the 150,000-square-mile Phoenix Islands Protected Area, “a fully protected marine park, making it off limits to fishing and other extractive uses.”

That exact phrase, according to Google, appears on more than 600 websites, including Tong’s Wikipedia page. Most impressive, the reserve lies in one of the most intensively fished areas in the world, home to the last large stocks of tuna. “What moved the tiny country to take this monumental action?” a typical news article in Mongabay.com recently asked. “President Anote Tong says Kiribati is sending a message to the world: ‘We need to make sacrifices to provide a future for our children and grandchildren.’”

In a speech that he gave at the Delhi Sustainable Development Summit last January, Tong mentions “the initiative of my country in closing off 400,000 square kilometers of our [waters] from commercial fishing activities, … our contribution to global oceans conservation efforts.” Scrolling under the speech, I read that The Pacific Calling Partnership, an Australian nonprofit, “is honored to commend President Tong for consideration as a candidate for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2013 or 2014.”

Now meet Gregory Stone, a prominent marine scientist, former Pew Fellow, and senior vice president of the New England Aquarium. In 2000, Stone went diving in the Phoenix Islands, which had been uninhabited for 20 years, and found them to be so abundant in now rare reef fish like sharks, Napoleon wrasses, and bumphead parrotfish that he persuaded Tong to create a marine reserve to protect them against future fishing. Tong liked the idea and decided the reserve should be the size of California, about 11 percent of the country’s waters. Stone brought the project to the environmental NGO Conservation International, a 26-year-old offshoot of The Nature Conservancy.

The reserve soon became a centerpiece of CI’s work, the first project mentioned in its Wikipedia page. Stone became senior vice president and chief scientist for oceans at CI while keeping his title at the New England Aquarium. Last year, Tong joined CI’s board, where he gets to rub shoulders with the likes of Harrison Ford, CI’s vice-chairman. Tong, gushes a profile on CI’s website, “has gone further than almost anyone to protect the planet’s most pristine waters for the global good.”

As recently as March of this year, the New England Aquarium’s website echoed such boasts: “Today, the Phoenix Islands Protected Area is one of the world’s largest marine protected areas, and is safe from the threats of commercial fishing and habitat destruction.” (Since I started asking hard questions, the aquarium has edited its website and removed that last phrase.)

There’s just one problem with this stirring story: It’s a lie.

Today, marine life inside the reserve is anything but safe. When it was created, fishing was banned only inside small circles around the eight islands, about 3 percent of the total area. That wasn’t hard: There was almost no fishing going on there to begin with, which is why the reef fish were so abundant. But in the rest of the reserve, highly profitable industrial fishing for skipjack tuna, the species most often used for canning, has only increased since 2008, even as the fishery’s own scientists say current levels are unsustainable and must be reduced. Last year, an estimated 50,000 tons of tuna were taken inside the reserve. While other marine reserves provide for some fishing, none allows fishing on such a scale.

At the same time, Tong has defied efforts, spearheaded by an association of Pacific Ocean states to which Kiribati belongs, to prevent overfishing in the region. He also has made a sweetheart deal with the Spanish fishing fleet that has drawn accusations of corruption and a thumbs-down vote by a European Parliament panel.

Within the marine conservation community, Tong’s and CI’s misrepresentation of the Phoenix Island Protected area has frayed relationships and sparked distrust. The head of a large conservation group, who asked to remain anonymous, told me: “CI is giving marine conservation a bad name by lying like that.”

I first set foot in Tarawa, Kiribati’s capital island, in 2008. The country is made up of three archipelagoes more than 500 miles apart: the Line Islands, south of Hawai‘i; the uninhabited Phoenix Islands in the center; and the Gilbert Islands to the west, where Tarawa is located. Tarawa is a skinny atoll shaped like a sideways L, with 60,000 people crowded in the horizontal part of the L.

The atoll is a curious mixture of heaven and hell. Aquamarine waters lap at palm-fringed beaches that are, in the populated area, speckled by human waste, for there are few sewers. Since the island is on average only a few hundred yards wide, the smell is never far. On the windward side, much of the coastline is spoiled by a phenomenal variety of trash. The unpopulated areas, located just a half-hour’s drive away, are spectacularly pristine.

When I first interviewed Tong five years ago, he seemed strangely unenthusiastic about the Phoenix Islands reserve. “We did it (created the reserve) for the publicity value,” he said, because he was worried that rising sea levels would soon render his islands uninhabitable and he wanted the international community to pay for his people’s relocation.

He said then that closing the whole reserve right away was out of the question because it would cost Kiribati several million dollars a year in lost revenue from fishing licenses to foreign fleets (its annual budget is roughly $120 million). “Your catch will be reduced over a fixed period, common sense would suggest that,” he told me. And if the fishers’ income were reduced, they in turn would insist on reducing their fees to Kiribati, he explained. A trust fund with about $100 million would be necessary to offset these losses. I told him I thought that was a bit unrealistic, and he allowed with a shrug that a gradual approach might work.

