Let’s See Stars Help the Ocean!

Celebrities can sell products, convey ideas, and create interest –  and in all these capacities they have the power to enact change. You may be surprised to learn that the average marine science conference is teeming with rockstars within the ocean world.  Well-known figures, respected and recognized by name if not by face, can be found across the world contributing to the body of scientific knowledge. However, science celebrities are rarely featured in the public eye,  and herein lies the problem.

Celebrities, scientists, and public figures work together on fundraising and problem-solving ocean issues.

Mission Blue Voyage – Celebrities, scientists, and public figures work together on fundraising and problem-solving ocean issues. Photo credit: Sven-Olof Lindblad

The marine science field has tried to engage some of America’s most well-known celebrities – actors and actresses – to represent ocean issues through events like the 2010 Mission Blue Voyage. Led by TEDx and marine-science celebrity Sylvia Earle, this four-day cruise raised over $15 million for projects around the Galapagos and included Hollywood stars Edward Norton, Glenn Close, Leonardo DiCaprio, and others. Foundations and other marine organizations also reach out to celebrities for their endorsement. I have been working with the Thank You Ocean Campaign, a public awareness campaign led by the state of California and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Office of National Marine Sanctuaries,  which works to unite voices and amplify messages to raise ocean awareness and promote everyday actions that protect the ocean.  Thank You Ocean has garnered the endorsement of actor Edward James Olmos in a PSA about keeping our oceans free of trash, and Cat Cora has offered her voice for sustainable seafood which has helped disseminate these positive ocean messages beyond the campaign’s typical audience.

Edward James Olmos speaks on behalf of clean beaches for the Thank You Ocean campaign.

Edward James Olmos speaks on behalf of clean beaches for the Thank You Ocean campaign.

While this level of engagement can reach millions across the U.S. and educate other influential figures, the ocean is a global resource that requires coordinated international efforts to protect. In June 2014, the U.S. Department of State gave celebrity a chance when it held the Our Ocean 2014 conference, and the news coverage reflects that the audience was listening.  Leonardo DiCaprio, founder of the Leonardo DiCaprio Foundation, gave an opening speech on the second day that touched on his personal experience with declining ocean health. He spoke about the need to act now for the sake of future generations, and the importance of “stepping up” to address challenges head-on. He also committed $7 million to meaningful ocean projects, and his foundation has created partnerships with prominent marine conservation groups working all over the world.  This type of collaboration has sparked public conversations and set an example among his peers in how to use their status as celebrities for positive environmental (and professional) purposes.

Leonardo DiCaprio speaks at the Our Ocean Conference with Secretary of State John Kerry, July 2014.  Photo: NY Daily Times

Leonardo DiCaprio speaks at the Our Ocean Conference with Secretary of State John Kerry, June 2014. Photo: NY Daily Times

DiCaprio focused on the conference’s priority issues – marine pollution, sustainable fisheries, and ocean acidification – through his personal experiences in diving, traveling, and fundraising over the last twenty years.  It’s always a challenge to transform bulky science words into concepts that will make people change their behavior, but his call to action was a high-profile request to world governments and other foundations to “step up” to the plate, create and enforce strong marine laws, and work with colleagues to effectively manage our oceans.

This final message is the most important: celebrities can be allies, partners, and advocates for improving the health of our oceans.  They can become our colleagues. Celebrities like DiCaprio help bring together experts, bridge international differences, and translate science; and when policies rely on the influence of the public and politicians alike, celebrities can act as mediators that enact positive change.

Cat Cora, celebrity chef and known for her featured role on Iron Chef, speaks for sustainable seafood choices for the Thank You Ocean campaign.

Cat Cora, celebrity chef and known for her featured role on Iron Chef, speaks for sustainable seafood choices for the Thank You Ocean campaign.

I hope that the next conference I attend will feature my marine science heroes as well as celebrities who are interested in lending their voice and their energy toward the important work being done to help our oceans.

Japanese Tsunami – The Global Aftermath

The 9.0 earthquake centered 80 miles off of the Japanese coast was felt by the whole world, not physically, necessarily, but through our kinship as a global community. We were rattled to see such devastation on our computer and television screens, and West Coasters went to the shorelines to watch the ocean ebb and surge as the tsunami reached our coast. For some port towns, it came with fury, jostling boats and tearing up harbors, causing one fatality and millions in damage. For others towns, like Port Orford, OR, it was captivating to see tides in fast-forward, but it was an unsettling reminder that the Cascadia fault line that stretches from northern Vancouver Island to northern California is about 80 years overdue. Next time, it might be all of us.

The Cascadia Subduction Zone (Credit: California Emergency Management Agency)

The Cascadia Subduction Zone (Credit: California Emergency Management Agency)

Today, almost six months after the Honshu quake, Japan is still reeling. The world has offered its hand in humanitarian efforts, as well as in scientific expertise for the subsequent nuclear crisis. People struggle to rebuild and survive. Food, water and electricity remain in short supply.

