The TH Interview: Andrew Sharpless, Chief Executive Officer, and Michael F. Hirshfield, Senior Vice President & Chief Scientist for Oceana

An organization we highlighted in our Gift Guide this year, Oceana - an international organization whose modest objective it is to protect and preserve our oceans - has already accomplished a lot in its 6 years of existence. In the past, it led a campaign to prevent Congress from removing a provision in the Marine Mammal Protection Act that required commercial fisheries to minimize harm to marine mammals and spearheaded the Campaign to Stop Seafood Contamination, convincing several major grocery chains to post the FDA's warning on mercury at their seafood counters.

More recently, it has been involved with efforts to reduce emissions from aircraft and shipping vessels and released a report highlighting the difficulties faced by the world's sharks. Following is an interview we conducted with Andrew Sharpless, Oceana's CEO, and Mike Hirshfield, Senior Vice President & Chief Scientist for Oceana, at an event in November celebrating Al Gore's achievements:

TreeHugger: Andrew - for those readers not familiar with Oceana's work, can you give us a brief breakdown of your organization's objectives and current initiatives? Oceana's Campaign to Stop Seafood Contaminationhas convinced major grocery retailers including Whole Foods, Trader Joe's, Safeway, Wild Oats, and others to post the Food and Drug Administration's warning on mercury in certain kinds of fish at their seafood counters. As a part of this campaign, Oceana also targeted out-dated chlorine manufacturing plants that continue to needlessly pollute the environment with huge amounts of mercury every year.

Andrew Sharpless: Oceana works to protect and restore ocean abundance. We are particularly concerned with scientific evidence that there will be a total collapse of commercial fisheries around the world by the middle of century.

The problems are very fixable. Counterintuitively, most of the problems have to do not with pollution, but with mismanagement of commercial fisheries around the world. Also counterintuitively, you can fix this problem by going to particular countries rather than having to go to the United Nations or make treaties.

We work in countries that have big coasts and that are well managed to set sensible policies in three areas: reasonable quotas for fishing, protecting habitats from being destroyed from fishing, and reducing bycatch, which is the incidental killing of creatures in the process of targeting another creature.

If you do all three things well, and you do them in countries that have big coasts, you can save enormous pieces of the ocean and turn them around and make them abundant again. Two-thirds of our work is fishery management and the other third is pollution, where we put a large focus on mercury.

Many people are aware that mercury in the ocean is at a level where the Food and Drug Administration of the United States says to be careful if you are a woman of child bearing age or a child. Don't eat swordfish and only eat six ounces a week of albacore tuna. Oceana works to get the message out in grocery stores to people about this warning. We also work to reduce the pollution coming from its source, a major target being chlorine manufacturing.

We are very focused. We pick our fights. We hold ourselves to short term results, by which we mean policy victory in three to four years. We do not spread ourselves thinly across everything that would be nice to do for the oceans.

TH: What have been some of your most notable achievements?

AS: I am really happy to report that Oceana has delivered probably 15 important victories in the six years we have been in business. That is really something that fundamentally keeps us coming to work here. We actually have delivered policy results.

We have closed a million square miles around the ocean from bottom trawling - the most destructive form of fishing besides cyanide and dynamite.

We got the Italian government to crack down on their driftnetters and take them off the ocean, and we got the French to close a loophole in the European Union directive that they had been using to continue to driftnet.

In the U.S., we won huge increases in funding for independent observers to monitor bycatch on big commercial fishing boats.

In the pollution area, there were nine antiquated chlorine plants in the U.S. that spew out enormous amounts of mercury, and we have gotten five of those to close or convert since we started our campaign two and a half years ago.

In Europe, we won a directive that applies to all 27 nations in the E.U. that mandates criminal penalties for captains and owners of ships that dump oil into the ocean.

We pressured the Royal Caribbean Cruiseline, the second largest company in the cruise industry, to commit to clean up its entire fleet of 29 ships.

In Chile, we stopped fishery policy making from being done in secret and opened up that process to public review and inspection.

We were also successful in Chile in stopping a law that would have allowed salmon farming to expand faster than it already is expanding.

We succeeded in getting both houses of Congress to unanimously pass resolutions that supports the U.S. position in Geneva that strongly opposes continued taxpayers subsidies for commercial fishing around the world.

TH: Your documentation of several European countries' illegal use of driftnets this year received a lot of attention. Can you tell us more about your research vessel's run-in with the French fishermen?

AS: This May off the coast of France, the crew of our catamaran Ranger was photographing illegal French driftnetters in action. As we watched them, they knew we were photographing them, so they stopped their activities. They shot off a flare, and to our surprise five or six ships came in from all different points of the compass at high speed and approached our boat.

Their engines were faster than Ranger's and our boat could not get away. They then took a rope, tied it to a buoy and entangled it around our propeller. They were intent on boarding our ship and seizing the photographic evidence of their illegal activities.

As the fishermen approached they took down their pants and made various gestures - with both sides of their bodies - expressing their disapproval of our documenting of their illegal activity. They hurled fish at us, they hurled insults at us. You can see all this on YouTube if you wish.

We did [call] mayday for help. The French authorities responded and sent a civilian helicopter and then a military helicopter. When the second helicopter arrived the fishermen got scared and left.

The French driftnetters held a press conference accusing Greenpeace of attacking them with a boat called Oceana. Then we issued a press release that said, there was an attack, but they attacked us and we have a videotape to prove it.

We got the videotape to Madrid and released it to the press, and it caught the attention of the European Union. The British fishery minister was able to use that evidence that the French were violating the law to demand a change in the policy to eliminate the loophole that the French fleet had been using to continue to driftnet. As a result of this attack the policy was amended in August.

