Every activist has a conversion story, the moment when enlightenment becomes a call to action. In the mid-1980s, actor Ted Danson had his. Walking along a Santa Monica beach, he noticed a sign: "Water polluted, no swimming."
"Trying to explain that to my kid was hard," he said.
Already wealthy and famous from playing Sam Malone on "Cheers," Danson decided to use his celebrity to raise awareness about the plight of the world’s oceans. He teamed up with a local activist, Bob Sulnick, to mount a campaign to block oil wells from being drilled off the Santa Monica coast. He and Sulnick co-founded the American Oceans Campaign, which, a decade later, merged with the advocacy group Oceana, the largest international organization focused on ocean conservation.
The “no swimming” sign was the trigger, but Danson was primed for his appreciation of the natural world during childhood. His archaeologist father and anthropologist mother hosted many visiting scientists at their home over the years. The dinner conversation left an indelible impression, said Danson. "It sunk in that there is a lot that has come before us, there is a lot that will come after us, and that the time we are here is not just about us. It’s about stewardship."
Danson was on hand at Climate One on Tuesday, March 22 – World Water Day – as chance would have it – to talk about his life in activism and the manifold threats to oceans, the subject of his new book, Oceana. "No one disagrees," he said, "that we’re headed in the direction where we could conceivably commercially fish out our oceans – no more fish, jelly fish soup – if we do not stop fishing destructfully and wastefully."
The numbers are stark. The world’s oceans, a global commons, are suffering. Danson shared a statistic that points to one culprit: rampant overfishing by big boats. Ninety percent of the world’s fishermen are small-scale operations, harvesting from the sea as they have for millennia, he said. These fishermen account for 10% of the global take. The other 90% is harvested by the remaining 10% of boats, commercial-scale trawlers, some with nets big enough to snare a 747.
The giant nets, he said, "can take a coral reef, they can take rocks, nooks and crannies, which are the nurseries where the little fish become the big fist that we eat like to eat, and turn it into a gravel pit." Once the nets are hauled up to the boat, "a third of what the world catches is thrown overboard dead or dying because it’s not the fish they’re after."
The situation is dire, but Danson cautioned against despair. He published Oceana, he said, to leave those concerned about the oceans feeling hopeful and empowered to act. "When you show up en masse in an email, you literally change policy around the world," he said.
"And it’s the best feeling. To not be overwhelmed by headlines, and to know you are doing something about it. You will know, in your children or grandchildren’s lifetime whether you succeeded. And that’s cool. That’s exciting. That’s not overwhelming or depressing."
– Justin Gerdes
March 22, 2011
Photos by Ed Ritger
The Commonwealth Club of California