The Ocean: Best of Times, Worst of Times

Today I visited Washington, D.C. to cover the Blue Vision Summit, a gathering of ocean scientists and ocean activists, and rarely have I been so depressed and inspired in the space of a single speech.

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Roger Payne addresses the Blue Vision conference.

That speech was the keynote by Roger Payne, the biologist who discovered in the 1970s that humpback whales have songs, and who has done hard-hitting research since. He hit the crowd with a dreadful five-minute litany of the ocean’s problems that aren’t global warming: rainforest destruction, cyanide poisoning by the aquarium fish trade, pollution by undersea oil wells, the slaughter of bycatch, sewage entering the ocean and coral reef deaths, to name a few.

He went on to talk about his signature species, whales, and his most passionate topic, whaling. He detailed how Norway, Japan and Iceland continue to kill thousands of whales each year despite international treaties. Even worse, he went on, harpoons are no longer the biggest whale killers. Rather it is suffocation in abandoned nets and poisoning of the whales’ food, tainted by the toxins humans have poured into the sea. Payne gripped the lectern so hard it shook.

Where’s that “inspiring” part, you might wonder?  It came at the end. Payne concluded with something that everyone knew but needed to hear: “The chance to make a giant change has never been better than at this moment.”

That opportunity for change, embodied by our new president, is why 400 or so people crowded into a hall at George Washington University on a Sunday morning, after losing an hour of sleep to the beginning of Daylight Savings Time.

Barack Obama is, as one speaker put it, “the first bodysurfing president” and the first to grow up in the Hawaiian Islands. Following the Bush years, he’s a manta ray of hope for those who want the oceans treated more kindly. No one knows for sure whether he or Congress will champion the oceans or not. However, many attendees put their names to the sign-up sheets to meet Congressional delegations later in the week.

The conference was a clear sign that the ocean lobby enters the Obama era with a wind at its back.

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