TH: Al Gore's contributions to raising awareness about global warming are well documented. How do you think he has helped raise awareness about the oceans' plight?

AS: I encourage everyone to read Al Gore's book, Assault on Reason. He addresses the problems the ocean will face because of climate change. One of the things he talks about is the fact that when you change the chemistry of the atmosphere you change the chemistry of the ocean.

One-third of the carbon dioxide that goes into the air gets absorbed by the ocean. That's significant because as more carbon dioxide is absorbed, the ocean becomes more acidic. When this happens, creatures that use calcium to make their shells find that more difficult because acid interferes with the calcification process. That is bad for corals and for many creatures which are at the bottom of the food chain and use shells to protect themselves.

Gore has talked a lot about that, and he has made it a regular part of his arguments about why we should care about global warming for many years. We are very much grateful to him for that.

TH: Mike, how do you help shape Oceana's direction and advocacy in your position as Chief Scientist?

Mike Hirshfield: My job is to make sure that Oceana is working on important issues for ocean health and that our policy recommendations are based on science in order to ensure that we can actually bring about real changes in the ocean.

We have to take into account whether the problems have solutions that can be articulated. They have to be solutions that we can reasonably expect to achieve with the resources that we and our allies can bring to the table.

We aim to achieve all the goals we set in a five year period. It forces us to think about what you are trying to accomplish and what you are trying to get done. Sometimes however, like with global warming, you know the ultimate resolution to the problem may not come for 50 years if you're lucky. So we have to think of it as a progression of goals. In five years we will be this far along, in another five years we will be this far along. It allows for both progress and tangible success.

It's an alternative point of view. The shorthand version is that you work on many fronts and you go ahead, progressing slowly. That leads to public education and all sorts of broad-based cultural change opportunities. Our funders and founders did not want us to be that type of organization. They want us to be able to say at the end of five years, there are this many happier fish, there are this many protected parts of the sea floor.

The best metaphor for describing Oceana came from Daniel Pauly at his speech at the Partner's Award Gala. He said, "You look at these pyramids and you go, how the heck did anybody build these? The answer is brick by brick." That's what Oceana does.

TH: Tell us more about your collaboration with California State Atty. Gen. Jerry Brown to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from ocean-bound vessels. How significant is their contribution to global warming?

AS: It is a tremendous help to have the State Attorney of California asking for the same types of regulations that we want. Jerry Brown heard about our petition and approached us about teaming up for the press conference. There is no question we think our petition has more of a chance of being taken seriously by the federal government now that the State Attorney General of California is asking for the same thing. We are delighted to be working with him.

In our report, we cited statistics from independent university-based scientists that suggested that the emissions from the global shipping fleets were roughly equivalent to the emissions from Canada, putting it around sixth or seventh in the world. The day after that report came out, the Times of London had an article that said there was a yet-unpublished report by the shipping industry that puts the emissions at the levels we were talking about were underestimated and that they were more like fifth, around the level of Japan.

The emissions from the shipping industry are significant to the order of 4-5 percent of all the emissions in the world. In addition, they emit a lot of black carbon, which is a big problem in the Arctic because black carbon accelerates the melting of ice. It's important to note, however, that sending freight by ship is more efficient than any other means, but the industry's emissions need to be regulated.

TH: How has Daniel Pauly aided your efforts?

AS: He has aided our efforts in so many ways. Dr. Pauly has been a board member of Oceana since the beginning of the organization, and he is one of the builders of the scientific foundation on which Oceana stands.

Daniel Pauly is responsible for changing the way the world views oceans. He has designed, built and in some cases invented many of the fundamental statistical models for scientific analysis that people use all over the world to understand what is happening to world fisheries.

Before he started putting out his major works, the general feeling about the oceans was that the catches were increasing and fishing was fine except for a few isolated problems. Daniel's work pretty much put that way of thinking to rest.

He helps us by being another respected voice in the scientific community talking about fishery depletion so Oceana does not come off as just another alarmist environmental group. He has made the lives of all people who care about ocean conservation easier, because he is willing to state what we know about the oceans in terms that are helpful and effective for policy makers and people who want to influence policy makers.

Dr. Pauly is also an advisor to Oceana, informing us about what works and what does not work for our goals. He helps us connect with other scientists, helps us think about our campaigns, and helps us figure out whether we're heading down the right path.

TH: How confident are you that we will be able to resolve the crises facing the world's oceans, particularly in the wake of pessimistic reports like the NSDIC's study on melting Arctic sea ice?

AS: There is no question in my mind that the oceans of 2050 or 2100 are going to be different than the oceans of today or the oceans of a hundred years ago. It would be naïve to say that we are going to be able to return the oceans to some kind of conditions that might have existed when the world had a tenth as many people.

There's a lot of evidence that indicates that if you give the ocean a chance, it will come back. If we fish less, fish populations will grow. Will the Arctic have all the species in the same numbers it has today? Probably not. Can we count on an ocean in the world where there are more whales, more dolphins, more sea birds, more turtles and more fish than there are today? Yes, I think that is possible. We know what to do.

TH: What concrete steps can scientists and policymakers take to address these looming crises?

AS: What scientists can do is talk to the policy makers about the conclusions from their research. They should do what scientists tend not to do, which is emphasize the things they do know, rather than the things that are yet to be learned.

Policy makers need to understand that the scale of human activities on our oceans today is too great. Whether it is fishing, or carbon dioxide, or pollution in its many forms, they need to be scaled back. Whenever confronted by a choice that says is this going to lead to a bigger human footprint in the ocean or a smaller one, they should choose the smaller one.

Tags: Al Gore | Arctic | California | TH Interview

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