Interview with David Helvarg, Author + Ocean Activist
Q: Is our ocean in trouble?
A: Our world ocean is facing a cascading series of disasters, from industrial overfishing that’s taking fish out of the water faster than they can reproduce to oil, chemical, plastic, and nutrient pollution to loss of critical habitat from wetlands to the deep sea bottom. On top of all that, fossil fuel-fired climate disruption is not only warming the ocean and melting polar ice but changing the basic chemistry of the ocean, making it more acidic, which threatens every shell-forming critter from plankton to lobsters to coral reefs. Not only clams but Cajuns are now threatened as whole coastal cultures are at risk from rising seas and more extreme weather.
Q: Still only about 4 percent of the ocean is presently protected. Are we operating on the right scale?
A: The challenge is to grow our solutions faster than the problems we face. I wrote The Golden Shore when I realized that where I live in California is itself a world-class solution. With 40 million people and the planet’s sixth largest economy, we’ve still managed to teach ourselves how to live well, and largely in harmony, with our coast and ocean.
Q: How has California restored its ocean and marine wildlife?
A: As a late maritime frontier, California went through a phase in which native wildlife including sea otters, whales, and elephant seals were driven close to extinction. The ocean was overexploited and polluted and parts of the coast overbuilt. But over time, Californians came to develop a sense of stewardship for their ocean and respect for their own diversity—as reflected by the increased activism of coastal tribes working to restore their culture and environment. The 1969 Santa Barbara oil spill was a driver of the modern environmental movement and helped inspire the protection of the coast with creation of the California Coastal Commission in the 1970s that not only limited bad development but guaranteed public access to the shoreline. Since then, California has become a leader in ocean legislation and policy, including the recent establishment of a network of offshore marine parks. With a democracy of blue interests—surfers, ports, the Navy, marine science labs, coastal homeowners—no single special interest can dominate state decision-making like oil does in Louisiana, fishermen in New England, and real-estate developers in Florida. While the process of democracy can be messy, the outcomes tend to be positive, given that you protect what you love and most Californians love their coast.
Q: What future threats does the coast of California face?
A: The late Coastal Commission leader Peter Douglas used to say, “The Coast is never saved, it’s always being saved.” Along with ongoing threats from unsound development and urban and agricultural runoff pollution (including plastic), climate change impacts represent a major threat to California’s future. Despite having a sound climate plan at the state level, Californians are now seeing impacts from drought and fire to dying sea lion pups on and offshore as a result of other people’s energy choices. How to adjust to sea level rise and demands for new industrial uses of the ocean, such as desalinization and offshore wind farms, are challenges that also offer opportunities for new solutions. After all, California has historically been a model for how to take a greener, or in this case, bluer, approach.
Q: Is California a world model for living well with the greater part of our planet that’s blue?
A: While everyone has to find solutions that fit their local needs and communities, I’d still say yes, yes it is.