“We’re waiting for CI to make a much more firm commitment,” Tong told me at the time. He said that, after several years of talks, CI offered a goal of $35 million for the trust fund, providing $700,000 or so a year in interest for compensation, while Kiribati was asking for at least twice that much. “There is a bit of a gap,” he said.

At the time, various experts, including John Hampton, the oceanic fisheries program manager at the Secretariat of the Pacific Community, told me that if Kiribati stood firm with the foreign fishing companies, it could close the reserve without losing any income. “Purse seiners need wide areas to operate, so I wouldn’t expect a lot of them would stop fishing in Kiribati just because they’re losing 11 percent of it,” Hampton said. “But I’m sure foreign fishing interests will use the closure as a tool when they negotiate their fishing contracts, so the loss of revenue for Kiribati will depend on how well they negotiate.”

Other people familiar with the fishery explained that tuna swim far and fast, so the fleets could easily avoid fishing inside the reserve and still bring in the same catch. Whenever I told Stone about these facts in phone interviews and emails and asked him exactly how the compensation was being calculated, he would change the subject.

I finally met him in person in late 2009 when he came through Honolulu, where I was living. By then I had written a half-dozen magazine articles about the reserve, and we had become as friendly as a journalist and a source can be. I had him over for lunch and found him affable and modest to a fault, the only person I know who still practices the ancient art of flattery.

The compensation talks had gone nowhere, he said. A first agreement had called for Stone raising an initial $25 million for the trust fund, at which point 25 percent more of the reserve would be closed, to a total of 28 percent. The process was later described in great detail by Eduard Niesten and Peter Shelley in Underwater Eden: Saving the Last Coral Wilderness on Earth, a book Stone organized and to which I contributed a chapter on the Phoenix Islands’ history.

By then, several people, including one at CI, had told me that raising $25 million to close 25 percent of the reserve was unattainable, let alone the $100 million for the whole thing. “The business plan made sense, but it was prohibitively expensive,” said one funder who asked to remain anonymous.

Something wasn’t right. Why, and how, could Stone commit to raising an impossibly large amount of money and yet show no interest in persuading Tong that he could close the reserve at no cost to his government? Stone again sidestepped questions. He told me, as he tells everyone, that creating marine reserves takes time and patience.

By 2010, I started noticing that Tong, the New England Aquarium, and CI were describing the Phoenix reserve as fully closed to fishing. “PIPA [the Phoenix Islands Protected Area] is completely off-limits to commercial fishing and other activities,” CI’s website declared. (The organization has since posted a correction to its website.) By then a detailed management plan had been published on the PIPA website. It clearly stated that only 3.12 percent of the reserve was closed to fishing. The plan also said that the demand for closing an additional 25 percent of the area had been reduced from $25 million to $13.5, of which $8.5 million was for compensation.

For his part, Tong had emerged as an eloquent spokesman for the denizens of atolls condemned to exile by the thoughtlessness of carbon-emitting nations. In his speeches and writings, he usually anchored his moral authority in the sacrifice his people made by creating the Phoenix Islands Protected Area. In 2011, during the Durban climate change conference, Tong published a piece mentioning how some First Nation Canadians had saved a rainforest and called it their gift to the world. “The phrase struck a chord with me, because the people of Kiribati have also made such a gift,” he wrote. “Three years ago, we declared 160,000 square miles of our Phoenix Islands a fully protected marine park, off limits to fishing and to any extractive use.”

I couldn’t get over the gap between the facts as I knew them and the public relations bragging I kept seeing. “Greg, you can’t lie like that; it’s wrong, why don’t you just call it a work in progress?” I would tell Stone in a series of phone calls. “Chris, you don’t understand,” he would reply. “These things take time.” He would inevitably bring up Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, in which the no-fishing zone was gradually increased to about a third of the whole area. I would say that Australia never claimed it was all no-take, and that the fisheries in the rest were closely managed. And, I reminded him, the other three of the world’s giant no-take marine reserves (America’s Northwestern Hawai‘ian Islands, the British Chagos Islands and the Australian part of the Coral Sea) were all closed in a single action, not gradually.

In 2011, Stone received from Wendy Benchley, the widow of Jaws author Peter Benchley, a Benchley Award for Ocean Science for his role in creating the Phoenix reserve. A year later, Tong was awarded the presidential Benchley for Excellence in National Stewardship of the Ocean. The head of the Blue Frontier Foundation, which administers the Benchleys, is David Helvarg, who had penned a profile of Tong in The Nation headlined “Interview with a Drowning President.” In the piece, he described Tong’s supposed achievement: “His government declared 150,000 square miles of the Phoenix Islands marine area a fully protected marine park, making it off limits to fishing and other extractive uses.”

So I called Helvarg. He admitted he had no idea that fishing was prohibited in only in 3 percent of the Phoenix reserve. “I had assumed that all of it was no-take,” he explained, sounding surprised. “You try to do due diligence on everything, but you don’t always succeed,” he added with a sigh. “But Tong still deserves the prize for protecting the reefs” and for raising awareness of how rising sea levels threaten his country, he said.

