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Oceans Policy: It's a Matter of Leadership

The problems facing our oceans have political solutions.

| Wed Mar. 1, 2006 3:00 AM EST

But all is not lost. We believe there is a latent "grassroots" base of ocean users comprising recreational fishermen, divers, surfers, and sailors, among others. The Marine Fish Conservation Network, for instance, has built an effective coalition of environmentalists and recreational and commercial fishermen to advocate for fisheries reform. And groups like the Surfrider Foundation are turning surfers into activists.

On the political level, for all the challenges, there is cause for optimism, too. Ocean conservationists for many years made the mistake of many people of conscience, believing that involvement in electoral politics was somehow dirty or unethical, and that simply arming political leaders with the “facts” would lead to positive change. If we care about an issue like the oceans, to be successful we must be willing to work to get good people elected and to hold accountable those who are not. That is beginning to change.

The politics of the ocean are often very different from other environmental issues. On the one hand, the oceans have a few tireless champions like Rep. Sam Farr (D-Ca.) who represents the Monterey Bay area. But consider that Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), with generally one of the best environmental voting records Congress, has been leading the fight against tough overfishing regulations in federal law, largely because he has an active concentration of commercial fishermen in his district who could place his re-election in jeopardy if he is not responsive to their demands, however short-sighted they may be. And the senator who has shown the most leadership on fisheries policy is Sen. Ted Stevens (R-AK.), better known for his efforts to open ANWR.

To help ocean conservationists build political power, in 2003 we launched the first political organizations for the oceans, Ocean Champions and Ocean Champions Voter Fund, to help politicians who care about the oceans get elected to Congress (and to defeat bad ones, like Rep. Richard Pombo and to “brand” oceans as a political issue. Our early efforts have been promising. For instance, Ocean Champions endorsed and supported 14 candidates in 2004; 11 were elected, including two brand-new members of Congress (one Republican and one Democrat) who are already taking a leadership role in pushing for positive fisheries legislation and opposing efforts to open up our oceans and coasts to new drilling for oil and gas.

As Mother Jones' series of articles makes clear, though, time is short. More resources must be directed by both national and grassroots organizations to the task of awakening the public. This is an issue that should be even more compelling to the public than global warming, if only because so much of the public recreates at the ocean. It will require an unprecedented public relations campaign, far outstripping anything that has gone before it.

Such a successful campaign is going to require ocean conservationists to focus on a single message, one that combines the seriousness of the threat with optimism that it can be overcome. That message must be delivered by credible messengers over and over again until the public demands action.

Are we willing to create the kind of sustained and strategic campaign that persuades the public and our political leaders that this is a crisis that threatens our future as a species? Are we also willing to invest in electoral politics, to help elect members of both parties who will fight for the oceans? These questions must be asked, and they must be answered. It’s a matter of leadership.

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