On May 13, 2015, during Healthy Ocean Capitol Hill Day, delegations of seaweed citizens (marine grassroots) will march on the U.S. House and Senate to remind our elected representatives that the ocean, its coasts and communities that depend on them matter, and that doing nothing, as Congress presently does, is not acceptable. But who these ocean advocates, including surfers, sailors and scientists, will be talking to will largely be determined by this election that could change the makeup of the Senate. It would also impact decision-making on the state of our public seas from bay and coastal towns to the White House, the UN and beyond.
In the Senate, some candidates like Democrat Mark Begich of Alaska are big on oil development in the Arctic, which might not be appealing to many ocean advocates. However, as the Head of the Senate Oceans sub-committee, he’s also been a champion of sustainable fisheries. He’s gone after pirate fishing on the high seas and championed the Magnuson-Stevens Act reforms of 2006, which help protect U.S. waters from overfishing. However this reform, unsurprisingly, is now under attack in Congress, just as commercially fished marine wildlife species are beginning to recover off our shores.
Other Senators like Mark Udall of Colorado are strong on ocean and environmental issues, though his support of natural gas fracking in his home state has hurt him with some voters. He is facing a tight election race in which some unusual players including the Colorado Ocean Coalition are working to keep their (our) issues visible and vibrant during this campaign season. After all, as Coalition founder, surfer and diver Vicki Nichols Goldstein has noted, when it comes to the air we breathe and the rains that nurture us, every state is a coastal state.
On the House side, little is expected to change thanks to gerrymandering and political polarization, even though polls indicate the House’s single-digit approval ratings make it only slightly more popular than ISIS and Ebola.
There are, of course, some great Congressional members like ocean champions Sam Farr and Jarred Huffman of California and Congresswoman Chellie Pingree of Maine who greeted the 2013 Healthy Ocean Hill Day folk along with Senator Brian Schatz of Hawaii who won a close democratic primary in August on his way to the general election. He explains his ocean advocacy as starting back when he was 16 and arrived at Sandy Beach on Oahu to go bodysurfing only to find it closed due to pollution.
“You can’t separate the ecology of our oceans and the economy of our coastal communities,” Rep. Pingree says knowing of what she speaks as she runs for a third term in the House of Representatives. She lives on an island 10 miles off the coast of Maine in Penobscot Bay and has the strong endorsement of the Ocean Champions Organization which bills itself as “the only political voice for the oceans,” and has a Political Action Committee to support friends and oppose enemies of marine conservation.
In 2006, Ocean Champions targeted and helped defeat Richard Pombo, a California Republican who dropped the word “Natural” from the “House Natural Resource Committee” when he took it over as Chair. He was a major proponent of offshore and arctic drilling, selling off National Parks and gutting the Endangered Species Act. For more on the “Wise Use” environmental backlash, he was a self-proclaimed member of, read my first book: The War Against the Greens.
This fall, Ocean Champions is working on a number of House and Senate races from California to New Hampshire. In the Florida panhandle’s 2nd congressional district, two-term Tea Party Republican Steve Southerland is being challenged by moderate Democrat Gwen Graham, daughter of long-time Florida Senator Bob Graham, in a tight race that has gained national attention. Like Richard Pombo in his day, Ocean Champions has labeled Southerland, “Ocean Enemy #1,” because of his efforts to promote offshore oil drilling and block key provisions of the Clean Water Act, President Obama’s establishment of marine monuments and Gulf of Mexico Fishery Management Council decisions among other things. He thought he was pandering to local fishermen but actually upset them with some uninformed meddling.
“We as a community are doing more than ever in this election to make sure we come back from it with a pro-ocean congress,” says Ocean Champions’ Executive Director Dave Wilmot. “We’re doing our best to influence it. I feel like the (ocean conservation) community has really stepped up this year.”