Then I saw that Tong had won a Leadership Award from the Hillary Institute in New Zealand. And he received the award for climbing which personal Everest? “In 2008,” the institute website says, “under his leadership, Kiribati made a grand gift to the world: it declared 150,000 square miles of its Phoenix Islands marine area a fully protected marine park, making it off limits to fishing and other extractive uses.” So I contacted the institute’s executive director, Mark Prain, on Skype. I watched him squirm as I told him the truth, and listened to him insist that it didn’t matter because Tong really got the prize for his climate change work. (Apparently, neither did it matter enough for Prain to correct his website.)

At this point, I was beginning to wonder if Tong ever had any intention of closing the reserve. Was all this an elaborate scam, where both sides would pretend to endlessly negotiate for compensation for nonexistent losses while receiving prizes and prestige for a nonachievement? And how could Stone ask for millions to partially close a marine reserve from people who inevitably would have heard that it was already closed?

Meanwhile, the trust fund was still empty and the cash kept flowing into the Kiribati government’s accounts from the tuna fishing fleet operating inside the reserve.

More disturbingly to some environmentalists, Kiribati’s success in winning international recognition without actually restricting fishing was spawning imitators. At the end of August 2012, at a regional meeting in the Cook Islands, its prime minister, Henry Puna, announced the creation of what he called the world’s biggest marine park – 400,000 square miles of the southern, largely un-fished half of the islands’ waters. But Ben Ponia, the secretary of marine resources, later wrote to me: “The marine park will not regulate fisheries.” At the same meeting, the self-governing French territory of New Caledonia announced that, inspired by the example of Kiribati, it was creating an even larger reserve, at 540,000 square miles. It was the same story there, too. “It’s too early to say whether there will be any restrictions on fishing,” said project spokeswoman Anne-Claire Goarant, stressing that the announcement was just the beginning of a multi-year consultation process.

The two reserves were part of a grandiose scheme called the “Pacific Oceanscape” fathered by CI and Tong to string a necklace of giant marine reserves across the Pacific. Were they also destined to become paper parks?

At a glittering party last November at Wendy Benchley’s gorgeous Washington, DC house for the launch of the book Underwater Eden, Stone assured me that at a recent CI board meeting, Tong had announced that the decision had been taken to close the reserve completely. A few days later, I got an email from Tiarite Kwong, the environment minister, addressed to Stone and copied to me. It said, “As communicated to you (Stone) at the LA board meeting, HE the President has reaffirmed the position of his Cabinet to fully close PIPA with immediate effect.”

I didn’t believe him. “A statement from a Kiribati Minister was not sufficient?” Stone asked me. It wasn’t. I knew that closing the reserve at a time when tuna prices were soaring would make a huge ruckus, and I would have heard of it. Just to be sure, I wrote to Julio MorĂ²n, the head of the association of Spanish purse-seiners, many of whom fish in Kiribati under Ecuadorean flags. He wrote back that he knew of no closure plans and warned that closure “would be most detrimental to the economic interest of the Kiribati Government that obtains good revenue from the licenses fees that they sell to the 260 purse seine vessels that operate in the region …. For us, it will suppose a serious setback for the normal fishing operation in the Central Pacific region.”

The best time to close the reserve was now, since the fleets were making huge profits on their catch. Why wasn’t Tong doing it? To try to answer the question, and to finally figure out what was going on, I applied for a travel grant from the Ocean Foundation. In April I was back in Tarawa.

Nothing seemed to have changed except that the main road was worse. If Kiribati was making more money from tuna licenses (2012’s fisheries income of $60 million was double 2011’s), the government wasn’t spending it on anything visible. There were still few bathrooms, so people kept using the beach – unfortunately, above the high-tide line. Delicious fresh reef fish and small skipjack were still sold along the road and the I-Kiribati, as the people call themselves, were as handsome, kind, and absurdly generous as ever.

I stopped by the office of the Phoenix Island Protected Area, known as PIPA, where Tukabu Tereroko, its director, brought me up to speed. Rats had been eradicated in three islands, rabbits in a fourth, all by international groups. Compensation talks had dragged on for a decade with no agreement in sight. Neither CI nor the government had fulfilled their initial pledges to each put $2.5 million in the trust fund. The $5 million had nothing to do with compensation, Tereroko said; it was supposed to create enough interest income to run the reserve itself, which is now operating on an $850,000 grant from the UN’s Global Environment Fund.

The parliament was in session and three MPs were staying at my hotel. Questions about PIPA were met with furrowed eyebrows. Wasn’t it closed to fishing long ago? Everyone seemed to think so.

President Tong received me in his office in the futuristic parliament building. Half Chinese and half I-Kiribati, educated in New Zealand and Britain, he wore a Western shirt and the typical skirt favored by politicians. His manner was chilly and dry when I asked him about PIPA.

“We’re still deciding what the compensation level should be,” he replied. But did he really think the international community would give Kiribati millions of dollars in compensation for unproven losses when its income from tuna – the main beneficiary of closing PIPA – was doubling, and saving the tuna was in Kiribati’s own interest? “I think it’s really possible,” he said serenely.

