Jellyfish Soup? Get Used to It, Or Act Now To Save the Oceans interviews Ted Danson about his new book, and how we can fix our oceans before it's too late.

April 4, 2011

<em>Oceana</em> describes how our oceans can be saved from overfishing, pollution, and other threats.

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—"It's a little weird that Sam Malone is talking to you about oceans," Ted Danson told a crowd of editors at Rodale's headquarters on a tour promoting his new book Oceana (Rodale, 2011). And it would be weird, if not for his obvious dedication to the cause.


Danson's ocean activism began humbly enough, when he was taking his daughters to the beach only to find it closed because of pollution. That was 25 years ago, and since then, he's devoted countless hours giving talks and even testifying before Congress and the World Trade Organization about ocean pollution, destructive fishing policies, offshore oil drilling, and climate change. Early on in his advocacy efforts, he formed a small nonprofit called the American Oceans Campaign that later became part of Oceana, the world's largest ocean conservation organization. "My mother was a very spiritual person," he said, "and she taught us that there's a lot that comes before us and a lot that comes after us, and while we're here, it's all about stewardship."

Danson's book, 300 pages of startling statistics and vivid photography, is his attempt to bring that stewardship to a wider audience. "I firmly believe we are at a tipping point," he said of the public's awareness of problems facing our oceans. "We can fix it in your children's lifetimes."

Before his presentation, Ted Danson spoke with about some of those problems and what even the most landlocked can do to help. Nearly a year has passed since the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. What do you think about the long-term health of the Gulf, and are you hopeful that the ecosystem there will recover?

Ted Danson: I think we dodged a bullet to some degree, because of the currents particular to that day of the spill. If it had happened a year before on the exact same day, the weather would have done way worse things. As far as long-term, I think, sadly, you have to wait to see what the long-term is. Twenty times the number of infant dolphins have been washing up on shore than is normal. We have no idea what will happen to the bluefin tuna, where there is a major breeding ground, and we don't know what it was like for different fish populations to swim through those plumes. Only time will tell.

The final official federal estimate of the Gulf oil spill was 171 million gallons. That's more than 15 Exxon Valdez spills. Of all the things you talk about in your book, from climate change to oil spills to destructive fishing tactics, what do you think is the biggest concern for oceans today?

TD: If you focus on overfishing, if you focus on the health of the world's fisheries, you pretty much bring everything else into the conversation, whether it's oil or energy or ocean acidification or pollution.

Some scientists believe that we could literally commercially fish out our oceans in the next generation or two if we continue to fish in such a destructive and wasteful way. That could have a huge impact on the world, besides the obvious moral question of, what right do we have, out of stupidity and greed, to wipe out an entire ecosystem? But also, a billion people depend on fish for their animal protein. Hundreds of millions of people depend on it for their livelihood. It's a $100-billion-a-year industry. We have the means to not fish out our oceans. We have the means, if we put our will to it, to make sure we have viable oceans that can support us for many generations. One of your chapters is titled "Jellyfish Soup," and in it you note that overfishing has contributed to jellyfish blooms that can literally overwhelm an ecosystem's native fish species. Your solution to jellyfish overpopulation is to eat them. Do you think we're headed to a day when Jellyfish Soup starts showing up on restaurant menus?

TD: That's something I quoted Daniel Pauly on, who's one of the world's leading marine scientists. I don't know if that's literally true, but jellyfish are incredibly resilient, and if you wipe out all the fish populations that feed on them, which is happening in certain parts of the world, you have these huge jellyfish blooms. Beaches are closed. They clog up fishing nets. They're incredibly durable and need very little to survive. And the predators that feed on them are getting less and less, so it's not a totally implausible situation.

Each trawling net on the Atlantic Dawn, the world's largest industrial fishing vessel, can hold twelve 747 airplanes. At the same time, fish-farming can be just as destructive to oceans as overfishing. Which do you think is the bigger problem, and which is the easiest to fix?

TD: I think you have to do both. It's not an either-or. Aqua-farming is a huge part of our fish consumption, and I think it will always play a large role. There are examples of sustainable aqua-farming: for example, closed systems for fish that eat vegetation, that aren't carnivorous. Fish farmers have created a closed system where the waste from the fish can help grow the food that the fish eat. The water can be filtered, and the fish can be kept out of the wild. And all these things would be pretty great.

