Erin Simmons, west
coast organizer for

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.