And that cabinet decision the environment minister had emailed me about? “The decision has been taken to close it (to all fishing),” Tong said with perfect aplomb. But when? “We left that to the management plan, I think it’s got to be done progressively.”

As for the $2.5 million, Tong said it would be unwise to use the windfall profits from tuna licenses to make good on the initial commitment. “We are trying to source that funding,” he said.

I was stunned. Tong had no intention of closing PIPA anytime soon or spending any money on it, even though several politicians I interviewed told me that, with his large parliamentary majority, he could easily win a vote to allocate the $2.5 million.

I also asked Tong about the association of eight Pacific islands nations in whose waters most of the Pacific tuna is caught. Called the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA), it was set up with two goals. First, reduce the total catch to a sustainable level and give each country a quota of vessel/days to sell each year to the foreign fleets. Second, increase the countries’ share of the profits from the fishery, currently at 8 percent of the landed value of the fish, by setting a uniform price per vessel/day that all eight countries would charge.

At the PNA meeting last March, Kiribati shocked its partners by announcing that last year it sold almost twice as many days as its quota allowed, which is how it doubled its fisheries income. Later, the PNA, citing a study it had commissioned on the profits of the fleets, proposed raising the vessel/day fee from $5,000 to $8,000. To the other members’ fury, Kiribati vetoed the proposal and came back with the number of $6,000 vessel/day, which was adopted

“You can’t lie like that. It’s wrong. Why don’t you just call it a work in progress?”

In our interview, Tong told me, “I am critical of the vessel/day scheme; it doesn’t seem to be fair.” He argued that Kiribati should be allowed to fish as much as it wanted and when it wanted. “We have more fish, so we should have more days,” he said.

This is the man CI describes as having taken “extraordinary measures to set an example for the rest of the world?”

There was more. Ignoring the PNA rules that all fishing licenses come under the group’s vessel/day arrangement, Kiribati signed a side deal with a fleet of four giant Spanish purse seiners. Not only did the deal not involve any limits to the number of days fished or the amount of fish caught, but a Greenpeace estimate of the probable catch found that the per-day fee would be $3,600, just over half the going rate. “This agreement is completely against all EU development policies,” said Isabella Lovin of Sweden, the European Parliament’s rapporteur on development and fisheries, in an interview from Brussels. She called for it not to pass; on June 24 the parliament’s development committee voted it down. The agreement will come up for a full parliament vote this fall.

“President Tong has been misleading the world about the true status of the PIPA marine reserve,” wrote Greenpeace ocean campaigner Seni Nabou in an email from Fiji. “Whilst the world has hailed Kiribati for its conservation efforts, it seems it has only helped the Spanish tuna fleets fish in their waters instead. President Tong now needs to deliver on the talk.”

On my last evening in Tarawa, minibuses were scarce and I got a ride to my hotel from a man in a little old car. He turned out to be Teburoro Tito, Tong’s predecessor as president and a member of parliament. He was scathing about Tong. “He’s simply using the PIPA as a way of promoting his own personal image to the outside world,” he said. He recalled firing Tong as fisheries minister because he lied about tax improprieties.

Tito said almost no one knew that only 3 percent of the reserve was closed to fishing, or that Tong was going around the world saying it was “off limits to fishing and other extractive uses,” or that Kiribati had sold 80 percent more than its PNA allotment in vessel/days in 2012. “The people of Kiribati,” he wrote to me, “will be disappointed to learn that their president had lied to the world and particularly those who were led to believe that he deserved prestigious awards. He must close PIPA immediately to salvage the country’s honor.”

In May, I spent an hour and a half on the phone with Stone. He wouldn’t say much on the record, but he insisted he was still optimistic that the $13.5 million would be raised by the end of next year. And he told me CI had decided to accelerate an ongoing process and put in its $2.5 million share of the trust fund “in a few weeks.” A month later, Stone sent me an email saying the money would be disbursed “this year” and declined further comment. On July 19, Kevin Connor, CI’s spokesman, declined to answer further questions, saying only of Kiribati’s approach to marine conservation: “We believe their efforts should be supported, not criticized.”

For an explanation of CI’s all-boast-and-no-results behavior, I turned to Jay Nelson. He recently retired from running The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Global Ocean Legacy program, which had coaxed governments into setting aside the world’s three largest, no-take marine reserves in Hawai‘i, the Chagos islands, and the Coral Sea. “Every group declares victory prematurely from time to time, but this is a very extreme situation,” Nelson said. By declaring the reserve fully closed five years ago or so, “they’ve used their ‘success’ in Kiribati in their work in the Cook Islands and elsewhere, so there is some logic to their approach. But I suspect that CI might have been given pause if they had fully realized how this was going to play out.”

He said CI should admit it won’t be able to raise the $50 million or more that Kiribati is demanding “and tell President Tong to immediately close the area to fishing so that it lives up to its claim as a world-class marine reserve.”

I asked Stone by email if he wanted to join the growing chorus of people who say that Tong should do the right thing and close the reserve now. He declined.

