Erin Simmons, an advocate for healthy oceans, answers questions
If Everybody Had an Ocean
With what environmental organization are you affiliated?
I am West Coast organizer for Oceana.
What does your organization do? What, in a perfect world, would constitute “mission accomplished”?
Oceana campaigns to protect and restore the world’s oceans. Currently, our North American offices are focused on two major campaigns, “Stop Destructive Trawling” and “Stop Dirty Fishing.” Recently, we won a third campaign to “Stop Cruise Pollution,” but are still working on federal and state (California) legislation to force all cruise-ship companies to protect our oceans.
Because we work on a campaign model — focusing almost all of our energy into specific campaigns — we are able to declare “mission accomplished” as we succeed in each one. This does not mean success comes often or easily. A single campaign may be successful within a year, or it may take 10. Right now stopping destructive trawling and dirty fishing would constitute “mission accomplished,” but ask me again next year and I may not be satisfied until we get mercury out of all of our seafood. The oceans are pretty massive in scale; we need groups like Oceana to remain vigilant and ready to take on whatever “mission” will help protect and restore them.
What do you really do, on a day-to-day basis?
There’s a lot of variance in my job. A typical day can range from standing at a table at a festival talking about the work Oceana does to sitting in a coalition meeting discussing how various groups can work together to sitting at my desk answering emails and phone calls and writing various outreach pieces. Each day is different. That’s one of my favorite parts about this type of work.
What long and winding road led you to your current position?
After earning my degree in Environmental Science at the University of Colorado at Boulder, I came to an odd realization — I didn’t really like the people I was working with in conservation. I’m a political moderate at heart, and had yet to come across any groups I thought were taking a reasonable approach to working to protect and restore our environment. I decided that education was where environmentalism would truly occur, so I stayed in school to get my master’s in Secondary Science Education. I became a middle school science teacher!
I really enjoyed teaching, but not getting paid in the summer was a challenge. That’s how I found my way back into conservation. I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and a group in Santa Monica, Heal the Bay, was looking to hire an intern for the summer to work on developing an environmental education curriculum. It was the perfect symmetry between my two degrees. I started that summer working on Heal the Bay’s Key to the Sea Program. That summer turned into about 10 hours a week during the school year. Those 10 hours became full time the next year. That full time became my moving to San Francisco just as Oceana was beginning. It’s been a great path so far.
How many emails are currently in your inbox?
104. Most have been read, some have not. When receiving email, it falls into two categories for me: live person on the other end, or not. Those emails that fall into the first category get read immediately and responded to. Those emails in the second category are usually from listservs (the Marine Fish Conservation Network has an excellent listserv of articles and announcements, but it can be high volume) or are FYI emails (“thought you might find this interesting”). Odds are I will find it interesting, but it’s not as high a priority for me. I try to read these emails during lunch or at the end of the day. Unfortunately, they don’t always get the attention they deserve. From there, email is either saved in a folder, or deleted. In my professional career I’ve come to one strong conclusion — you really don’t need to save most of the email you receive. No, really. You don’t.
With whom do you interact regularly as part of your job?
Most of the people I interact with are as passionate about protecting the environment as I am, whether they’re members of Oceana, concerned citizens, or environmentalists by trade.
The organizations that I deal with a great deal include The Ocean Conservancy, Bluewater Network, National Environmental Trust, Save Our Shores, and the Surfrider Foundation. Government agencies range from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to the California legislature to the Sanctuary Advisory Council for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. The businesses that I deal with include some of our best supporters: dive, surf, and kayak shops.
Who’s nicer than you would expect?
Fishers. There are always horror stories of fishers looking to protect just their niche of the ocean to fish, but in my experience, speak to any one of these men or women individually and you’ll find that they’re just as concerned about the health of the world’s oceans as we are.
Where were you born? Where do you live now?
Naperville, Ill. (outside of Chicago). San Francisco, Calif.