The carnivorous fish like tuna or salmon, that's going to be problematic. In this country, most of our farmed salmon comes from Chile, and there they grind up three to five pounds of wild fish to make that one pound of farmed salmon that we eat. That kind of ratio is incredibly destructive to the Pacific, and the fish in the Southern Hemisphere are getting farther and fewer between and smaller. Aqua-farming actually contributes to overfishing, too. I didn't realize that one-third of the world catch gets ground up to feed pig farms, chicken farms, and fish farms—not to feed people. So that's a real problem. Plus, just the dirty nature of [fish farms]–they're almost like floating pig farms. They create a huge amount of waste and you have to use a huge amount of antibiotics to control disease. It's problematic. I hear it's getting better in certain areas of the world, but still a big problem.

A single fish farm with 200,000 fish can produce as much daily sewage as a city of 65,000 people.

But, we definitely will have to depend to a large degree on aqua-farming in the future. When you realize how many of us there are on the planet and how many more supposedly are around the corner, I think it is inevitable. What's your favorite seafood?

TD: The freshest, most recently caught fish, usually. I love sea bass when I'm on the East Coast. I love wild Alaskan salmon, love it. I enjoy tilapia, to be honest. It's really what's freshest, what's most sustainable. Love oysters. Love clams. What's the next biggest or emerging concern facing oceans?

TD: Climate change and the reason for it, all the burning of carbon. Overpopulation for sure, just the sheer number of usand our use of carbons, probably has the biggest impact on our oceans, because of ocean acidification.

The oceans absorb carbon dioxide. They have historically. But since the Industrial Revolution, we have been burning so much carbon that the amount of carbon dioxide that filters down to the oceans has gotten to the point where it's beginning to change the pH balance.

The oceans are just a little bit more acidic than they were.

The problem with that is the calcium that corals and sea snails, pteropods, and krill—the bottom of the food chain—use to build the shells that keep them alive can't bind together. You really put a dent in the bottom of the food chain, which is a problem because you're also overfishing the top of the food chain, so you can see how that would squeeze the life out of the oceans. A common refrain throughout your book is "Out of sight, out of mind." How do you get those of us in landlocked states, who don't see the ocean, don’t interact with it on a daily basis, to understand all the problems and make a positive impact?

TD: First, no matter where you live, you have some sort of emotional connection to the ocean. It either brings you great joy or you count on it being there, being healthy when you get to take a holiday and go visit. You enjoy it because, transportation being the way it is, you can get a relatively fresh piece of fish no matter where you are in the country, and you probably enjoy it.

My first suggestion is reconnect to how much joy the ocean brings you, even if you're not near it. It's either the fish you eat or the memories you have of going to the beach with your family. Reconnect with that, because if you don't, it's just going to be, who cares in my busy life.

It's also a world hunger issue. It does come back to bite us if we do not take care of those people in the world who truly are starving, and a billion people depend on fish for their animal protein. It's also an economic issue, and a jobs issue. If you fish the correct way— the artisanal way, the way people have been doing it for centuries, as opposed to the big industrial fleets—you create way more jobs. No matter where you are in the middle of the country, if you're concerned about jobs here in America, then you should be concerned about what's happening to our oceans.

Coral reefs cover around 1 percent of the world's continental shelves, yet these beautiful diverse habitats provide food, income, and coastal protection for some 500 million people.

Do it also for health reasons. Some fish have too much mercury in them to eat safely. I think it was the Bush administration's EPA that said one out of 6 women, it may now be one out of 10, have too much mercury in their system to safely give birth to a child without the risk of neurological damage. That's a very real concern for a mother or for a family. So educate yourself on what fish is healthy and OK to eat. And once you do that, you start caring about the ocean.

In the book, what is offered to people are a number of different solutions you can do just in your everyday life. And at Oceana,, you can sign up to be an e-activist and receive emails telling you some of the threats and policies that need to be worked on. Oceana has about 500,000 e-activists around the world.

So in your crazy-busy day, if you can take five minutes, you can literally change policy that has a huge impact on the ocean. These are our oceans. They're yours too, no matter where you live. If they're being threatened, and you could do something about it, even in your busy day, then I think you probably will want to. If you could write one more chapter, what would it be about?

TD: I think I would have a chapter of people around the country, in the Midwest, everywhere, kids, adults, who are doing things, who have thought of ways to make the oceans and the world around them better so that people are inspired to see, "Oh, I can do something." You don't have to be a celebrity. You don't have to be a scientist. You can be whoever you are, and in your crazy-busy life, you can reach out and make things better around you. By doing so, you'll make yourself feel so much better. Once you take care of others, once you take care of an animal or take care of the ocean, there's something that's so nurturing to your own life, to your own health, to your own heart.