Deep Ocean Reverence: An Interview with Wallace ‘J.’ Nichols

Jun 19, 2012 by

Deep Ocean Reverence: An Interview with Wallace ‘J.’ Nichols

Thursday, 07 June 2012  |  Marita Prandoni | Interview

Wallace “J.” Nichols and His Daughter photo courtesy of Wallace “J.” Nichols Wallace “J.” Nichols has an inordinate fondness for sea turtles. His Ph.D. dissertation was on the “Biology and Conservation of Sea Turtles in Baja California, Mexico.” In 1998 he founded Grupo Tortuguero, an international grassroots movement dedicated to restoring Pacific sea turtles and to sustainable management of ocean fisheries. In 1999 he co-founded WiLDCOAST, an international conservation team dedicated to the protection of coastal wilderness where he and a diverse group of partners organized fishermen to protect endangered sea turtles and helped coastal ranchers protect their shores for future generations.

J. spent the summers of his youth exploring sea creatures on the Chesapeake Bay. He is currently founder/co-director of the Ocean Revolution, a program that inspires, involves and mentors the next generation of ocean conservation leaders. He is author of the children’s book, Chelonia: Return of the Sea Turtle, which has been translated into Spanish and is distributed throughout Mexico to underprivileged youth. He is also coauthor of the screenplay Adelita’s Journey, based on the true story of one loggerhead sea turtle’s epic 24,000 km migration from Japan to Mexico and back home again.

J. founded the EcoDaredevil Award. Inspired by the life of Evel Knievel, it dares anyone to “jump the chasm” and do something courageous for the conservation of other living creatures. Currently, J. works with and advises several conservancies, universities and organizations to advance ocean protection, including an energetic and creative group of international graduate students. He and his family live under the redwoods on California’s Slow Coast.

EcoHearth: I read an article you wrote in which you lamented, “The green patches of our planet get most of the eco-attention—albeit not nearly enough—while the blue expanses quietly take the hit.” Explain how our land-based survival is connected to the health of oceans.

Wallace J. Nichols: Everything, eventually, ends up in the ocean. As we invent and generate more and more dangerous substances, the ocean is weakened. Parts of the ocean are now called “dead zones,” and they are growing in number and size. A remote area of the North Pacific Ocean is referred to as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch.” Individual marine mammals are deemed “toxic waste.” And the ocean acts as our buffer against catastrophic climate change and our life-support system by taking up heat and carbon dioxide, and making oxygen and food to eat.

The result of all this is that it’s getting more polluted, more acidic, warmer and less productive—and few people are aware that it’s happening or what it means for life on Earth if it continues. Many people make their living from the ocean and ultimately we all depend on it for our lives. If it fails, all those people will turn to the land. It seems disconnected, but when fisheries collapse, forest biodiversity declines because people move inland for sustenance.

EH: In your speeches you have repeated a sort of mantra to help people think about ocean conservation: ‘Put less in, take less out and protect the edge.’ As the giant, swirling plastic trash heap, known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, illustrates, we have put too much in our oceans, and overfishing is a problem. But what do you mean by protecting the edge?

WJN: Less in. Less out. Protect the edge! (Say it loud, say it proud!) Yes, that’s a mantra or a “framing” device that’s meant to help people make sense of the myriad ocean impacts we hear about. By “edge” I mean the places where land and ocean meet, where we find the most biodiversity and productivity as well as most of the fishing/farming/harvesting of the ocean. The ecosystems that are being wrecked include kelp forests, sea grass beds, mangrove forests, coral reefs, estuaries and even edgy places such as current convergence zones and seamounts where pelagic species aggregate. Current technologies allow us to seek out and catch the remaining fish. Before you know it, we’ll have the technology to vastly alter even the deep mid-ocean ridge ecosystems.  Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) are urgently needed in many of these places. We know that MPAs work.

EH: Just as environmentalists like to blame ranchers for irresponsible public-lands management, many would like to paint commercial fishermen with the same broad stroke—blaming them for over-harvesting. But you have built unexpected alliances with turtle poachers and rogue pirates of the watery depths. Why?

WJN: It’s just the way I think. Sometimes I suppose an “us versus them” or “good guys vs. bad guys” approach may be a fine way to get attention and approach solving problems. But mostly I encounter situations more complex than that, more multidimensional. The natural world isn’t based on a two-party system, so working on conservation issues isn’t about team A vs. B, with a winner and a loser after 10 rounds of fighting it out. In the recent eco-thriller documentary, The Cove, the most powerful parts for me were when the Japanese citizens, police and agency folks aligned with protecting the dolphins, when they became aware of that path and took it.