In the end, the fate of the reserve is entirely in Tong’s hands. Kiribati politicians point out that the cabinet has already voted to close the reserve to fishing, so it’s just a matter of implementation. And the Western diplomats, fisheries professionals, and politicians I spoke to in Tarawa agreed that given a choice between antagonizing his Spanish patrons and salvaging his reputation so he can get a top job in the climate-change policy world, he would probably choose the latter. Tetabo Nakara, a former environment minister who set the present contours of the reserve, told me: “If it’s clear that it won’t cost Kiribati anything, I have no doubt he will close it to save his reputation.”

Originally published in Earth Island Journal.

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Ten Ways to Help the Ocean from Home

Always good to hear a refresher.  We all cannot lobby policy or describe the plight from the deck of a ship or a university podium but we can help.  And the ocean needs all the help it can get.  Here's ten ways.

1. Buy sustainable seafood.

Whether you're grilling fish, adding it to rich soups this fall and winter, or steaming it in light spring dishes, make sure the seafood you're consuming is sustainable. The Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch program is a fantastic resource for finding out which species are the best for you to eat, and they even have little printable cards you can take to the grocery store or out to restaurants with you!

2. Minimize your trash.

Unfortunately, a lot of garbage ends up in the world's oceans, where it can potentially take hundreds of years to break down. Buildups of plastic garbage in the Pacific Ocean are infamous, and as the garbage slowly breaks up, animals up and down the food chain eat toxic materials that affect their ability to survive and reproduce. Keep your trash out of the ocean by not generating it in the first place -- keep packaging to a minimum, and find creative ways to reuse the things you'd otherwise throw away, like those annoying plastic bread tags.

3. Cut your carbon footprint

Demand for energy, researchers argue, is one of the driving forces behind climate change trends. Consider contacting an electrician to discuss an energy audit for your home and the installation of energy-efficient appliances, leave your car at home if you can, and look into green home renovation options when you're preparing to make big changes to your home. By reducing your energy demands, you'll help cut your bills and support the environment: win-win!

4. Take care of the beach

If you happen to be lucky enough to live next to the ocean, why not give back a few days a year? Participate in a beach cleanup or another beach conservation program--and if you're a pet owner, make sure to collect your animal's poop and dispose of it in a safe location (biodegradeable poop collection bags, please!).

5. Buy ocean-friendly cosmetics, jewelry, and crafts

Stay away from coral, shell products, and other things that exploit the ocean. Instead, explore the wide world of recycled options and ocean-free products, and encourage friends and family to do the same. Look out for squalene, an ingredient commonly made from sharks, even though it can also be derived from olive oil. And keep away from plastic and heavy packaging while you're at it: look for natural, sustainable crafts, and have fun crafting while you're at it!

6. Watch it with that fertilizer

In the garden, take it easy on the fertilizer. If you apply too much, it won't reach your plants. Instead, it ends up in runoff, which eventually enters the ocean, causing a problem known as nutrient pollution--it turns out that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing. Nutrient pollution leads to so-called "dead zones" in the ocean filled with blooms of algae that choke out all other ocean life.

7. While you're at it, consider going organic in the garden

If you're using pesticides, herbicides, and other chemicals in the garden, consider a switch. Those chemicals are bad for the garden, bad for the environment, bad for your pets, and bad for you. And, like fertilizers, when they run off, they end up polluting waterways and reaching the ocean...where they do a lot of damage to organisms that call the sea home. Commit to make the switch, and get the neighborhood on board with natural pest control methods too.

8. Go nontoxic in the house

Look for cleaning products with natural ingredients, or save money by using common household items like vinegar for cleaning. You'll be doing your part to keep those chemicals out of the waterway, and to maintain a healthy home. Make sure your plumbing is in good condition too, especially if you live on the coast where it drains right to the ocean; I'm always after my friends in the city to use a good San Francisco plumber to get their homes ocean-friendly. If you have a problem like bedbugs or termites that seems like it might call for chemical weapons, talk to your exterminator about nontoxic options.

9. Going on vacation? Give the ocean a little love

If you're visiting the ocean on holiday, take a chance to visit some gorgeous sights respectfully. Follow the advice and directions of local conservation organizations when you plan your trip and take snorkeling, boating, swimming, and surfing adventures. If you have time, consider dedicating a day to helping out the ocean by joining a beach cleanup, monitoring hatching baby turtles (MAJOR cute factor), or supporting the work of an organization that works on ocean conservation.

10. Dispose of hazardous waste responsibly

You probably have some old paint lying around from that project last year, along with used batteries, medication, and other waste that shouldn't go in the trash. Make sure to collect it responsibly and take advantage of hazardous waste days at the local dump or make arrangements for pickup in your neighborhood. Keeping that waste out of the environment helps everyone!

Consider keeping some things out of the waste stream altogether: Get a new computer or cell phone? Sell or give the old one to someone who could use it.

Thanks to S.E. Smith on Fox Network, yes, Fox.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Urgent Warnings from Smart People

Stopping, if not turning around, the big tanker ship of nature's ruin is directly related to burning fossil fuels to run vehicles and produce electricity. 