What became abundant? Debris. Of all shapes and sizes, from household items, to cars, to whole buildings. When the water receded, anything suspended went along with it back into the Pacific Ocean. This means, in no uncertain terms, that remnants of Japan are headed our way.

 NOAA has run a model using OSCURS (Ocean Surface Current Simulator) showing the flow of debris from Japan. (Courtesy of J. Churnside) (Credit: http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/japanfaqs.html#1, 8/31/2011)

NOAA has run a model using OSCURS (Ocean Surface Current Simulator) showing the flow of debris from Japan. (Courtesy of J. Churnside) (Credit: http://marinedebris.noaa.gov/info/japanfaqs.html#1, 8/31/2011)

This brings one question to mind, and that’s “Are we ready?” First, are we ready to act when, or if, this massive amount of debris hits our coastline? Do we have any sense of the magnitude or high-probability areas? Could any of that debris be radioactive?

Most scientists think we have some time before any debris hits. However, there is no clear answer how the North Pacific Gyre will speed up or slow down that movement. In the time it takes to cross the big blue, and the mismatched timing of the Fukushima incident with the recession of the water, NOAA and others consider it “highly unlikely” that Hawaii or the West Coast will have to deal with radioactivity. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is responsible for monitoring radioactivity.

 Graphic from the International Pacific Research Center. This graphic shows the predicted movement of the debris field. The first bits of debris are expected in a year. (Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1374520/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-debris-floating-US-West-Coast.html?ito=feeds-newsxml, 8/31/2011)

Graphic from the International Pacific Research Center. This graphic shows the predicted movement of the debris field. (Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1374520/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-debris-floating-US-West-Coast.html?ito=feeds-newsxml, 8/31/2011)

The general consensus is that most of the debris will reach the West Coast in about two years, with debris protruding from the water (e.g. fishing vessels) likely to turn up first because of exposure to the prevailing winds. Other debris may remain in the depths of the Pacific never to be seen by most of us again. To date, I’ve really enjoyed picking up beach treasures from Japan (glass floats and interesting bottles), but I’m not sure I’d be so thrilled coming across remnants of cars or houses.

While some of us have the opportunity to go to Japan and help in the rebuilding efforts, others can do the world a favor by taking part in the clean up on this side of the Pacific.  Whether this means signing up for the SOLV Beach clean up every year, participating in events like the California Coastal Cleanup Day and Washington Coast Cleanup, or just bringing garbage bags with you to the beach, we can all do something.

NOAA Center for tsunami research (Credit: http://nctr.pmel.noaa.gov/honshu20110311/ 8/31/2011) NOAA Center for tsunami research (Credit: http://nctr.pmel.noaa.gov/honshu20110311/ 8/31/2011)

West Coast-wide organizations, such as the West Coast Governors’ Agreement on Ocean Health (WCGA), addressed marine debris in the 2008 Action Plan. Action 1.4 notes that the three states will establish baseline estimates of marine debris off the West Coast, and support policies to meet reduction goals through recycling, trash maintenance, and litter laws. Members of the Marine Debris Action Coordination Team and the forming Marine Debris Alliance, with folks at EPA Region 9, the U.S. Coast Guard and others, are on regular calls trying to track this debris plume and figure out the “when, where, and how much.” There is a lot of uncertainty, but also a lot going into getting prepared. This includes a NOAA initiative called “Ships of Opportunity” program, which hires non-research vessels traveling in that direction to search for the head of the debris plume. The thought is if they can deploy buoy sensors at the head of the plume, scientists will be able to track the progress of the debris to the West Coast. Who knows? This may be another happenstance opportunity to learn more about Pacific Ocean currents.

Will we be ready when it’s our shoreline that’s quaking? I know there are a lot of communities starting to think along the lines of tsunami preparedness, but what about our families and friends? I have no disaster plan. I have no kit. Do you?  Granted, not everyone is in imminent danger of a tsunami, but the damage from an earthquake means long-term threats for everyone’s way of life. I’m not advocating that everyone run to the store for their dehydrated food kit, or build a survival shelter in their backyard, but I know that I could benefit from knowing a little more and taking some steps to prepare.

I guess the bottom line for me is, let’s learn from this. Let’s keep our Pacific neighbors in our hearts and minds. Let’s get ready, in every way possible, to prepare for the aftermath of the damage already done, and prepare for events to come. I think we can all agree that it’s only a matter of time.

House bobbing in the Pacific off Japan (Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1374520/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-debris-floating-US-West-Coast.html?ito=feeds-newsxml; 8/31/2011)

House bobbing in the Pacific off Japan (Credit: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-1374520/Japan-earthquake-tsunami-debris-floating-US-West-Coast.html?ito=feeds-newsxml; 8/31/2011)