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Symposium Talks:

Symposium Talks
Beyond Monterey Bay and Our Splendid Isolation

Michael L. Weber
Senior author, "The Wealth of Oceans"
Formerly special assistant
to the Director of the National Marine
Fisheries Service and Vice President
for Programs of the Center
for Marine Conservation in Washington, D.C.


Mike Weber was keynote speaker for the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Symposium, "Sanctuary Currents '96 - Building Community Connections In Science, Education, and Conservation, " 9 March 1996; his speech preceded the MBNMS Research Symposium.

Before I begin my prepared remarks, I would like to say how moved I was by yesterday evening's award ceremony, by the enthusiastic support and involvement of this community in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. For me, it was a particularly gratifying event: Seventeen years ago, I testified at a California Coastal Commission hearing in support of a proposed Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. We have come a long way.

You have so much to be proud of here; your community spirit and creativity are inspiring. I only hope you will share your creativity and energy with other sanctuary sites and other areas of the country. You have a lot to offer. Please share it.

My principal theme today is the isolation we have imposed upon ourselves as marine scientists, educators, conservationists, National Marine Sanctuary Program supporters, and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary supporters.

In promoting marine conservation and science, the National Marine Sanctuary Program, or Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, we often emphasize how different these concerns are from conservation and science on land, not to mention economics, literature, art, mass media. I once thought that emphasizing these differences might lift marine science and conservation out of its relative obscurity. Now, I believe that emphasizing differences rather than linkages has isolated us and marine conservation and science from the life and aspirations of society at large.

Today, I want to share with you some of the links I have found in my own efforts to break out of this isolation, and to encourage you to do some barrier-breaking today yourselves.

Let me begin with a familiar example: the National Marine Sanctuary Program. People inside and outside the United States often criticize the National Marine Sanctuary program for not being more effective than it is, for not having fulfilled its potential. I could give a number of reasons for people adopting this view, such as the poor record of funding for the program, confusion in the United States over just how protective we want to get with things marine, and so on. But, I want to focus upon one obstacle to the program's achieving its potential. And that is the program's isolation within the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The sanctuary program sits at the bottom of a very long chain of command, which often is more interested in its own preservation than in tapping the excitement that the sanctuary program generates outside Washington and outside National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. As a result, the national program does not routinely draw upon the extraordinary resources and capabilities of other programs in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, from satellite remote sensing to fisheries oceanography. Nor does it draw upon other Federal and state agencies, whose land, water, and wildlife management programs can profoundly influence the waters and wildlife of sanctuaries.

The program is isolated, and its isolation is a strategic handicap.

This kind of isolation is not unique to the sanctuary program, to NOAA, or to government. Specialization is a way of life in government and in private society. Competition rather than collaboration is the rule for getting ahead. Opening doors, building bridges, breaking down barriers between academic disciplines, agency programs, citizens groups, and legislative committees is the exception rather than the rule.

In recent years, a lot of hard work has brought oceans and coasts more attention and support than they have received since the 1960s, when Vice President Hubert Humphrey was a passionate advocate for oceans in the White House. But our concern for the oceans now competes with many more concerns as worthy and as urgent as our own. And too often, we find ourselves working in isolation or competition with others whose agenda is slightly different, but complimentary if we stop to think about it.

As an example, agriculture can have a profound effect on the quantity and quality of water entering coastal and estuarine areas, and upon upstream habitat critical to anadromous fishes. This linkage has not been recently discovered; it has been known for many years. Yet, the importance of the linkage is not matched by collaboration among those promoting sustainable agriculture and those promoting coastal water quality and wildlife. The same may be said for logging practices or dam operations.

Some of our most powerful potential allies are among the general public. But despite excellent, valuable efforts, we ocean scientists, educators, and conservationists are not getting our message through. Let me give you some evidence for saying this.

The Chesapeake Bay, my home watershed for sixteen years, has been the focus of a multi-million dollar state and Federal program of research and education stretching back almost two decades. More is known about the links between land and water in this watershed and bay than just about any other place on Earth. This research led to restrictions on major industrial and municipal sources of pollution, and there have been signs of improvement.

But for some time now, Bay scientists, activists, and many government leaders have realized that the future of the bay will depend mostly on the behavior of increasing numbers of commuters, homeowners, farmers, and others. For more than a decade, governmental and nongovernmental groups have carried out imaginative education programs informing the public about the linkages between their activities and the condition of the bay, about ways they can make their contribution to the bay's restoration. But by almost any standard, the message hasn't gotten through to most people.

In 1994, the Chesapeake Bay Program released a survey of public attitudes in the 64,000 square mile Chesapeake Bay watershed. Among other things, the survey found that 85 percent of watershed residents who were interviewed expressed concern about pollution in the bay. This was hardly surprising given the massive education and media campaign of the previous decades. But less than ten percent saw any connection between their own activities and the state of the bay.

I found this latter result very depressing, because it pointed toward a future of increasing pollution and habitat loss in one of this country's truly spectacular coastal areas. It also told me that the notions I shared with others about promoting public awareness needed a critical review and possibly a complete overhaul.

Two other reports led me in the direction of a possible solution for this problem.

In promoting understanding of global change, the Environmental Protection Agency mounted a large public information program about global warming, carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, fossil fuel combustion--the whole enchilada. In evaluating the program, EPA found some problems, one of which was a strategic error of the first order. Only after the program was launched did EPA learn that many people associated global warming with ozone depletion, not fossil fuel combustion. As a result, many people did not really hear EPA's message about greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and methane.

The lesson I drew from EPA's experience was that we who are so eager to enthuse and enroll the public in our crusades need to listen more closely to our public. Or, in the words of community organizer Saul Alinksy: You gotta take people where they are, not where you would like them to be.

The second revelation came from the work of a Mexican soap-opera producer by the name of Miguel Sabido. For more than a decade, Sabido has been tapping the popularity of soap operas to promote public awareness about the benefits of family planning. Miguel Sabido has taken an issue that can be deadly with numbers and abstraction, and has cast it in the kind of human, dramatic terms that people immediately understand and identify with. Surveys of Sabido's audiences have found that his programs not only create interest and understanding about family planning, but they change behavior.

An important challenge and opportunity, then, is to dramatize what we know about the oceans and the threats to their diversity, abundance, and beauty, to dramatize our ocean world in human terms.

In researching my book, The Wealth of Oceans, I read more than I ever imagined I would read about things that I had hardly imagined I would read about. Attempting a comprehensive review of the oceans meant entering a lot of new territory, overcoming my own isolation, reading and talking with a lot of people, whose language and concerns were different from my own.

I found ocean research and technology particularly revealing, though very difficult at times for a liberal arts major like myself. As interesting as the scientific revelations, however, were the people doing the revealing. For instance, during my reading, I encountered Fridtjof Nansen, a Norwegian

Reviewed: April 11, 2024
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