What do you consider your environmental coming-of-age moment or experience?
When I was 19 I spent 32 days sea kayaking in Prince William Sound, Alaska. I had never been encompassed in such a pristine environment before. For a month, I lived in a place that had bears, whales, puffins, and, shockingly, oil slicks. The oil slicks were from the Exxon Valdez spill over five years before I arrived. My anger was palpable at first. Once it receded, I wanted to learn. While on my trip, I read about what had happened, how the cleanup occurred, and how the settlement came about. I was enraptured by the dual ideas of preventing this from ever happening again and making the public care about this environment enough to truly understand its value. I never understood until I was there. How do you get someone to care about, and understand the significance of, something they may never see or experience? I think about that every day.
What’s on your desk right now?
The usual: computer, phone, cell phone in dock, Rolodex, plant, desk lamp. Work stuff: papers, books (The Rockfishes of the Northeast Pacific, Organizing for Social Change). Personal decor: carved fish from Bhutan, Oceana water bottle, stuffed seal, “Shifting Baselines” tri-fold, jellyfish mouse pad from the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
Who is your environmental hero?
Edward Abbey. To be able to incite the love and passion for the natural world that he did through his writing is an amazing gift; plus, there’s always been that part of me with the ideal that’d crack the Glen Canyon Dam.
What’s your environmental vice?
Owning an SUV.
How do you get around?
Usually my feet, sometimes the bus, occasionally my car.
What are you reading these days?
Plan of Attack by Bob Woodward.
What’s your favorite meal?
Cheese pizza with crushed red pepper (New York style).
Are you a news junkie? Where do you get your news?
Which stereotype about environmentalists most fits you?
I’m deeply passionate about what I do.
What’s your favorite place or ecosystem?
Under the water.
If you could institute by fiat one environmental reform, what would it be?
That every city corner must have a trash can with an ashtray and lid. I’d also like to have them emptied out on a regular basis. People don’t want to discard trash every which way; they just find it to be the simplest. If every city took the time and spent the money to have a trash receptacle easily accessible, people would use them. Then trash wouldn’t end up in the streets, washed down storm drains, and into the bay, ocean, or lake. It’s simple and practical. Next we’ll work on landfills and over-consumption — one step at a time, people.
Would you label yourself an environmentalist?
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing particularly well?
Marketing nature and the need to protect it — over the past 50 years or so, the environmental movement has learned a great deal from the corporate world about how to frame a message and get people to care. This has been a result of great marketing and public education campaigns. People now know they should recycle, that dirty air is a bad thing, and that there are laws to protect the environment. Most major newspapers have an environmental reporter on their staff full time; that wasn’t the case a decade ago. There are magazines like Grist online. Environmental education is taught in schools. Pictures of celebrities supporting a cause are in Us magazine. The environmental movement has learned how to harness the power of marketing and the Internet to help spread messages more broadly and educate more people in a more effective manner.
What’s one thing the environmental movement is doing badly, and how could they do it better?
Competing with each other — the unfortunate situation is that we are all competing for the same pots of money so that we can do this work for a living and have a long, lasting impact. This creates an environment, though, of organizations which work for the same good causes having to outdo each other in order to maintain their portion of the pot. We must get our names in the press more than the other organizations, appear more effective, have more members, and so on. No one group is better than another. We each have our own philosophies, but that doesn’t mean more can’t get done by working together.
That the world’s oceans consist of essential ecosystems in need of conservation — just because you can’t see what’s down there doesn’t mean there aren’t big things happening that influence the rest of the world’s ecosystems.
What was your favorite band when you were 18? How about now?
Rage Against the Machine (I was going through a teenage angry-at-society phase.) Now, I’m more musically mature. My tastes have broadened; I’m more emo than angry. Currently in heavy rotation on my iPod: Wilco, The Postal Service, Stereolab, and The New Pornographers.
Mac or PC?