It's not too late but now is the the time to act.  Don't take my word for it.  Here's some urgent warnings from sensible and smart people.

"Unless large numbers of people take appropriate steps, including supporting governmental regulations aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, our only options will be adaptation and suffering. And the longer we delay, the more unpleasant the adaptations and the greater the suffering will be," said Lonnie Thompson, distinguished university professor in the School of Earth Sciences at Ohio State University.

“We and other living things can adapt to slower changes. It’s the unprecedented speed with which we’re changing the climate that is so worrisome,” said Michael E. Mann, a researcher at Pennsylvania State University.

"We are changing the planet in ways we are not even aware of.  You wouldn't think that putting carbon dioxide into the atmosphere would change the amount of nitrogen available to fish in the ocean, but it clearly does. It is important to realize just how interconnected everything is," said Professor Eric Galbraith from McGill University's Department of Earth and Oceanic Sciences.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Dreams of the Turtle Lady

Suzi Fox and the volunteers of the Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring program have saved thousands of turtles and shorebirds.

I rode over on an old beach cruiser that looked like all the paint had been replaced by rust.  Gorgeous is the right word to describe the day – sunshine pouring down like a veil and the Gulf of Mexico sparkling like a giant blue topaz.

As I turned into a quiet neighborhood, Spanish moss hung from a large tree and spiky epiphytes grew on overhead utility wires like hairy softballs.  We don’t have such things where I’m from but for Floridians, they’re weeds in the air.

I knew I was at the right place by the “Turtle Crossing” sign on the side fence and the brass doormat of swimming sea turtles.  I came to talk with Suzi Fox, the Executive Director of Anna Maria Island Turtle Watch and Shorebird Monitoring.  But if you ask people where to find the Turtle Lady, they’d point toward Suzi.  She said about the nickname “it’s a good thing I’m not saving skunks.”

Suzi answered the door bright and barefoot.  She welcomed me into her office, a small room in her pleasant home.  Her cheeks seemed to glow from often smiling -- a potential side effect of having a positive outlook.  Around her neck hung an ornament, a silver sea turtle, and I sat near boxes of red flags for marking sea turtle nests.

Suzi is as lively as her name and her twenty three years of turtle work implies.  That‘s twenty three years of combing the beach at 5 am every day six months out of the year.  That’s twenty three years of caring about something as magnificent and delicate as sea turtles eggs and infant sea turtles.

Walking sticks leaned against the wall in one corner of her office.  They stood like sentinels, or some kind of turtle egg divining rods.  One was topped with a hefty turquoise stone.  They have likely seen many a moon set, and the bright white sand glow with first light.

If Suzi or any of the other tireless volunteers find any turtle nests on their daily patrols, they stake it off.  The orange tape and wood stakes remind people that we share this lovely place with other creatures.

With the new turtle season freshly minted days ago, excitement filled Suzi’s eyes.  The turtles have not been on the island in six months.  The anticipation is almost overwhelming and always the question: will there be as many as last year?

“I dream turtles every night during the season,” Suzi said.

Let the dreams begin.  On this day, Suzi also has two pieces of good news – it’s early in the season and no one has left any lawn chairs on the beach and already one false crawl has been reported.

A false crawl happens when the female turtle essentially scopes out the beach but lays no eggs.  Trained observers can spot the telltale markings of a false crawl and the nests of buried eggs, both of which would earn nary a glance from the average beachgoer.

The turtles of Anna Maria Island, mostly loggerheads, like many marine turtles, essentially pull off one of nature’s greatest feats.  It’s prestige so fine and breathtakingly improbable that even scientists wax romantic.  No bigger than a toddler's hand, they climb their way out of a deep pit in the sand.  The turtles then make their way across the vast ocean completely on their own.

Scientists are not exactly sure what happens next but they are sure that an adult female turtle will return to the beach of her birth many years later and lay eggs.  They also know that the turtles regularly cross thousands of miles of dangerous seas.

The turtles survive the gauntlet of fishing hook strung hundreds of miles across the ocean like barbed wire.  Also, they must somehow dodge scoop-everything nets bigger than football fields.  Many of them do not make it.  The unintended catch of sea turtles kills thousands annually.

Suzi knows she cannot control those things but she can control protection of their habitat or surroundings.  In most places in Florida like Anna Maria Island, this entails a narrow ribbon of beach coveted by people and animals alike.

In fact, Suzi will say that she is not saving turtles; she’s saving their habitat.  The nuance is important because habitat loss to people is an insidious and often imperceptible slide into oblivion for countless species, including the sea turtle.  Take a little here, take a little there, soon enough there is none left.

The savings are beginning to pay off.  Last year, 362 nests were catalogued by Suzi and her team, which is a marked increase from the nineties.

Motherhood swirled around us as we talked.  Here I was visiting Suzi near Mother’s Day and female turtles laden with eggs were the heart of our conversation.  Also, it was Suzi’s mother that taught her how important it is to give back and her mother also indirectly helped Suzi discover her passion for turtles.