In Mexico, I work with a group of inspiring people who grew up hunting and eating sea turtles, and now protect them and their habitat, fight for their fellow fishermen and run their own environmental organizations. I’ve learned a lot more from them, and together we’ve accomplished some good things for the ocean—much more than if I’d been a finger-wagging angry outsider. And truth be known, I’ve had my life saved by some of these guys more than once. All that said, there are times for sacred rage on behalf of nature, against environmental injustices. And there are people out there I admire who are much better at whipping that up and productively harnessing it.

EH: Is there any good news from your research? Are there marine animals that are rebounding?

Barbara Andrews with Loggerhead Sea Turtle photo by Wallace “J.” NicholsWJN: The network of fishermen and coastal residents I work with in Baja, Grupo Tortuguero, is having measurable success in their efforts to protect sea turtles. That focus on restoring endangered sea turtles has led to a much stronger, organized ocean movement with dozens of new local organizations and increased participation by fishermen overall. This is one regional, grassroots success story, but there are similar scenarios around the world. Of course, we need more!

EH: You and your colleagues at the Ocean Conservancy (OC) have organized an International Coastal Cleanup (ICC). Tell us more.

WJN: The International Coastal Cleanup coordinated by OC is the world’s largest one-day volunteer event. For more than 20 years, people have taken to their local shores to remove trash. Now my efforts are focused on stopping plastic pollution; the bulk of the items cleaned up by the ICC around the world are plastic. As science chair for the Plastic Pollution Coalition I’m helping to build a coalition of concerned businesses, researchers, citizens and organizations focused on the enormous challenge of plastic pollution in the ocean.

EH: Many kids, my 8th-grade daughter among them, aspire to help save sea creatures when they grow up. Since the early 1980s, however, funding for ocean sciences, especially by governments, has been severely reduced. What are the prospects for these passionate and reverent dreamers?

WJN: We started Ocean Revolution with just this question in mind. I meet people all the time who say, “I wanted to be a marine biologist,” with a dreamy far-off look in their eyes. For people with passion for the ocean, there are hundreds of other ways to get involved in addition to science and research. We need business people committed to ocean-friendly commerce and artists of all kinds like photographers, filmmakers, sculptors and designers to communicate about the ocean; also, attorneys and public figures to hold folks accountable to environmental laws and make better ones. I could go on for the rest of the day here… the point is that we should teach young people that they can put their passions and skills to work for our ocean outside of the sciences. Some of the most powerful and compelling ocean advocates are professional surfers and musicians. Dudes like Jack Johnson, Eddie Vedder, Dave Rastovich and the Malloy brothers.

Take a look at Ocean Voices, for example. It’s a collaboration with Halsey Burgund, a sound artist and musical genius who loves the ocean. He performed Ocean Voices in San Francisco and New York, in honor of World Ocean Day and Jacques Cousteau’s 100th birthday. Also, our project, Oceanophilia: The Mind + Ocean Initiative merges cognitive neuroscience with ocean protection by asking the simple question: “Why does the ocean make us feel the way it does?” So, my advice to young people is that you can be a pro surfer, an artist, a neuroscientist or a musician and dedicate your life to ocean conservation.

EH: Tell us about someone who inspires you, who we might not otherwise hear about.

WJN: Wow, there are so many people working so hard and so bravely for the ocean against such long odds, which is the main reason I’m an optimist.  I have a friend named Barbara Andrews who is officially, on paper, a paralegal and registrar at the California Academy of Sciences, a job she handles with great skill. But in reality she’s so very much more. She’s one of those people with boundless energy and passion for the natural world, combined with wicked-good, awe-inspiring organizational skills. Any moment that could be considered a “break” from her day job she fills with volunteering for conservation. I’ve known her to track sea turtles all night by kayak, scoop up gray-whale poop samples from the water in her hat, advise ocean filmmakers, donate her Isuzu Trooper for field research, mentor colleagues while climbing mountains, chair boards of directors, lick envelopes, give talks to kids, host fundraisers—and always with a smile on her face and quick in her step. People like Barbara are both the glue and the glide of the environmental and social-justice movements. They aren’t looking for compensation, credit or recognition, but if you know someone like her, give them a hug and a “thank you.”

Additional resources:
Read about other Eco Heroes
Staring Down the Dragon on Dependence Day by Wallace ‘J.’ Nichols


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