Colorado Ocean Coalition is making waves in the direction of cleaner, sustainable oceans.
No matter that Vicki Nichols Goldstein lives in Boulder, nearly 1,000 miles from any ocean. It’s the childhood memories of clamming and fishing and playing in the mudflats with her grandfather along the New Jersey shoreline that bind her spirit to the great watery vastness and fascinating marine creatures living far beyond the mountains and prairie, from whales and dolphins to sharks, turtles, swordfish and lobsters.
But there’s another memory that weighs in her heart: “I was on the shore and just so happy,” she recalls, “standing there twirling around when I suddenly felt this piercing pain in my foot.” She had stepped on a broken bottle someone had carelessly tossed on the sand. Cut and bleeding, she couldn’t believe anyone would do such a thing. The experience was a defining moment for the 8-year-old girl. “That was when I realized there was something I could do to teach people not to hurt the ocean,” Nichols Goldstein says. “Because when you hurt the ocean, you hurt us.”
Since that eureka day more than 40 years ago, things have gotten worse. Much worse. Pollution is acidifying the oceans. Massive dead zones exist where waterways empty human contaminants into the seas. Trash litters the earth’s shorelines. Plastics are being swept up in ocean currents and collecting en masse. And once-abundant fish populations are plummeting from overfishing. Even though Colorado doesn’t boast oceanfront property, people living in this landlocked state play a role in and are impacted by these issues, Nichols Goldstein says.
As a marine biologist, she’s all too aware of the problems facing our seas. For more than 25 years she’s been involved in ocean conservation. After moving to Colorado with her husband four years ago, she founded the Colorado Ocean Coalition to help raise awareness here about the critical state of the world’s oceans in terms of pollution, sustainability and overfishing. ”My husband kept saying, ‘Can’t you do something more relevant for where we live?’ But the ocean is truly relevant no matter where we live,” she says. “More than half of the oxygen we breathe comes from the ocean.”
Human activity is creating massive dead zones in waters along coastal regions. For example, the Mississippi River—a drainage area for 31 states, including Colorado, as well as two Canadian provinces—dumps runoff that includes nitrogen and phosphorus from fertilizers into the Gulf of Mexico.
The discharge of treated sewage from urban areas combined with agricultural runoff delivers nearly 2 million tons of potassium and nitrogen into the Gulf every year. The runoff, much of it from farm and garden fertilizers, feeds algae blooms at the river’s mouth. When algae and the protozoa that eat them die and fall to the bottom, their decomposition uses up oxygen, creating a massive dead zone. According to a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2009 fact sheet, “Seventy percent of nutrient loads that cause hypoxia (in this region) are a result of this vast drainage basin.” In 2010, the dead zone grew to the size of New Jersey.
The use of fossil fuels causes ocean acidification, which in turn lowers pH levels in seawater and creates corrosive conditions for shellfish and other organisms with calcium-carbonate shells and other hard body parts. The problem was serious enough to cause massive die-offs of oyster larvae at Pacific Northwest hatcheries between 2005 and 2009.
Ocean acidification also affects the broader marine food web, causing coral bleaching and even depressed immune responses in some marine animals. One simple and healthy way to conserve fossil fuels is to walk or bike and take the bus whenever you can, Nichols Goldstein says. Solar power is another way to reduce fossil-fuel consumption. And avoiding chemical use is critical.
“Anything we end up putting on the land eventually gets into waterways and travels into the ocean. Fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and bacteria from feedlots—all of that gets into those waterways and ends up downstream,” Nichols Goldstein says. Organic and native gardening reduces the need for these pollutants. Supporting local organic farms rather than factory farms can also help in the long run. Even maintaining your car can ensure that pollutants, say from a leaky oil pan, don’t find their way into the watershed.
Plastics Are a Problem
One of the more visual problems is plastic in the ocean. “We have become a very plastic and disposable society…and most of it ends up on our beaches and in the ocean.” Right now, five monstrous garbage patches are swirling in the oceans, where currents catch and pull plastic, chemical sludge and other debris into their vortex. “The latest data is that one of those patches, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, is twice the size of the United States—and all of that plastic is coming from land-based sources,” Nichols Goldstein says. Plastic bottles and other trash are blown or swept into sewage systems and waterways that eventually drain into the oceans.