PC for work. Mac for home entertainment (pictures, music, watching DVDs). I also like both chocolate and vanilla. So there.
If you could have every InterActivist reader do one thing, what would it be?
Donate either time or money to an organization, any organization. These people are working full-time to protect the environment for us all. Give them some support. It really does make a difference.
What “big things” are happening down there in the ocean? — Carlin Thomas, Oakland, Calif.
Wow! There is just so much. I encourage you to check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s website or visit them to learn more about the ocean ecosystem off California’s coast. Also, visit our website or another organization’s, such as Shifting Baselines or Surfrider, to learn more about the threats to the various ecosystems. If you have a more specific question once you’ve looked into some various sites, there’s always staff, including myself, who are more than happy to answer questions.
Do you think public aquariums, like Monterey Bay or New England Aquarium, are successful in getting their message of ocean stewardship out to the public? If not, what could they do better? — Jen Goebel, Arlington, Mass.
I do believe that public aquariums and marine-science centers are successful in getting the message of ocean stewardship out to the public, and that they’re constantly working to improve their messages. Most of the aquariums have invested heavily in increasing their education departments over the past decade or so. They have also worked to get funding for programs that specifically work to educate the public about various aspects of ocean stewardship. For example, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program has blossomed from a simple education piece — their sustainable seafood cards — into an annual event, Cooking for Solutions, and they’ve got a growing, highly educated staff and have attracted national recognition for the importance of the materials they’re producing in educating the public on how to make positive choices for healthy oceans.
What do you think desalinization plants will do to the ocean and its environment? Do you think we can stop them from happening? How? — Susan Kipping, Felton, Calif.
Desalination is a growing issue, especially near you, Susan. When well-planned and properly located, desalination plants can be an environmentally safe alternative to more traditional water sources. There is much legitimate concern regarding the potential environmental impact if desalination plants are to spring up throughout the coast, though. A great deal of planning and community involvement must go into the processes whenever a desalination plant is considered. The final plan for any such plant must also include a monitoring component.
The first step in considering desalination plants must be recognizing that they are not substitutes for water conservation. A local group near you, Save Our Shores, has contributed substantially to discussion on the potential for desalination on California’s central coast. If you’re interested in getting involved in the discussion locally, I strongly recommend that you contact them.
Why can’t the fish take care of themselves? Isn’t it all about survival of the fittest? And if so, maybe fish aren’t all that fit. — Philip McCreviss, San Francisco, Calif.
That’s one way to look at it, Philip. The way I look at it, though, is that the fish are taking care of themselves, but we’re not giving them a chance to complete their life cycles. You can’t dump unlimited amounts of pollutants into the oceans and expect the ecosystem to bounce back. You also can’t have unlimited fishing and expect the fish to be able to adapt that quickly. For example, a recent study published in the Journal of Animal Ecology found that the quantity of large fish in the North Sea has declined by 97 to 99 percent since the onset of fishing. That’s shocking! No fish can be expected to keep up evolutionarily with that sort of mass killing. For more examples of this phenomenon, check out the Shifting Baselines Project, of which Oceana is a partner.
Do you have any examples of “shifting baselines” from your life or your work with Oceana? And based on your training in education, do you think this concept is useful for teaching kids (and adults) about the environment? — Amy Schoenfeld, Boston, Mass.
I do believe that the concept of “shifting baselines” is a useful one for both older kids and adults. Younger kids, and for that matter some adults, may have trouble with such an abstract concept, but the Shifting Baselines Project is working to make it more tangible through graphics, anecdotes, and humor — all based on the actual science. Most of the examples of shifting baselines that I’ve encountered in my work are documented on the Shifting Baselines website. One of the best explanations of this concept is also contained there in an op-ed by Randy Olson that appeared in the L.A. Times. I hope that through everyone’s diligent work, the deterioration that shifting baselines usually describe in the environmental world will be scaled back and even stopped.