When Suzi’s mother died in the early nineties, Suzi went into serious depression.  The kind of malaise where getting out of bed and making it to the shower becomes too much.  Everything simply seemed hopeless. 

One day a friend dragged Suzi to the beach to look for turtles as part of the island’s nascent volunteer program.  Suzi is not a marine biologist and hails from Grand Rapids Michigan, a place with exactly zero sea turtles at last count. 

That was her first day and she’s still going strong.  The “still going strong” part comes from her mother, too.

“She was an inspiration for me,” said Suzi.

The female turtles laying eggs on the beach could probably relate.  There’s something eternal in their maternal ways. 

There’s bravery, too.  When Suzi was a young volunteer, the group of retired men who started the program refused to abide new federal rules on how to care for sea turtle eggs.  They had been digging up nests and incubating them on their back porches in coolers. 

Soon enough, they lost their permit.  Knowing nothing about managing a volunteer program or how to save turtles, Suzi re-applied for their permit.  The then mayor and one of the founders of the original turtle program yelled at her publicly.  Suzi cried, publicly.  All the turtle volunteers at the time quit the program.

“It was horrible,” Suzi said.

Eventually many original volunteers came back to the fold.  One volunteer has been with the “new” program for 18 years.  People are getting it.  A few years ago, Suzi sent out a call for a volunteer day.  She needed 50 people.  Two hundred showed up.  Some drove all the way from Orlando.

Recently, the program has expanded to keeping an eye on shore birds too, and other duties, some seemingly unrelated to saving turtles.

When the turtles hatch, they crawl toward the brightest spot in the night, which is hopefully stars over the ocean, and not a flood light on somebody’s home or business.  Like Mother Nature’s lost souls, many hatchings are lured away from the water and toward certain death by artificial lights. 

To remedy this, Suzi and some of her volunteers show up at retail and residential places with free special light bulbs, ladder in hand.

Suzi’s philosophy is to push for conservation “in a nice manner”.  Sometimes that works but sometimes there are people whose narrow view of the world is taken up mostly by themselves.

Recently, a developer proposed a project that would fill in sea grass habitat, a favorite sea turtle meal.  Suzi went to the public hearing and stood up in a sea of people.  Her blond hair and bright violet dress caught everyone’s attention.

“Last year we had 362 nests and 13,000 hatchlings,” she said. “If you don’t preserve these waters, 22 of my 55 years will have been pointless.”

Suzi noted that the handkerchiefs and tissues came out on that one.

Sometimes her turtle dreams are disrupted by early morning calls from the police.  She knows everyone on the force by first name and they certainly know the Turtle Lady.

The phone rings.  Suzi looks at her clock.  It’s 3 am.  She has to get up in two hours to patrol the beach.

Excitement dances on the line and Suzi has heard it before.  There’s an ancient animal on the beach doing a life affirming and miraculous thing.  The police felt they just had to let her know.

“Is she injured?”  Asks Suzi.

“No, she’s great,“ he says. "She’s amazing.”

“That’s wonderful.  Enjoy it.  I’ll see you later.” 

If Suzi can get back to sleep, there’s still time for more of her own turtle dreams.

Since May when I visited with Suzi, her team has protected 316 turtle nests, and multiple shorebirds including eight least terns, which are designated as threatened by the federal government. 

Thursday, August 15, 2013

Obvious Inspiration

Sometimes inspiration comes from the obvious places and that's why I enjoyed seeing Bill McKibben recently speak about the front lines of the climate fight.

He would know, as an author, activist, and founder of 350.org, he gets after it.  He gets arrested, gets people to rally, and gets important publicity.

His delivery, like that of a plaid-shirted Vermonter chatting over a cup of homemade Meade after a good log chopping session, is at first so unassuming as to make some climate fighters tap their fingers.  That's okay because pretty soon you realize that he is fired up and his words are fiery.

I'm not going to sum up his entire talk, it would not be possible, but here are some good paraphrased sound bites:
  • We need to leave leave 80% of fossil fuel reserves in the ground.

  • It is not okay to profit from the wreckage of our climate. 

  • Knowledge without action is the ruin of the soul (nod to Francois Rabelais).

  • Divest from fossil fuel companies.  Make them the political pariahs they are.

  • The Koch brothers will be on the losing side of history for two reasons: 1. The technology is here to replace them. 2. The recruiter for their opposition is Mother Nature. 

  • A price on carbon is great start and we need it now.

  • Natural gas as a so-called bridge fuel: 1. Methane leaks from natural gas production greatly increase greenhouse gases. 2. We're wasting too much time on natural gas; the urgency is now.

  • It is going to be a fight. We might not win but we must try.