As the plastics break down, they resemble plankton and other foods. Filter feeders, such as whales, jellyfish, shrimp, snails, manta rays, shellfish and some sharks, scoop up large amounts of these indigestible materials as they feed. Stranded whales, turtles, dolphins and manatees have been found with plastic bags in their stomachs. Marine animals also ingest items such as cigarette butts, bottle caps and lighters. “Birds will feed these items to their young, who often starve to death with their stomachs full of plastic,” says Sharon Young, marine issues field director with The Humane Society of the United States. Plastics also strangle and kill marine animals that become entangled.
“In addition, that very tiny microscopic plastic that is intermingling with the phytoplankton is being consumed by the animals and moving up into the food chain. It’s found in their tissue,” Nichols Goldstein says, “and this is the fish we are eating.”
While these issues may seem far from mountains and prairie, what we do here has a ripple effect. “By talking about plastics here in Boulder County and reducing our use of plastic bottles and bags, it not only allows us to reduce it at the source, it also allows us to encourage other communities to do the same thing through example.” This summer, the city of Boulder implemented a tax on single-use disposable bags. Nichols Goldstein hopes the tax will one day turn into a full-fledged ban.
“It’s that conservation-minded framework, that idea of always carrying your water bottle and a reusable bag (for purchases) that can help,” she says. And, because we are a mobile community, that means toting your ideology along when you travel. You can also buy products with less packaging and complain to companies that overpackage goods.
Seafood is another critical topic. “We’ve made so many huge assumptions over the years, like the ocean is so big and we have abundant sea life.” But the world’s insatiable appetite for seafood is putting tremendous pressure on marine life.
“The (fishing) technology is so remarkable. They can pinpoint exactly where the fish are and pursue them with these enormous nets, bigger than the size of a football field, and just scoop up huge amounts of fish and many other species,” Nichols Goldstein notes. This technique not only takes more fish than what fisheries can keep up with, but it leaves a high death toll of by-catch in its wake, including sea turtles, seals, coral and dolphins. “These trawling nets leave this absolute desert behind them.”
Ideally, you should learn where your seafood comes from. Nichols Goldstein recommends more of a “fish-to-table” concept by eating lower on the food chain. “We’ve lost over 90 percent of our large predators—marlins, sharks, tunas. In addition, these fish hold a lot of mercury in their bodies and aren’t healthy to consume.” She suggests eating smaller fish, like anchovies and sardines, and locally farmed fish like Colorado tilapia.
Some grocery stores, including Alfalfa’s and Safeway, have adopted sustainable seafood eating guides like the Seafood Watch Pocket Guide put out by the Monterey Bay Aquarium to help consumers weed through the complexities. (Other guides, like the Marine Stewardship Council certification, are questionable. Visit www.asoc.org; www.nature.com/news/2011/110822/full/news.2011.496.html; and do a search for “OPC MSC Assessment”
“The other thing is the creation of marine protected areas, or no-take zones”—something that the Colorado Ocean Coalition fully supports, Nichols Goldstein says. “This allows areas where fish can grow to full sexual maturity and spawn.”
The greater message here is that landlubbers and seafarers alike can get involved in the conservation of our seas. “It’s going to take more than just the coastal states to do something. We are all contributing to the problems, and we all need to be part of the solution.”
The Colorado Ocean Coalition will hold its third annual Mile High Blue Expo, “Making WAVES 2013,” at CU-Boulder on Sept. 20-22, cosponsored by Boulder County Home & Garden Magazine. Leading professionals from various fields of marine study will offer free presentations on topics such as sustainable travel, offshore oil drilling and fracking, and sustainable seafood. Other events include an ocean film festival, Blue Expo, children’s activities, and the Mermaid Masquerade Ball fundraising gala and auction. For information, visit www.coloradoocean.org.