Do environmental lawsuits really help? Do you feel that judges are generally qualified to make fisheries-management decisions, or do you view legal actions as the last resort when adequate safeguards are not kept in place by the responsible regulatory agencies? — Mark Vinsel, Juneau, Alaska
Lawsuits should always be the last resort, no matter what you’re talking about. Judges may not always be qualified to make fisheries-management decisions, but they’re judges because they have the expertise to determine whether a certain law was upheld or not. Those laws were written and put into place by people who are qualified to make fisheries-management decisions. That said, I’m not an attorney and these are just my peripheral observations as an average citizen. I am very glad that we have such a well-educated and experienced legal department as part of Oceana. Fishery management has many aspects; I’m happy to work on the public-education aspect and feel great about leaving the legal aspect to the experts.
Even though you seem not to care for the confrontational approach, couldn’t you and Greenpeace team up? — Jerry Broadbent, Bucoda, Wash.
Every problem is best solved by coming at it from every possible angle, including environmental problems. The work that Greenpeace does is very important, and I’m the first to support the notion that working together will get the most accomplished.
Do you think that the Mediterranean is overfished? If yes, do you believe that it could be in a better situation than it is now? — Kadiani Kapelaki, Corfu, Greece
Unfortunately, I’m not as well-educated about the issues surrounding the Mediterranean as I am with the Pacific Ocean. According to a 2002 report by the European Environment Agency, the fish stocks of the Eastern Mediterranean are considered to be in the “best” condition (along with the Arctic) compared to the rest of the European fish stocks, but what that actually means is that 60 percent of their stock is overexploited, compared to 70 percent of fish stocks in the other areas being overexploited. I may be going out on a limb, but I consider that a pretty bad situation. Oceana in Europe is working diligently on these issues. If you’re interested in more complete information, I encourage you to get in touch with them.
Do you remember the report detailing microscopic plastic particles found in the world’s oceans? With reports like this and all the dead zones, it’s hard not to think the oceans are really, truly screwed. How does one cope with heavy stuff like this without getting all apocalyptic about it? — Nikos Hollis, Grand Junction, Colo.
Some days are better than others, Nikos. Just because things may look bad in one area of ocean protection today doesn’t mean they always will. I like to point to the example of Heal the Bay, my former employers. When Heal the Bay was founded in 1985, the city of Los Angeles was dumping barely treated sewage into the Santa Monica Bay and was petitioning the federal government for a waiver that would exempt them from the requirements of the Clean Water Act and allow them to continue only treating their sewage at a primary level, not secondary. A handful of citizens recognized that this was not okay and began signing up other citizens to fight this treatment (or lack of treatment) of Santa Monica Bay. It was directly because of this pressure that L.A. agreed to comply with the Clean Water Act. There has been a return of plant life to previous underwater dead zones, in less than 20 years! (You can read this story in its entirety here.)
It’s easy to feel that all is lost, but with concerned citizens such as yourself and groups like Heal the Bay, Oceana, and others, these situations can be turned around. You just need to remind yourself that the environmental apocalypse isn’t here yet, but you do need to stay vigilant in warding it off.
Would it help if beverage companies made all their plastic tops green or blue to look less like food? — Nancy Schimmel, Berkeley, Calif.
Sure, varying the color of the tops of beverage containers would help limit consumption by seabirds, but I believe that misses the fundamental cause of the problem — plastics in the ocean. The amazing research work that groups such as the Algalita Foundation have done in the area of pelagic plastics is one of the best steps forward. As it says on the Algalita Foundation website:
Studies indicate less than 5 percent of plastic ever gets recycled, while each American is said to contribute some 65 lbs. of plastic into landfills each year. The ocean is especially susceptible to plastic pollution. It takes longer for the sun to break apart plastic in the ocean than on land because of the oceans’ cooling capacity.
The best action can occur by recycling the plastic that is used, using less plastic, and helping to make sure that no matter what color it is it doesn’t end up in the ocean.