Inspired?  Take Action.  Ten Ways to Fight Climate Change:

1. Find your local 350.org and get involved.
2. Ask your Senators and Representatives to support climate action and clean energy initiatives.
3. Stop by your reps' local offices.  In-person constituents are a powerful voice.
4. Call the White House.  Yes, it's possible, and your privilege.  Tell them you support climate leadership.
5. Write local press and tell them why you support clean energy.
6. Rock your social media -- tell ppl what you're doing, what's going on, and why you care. 
7. Kill the tar sands pipeline (getting oil from tar sands is an extremely dirty process).
8. Phase out Coal, the dirtiest of the dirty.
9. Ask your school or local university to divest from the fossil fuel industry.
10. Support clean energy businesses.     

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Energy Through a Leaf

I saw the headline -- Energy Through a Leaf -- and just had to get off my surfing wave for at least a few seconds. Then I noticed it was being developed by the military and any reader of some of my posts knows that I consider this good news.

If the military is in the act of innovating clean energy, it will probably get done.  It might not be a pretty or efficient but some of the most powerful technologies started in the military.  The military needs to get off fossil fuels because it is a strategic weakness, and nothing like a lucrative military contract to fuel this drive to find alternatives.

Plus, incubating and supporting clean energy through the military, traditionally a bipartisan hands-off part of the government, hopefully quiets those who live to ridicule government support of renewable projects.

So back to the leaf.  It's not actually a leaf, more like a wafer the size of a playing card that when dipped in water generates electricity, according to Clean Technica.  It does imitate how a plant produces energy (sugar) from sunlight and water, hence the leaf.

The lead Harvard researcher behind the technology, David Nocera, formerly at another not-too-shabby institution known as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, continues to enhance and improve the device. 

In an earlier iteration the water the card dipped into had be purified but now the card can be dipped into dirty water.  The potential applications spark the imagination, and optimism grows.

image: 74211.com

Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Mirror Energy Project Reflects the Big Picture

Out of the California desert comes a renewable energy project that hopefully sets a precedent and encourages future projects.

Instead of solar voltaics, an array of hundreds of mirrors reflects sunlight to a central tower.  The concentrated sun at the tower turns water into steam, which then turns turbines to make electricity. 

The project is a lesson in clearing multiple hurdles, including piles of permitting, but also reflects a new environmentalism where, to a degree, one issue trumps all others.

This is the somewhat famous project (that brings polluters so much glee) where environmentalists concerned about the threatened desert tortoise butted heads with environmentalists seeking a clean energy future. 

But the new world order of environmentalism asks all those who care about life on Earth to see the bigger picture.  While it is important to protect habitat, all habitat is threatened by climate change.

"If you care about desert tortoises, you better care about climate change.  Without some large-scale renewable energy projects, we do not hit our climate goals. We do not replace fossil fuels with clean energy in this country," said Carl Zichella with the Natural Resources Defense Council in an NPR article.

It looks like the future of the desert is much like its opposite -- the oceans.  The oceans are steadily being divided up into marine preserves, which is good, but the larger picture cannot be missed. 

Climate change from burning fossil fuels threatens all habitat including the vast oceans.  No number of marine reserves is going to stop ocean acidification and ocean warming if we do not support clean energy.

image: thisiscolossal .com

Friday, August 2, 2013

April Princess Beamer

Not a new Woody Allen film or some European royalty but April Princess Beamer are the names given to 3 sharks tagged recently off the eastern tip of Long Island.

Last year, the fish would have been hanging lifeless from a hook in the summer sunset.  People would gawk and take photos of the dead animal but everyone would glimpse its magnificence.  Then it would be thrown away.  Sound like a waste or even a bit sad?

It sounded exactly that to two Montauk, NY residents, April Gornik and Rav Freidel, who this year worked with the gracious and forward-thinking marina owner, Carl Darenburg, to make a slight but significant change to his annual Shark's Eye tournament

The result was the first ever catch and release shark tournament in Montauk, called the shark fishing capitol of the US by many.

"I really enjoyed watching them swim away," said a longtime shark fisherman and Montauk native.

“It’s about getting sustainable fisheries,” Rav Friedel said in the New York Times.  Rav watches out for sharks and Montauk's natural gems through Concerned Citizens of Montauk.

 The message is clear - sharks are in jeopardy worldwide as millions are killed for shark fin soup but we can still enjoy the thrill of catching them in a sustainable way.

Over two days, boats caught and released 31 makos and 30 blue sharks.  The three that were tagged (there were only a handful of satellite tags as they are expensive) can be tracked in real time by anyone for free on OCEARCH.

Right now Princess and Beamer are swimming off the continental shelf about sixty miles from the southern New Jersey coast.  Check them out.

As a nice backdrop to the tournament, supporting organizations provided information and presentations in a large yellow tent at the marina while the boats were out to sea.

Peconic Baykeeper taught people how runoff pollution impacts water quality and what can be done about it.  Nancy Kohler of the National Marine Fisheries Service was the go-to shark guru for any shark questions.

The Shark Brothers, Sean and Brooks Paxton, emceed the festivities under the tent and provided lively updates on shark's caught and tagged.  After the tournament, Carl decided to require circle hooks that are easy on the sharks in all his shark tournaments going forward.

Measured in smiles and not one shark carcass hanging on the dock, the tournament was a huge success.     

See CBS News video coverage of the tournament.