BROOKLIN, Maine – A rainbow is often a sign of hope.
Those aboard the Marine Environmental Research Institute boat who recently viewed a rainbow as it arched over Naskeag Harbor in Blue Hill Bay seemed to take it as a sign that despite the many threats to the environment, there is hope that the damage that has been done on land and in the oceans can be undone.
On board the vessel were a handful of MERI supporters; Susan Shaw, founder and director the organization; and Jim Fowler, noted television naturalist and longtime conservationist, best known for his years as host of “Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom.”
Shaw organized the cruise last week around Blue Hill Bay to introduce Fowler to the harbor seals that have been the focus of MERI’s research over the years.
Fowler is an established raconteur and a genial, inveterate storyteller. The conversation on the boat was filled with tales from his years of traveling the globe in search of wildlife and included anecdotes about polar bears, bats, eagles, cheetahs, tigers, leopards and black mambos and other snakes such as the anaconda that once swallowed his arm.
But, stories aside, Fowler was in Maine to help MERI celebrate its 20th anniversary. The organization was founded in 1990 to monitor the health of Blue Hill Bay, focusing on harbor seals as a key indicator of the bay’s health. That focus has expanded in the past 20 years to include educational programs, an ocean lecture series and continued research around and beyond the Blue Hill area.
Shaw and Fowler are both members of The Explorers Club, a New York City-based organization founded in 1904 to support field research and education. Shaw is a relatively new member, while Fowler is only the second honorary chairman named by the century-old organization.
Fowler noted that since Shaw was made a member of the club, she has instituted a speakers forum at the club that brings specialists to talk about issues relating to the health of the oceans. This type of forum is important in finding ways to make people more aware of the effects of what they do on the planet and on their lives, he said.
“We need to work on developing a new message for the 21st century because the old one is not getting out,” Fowler said. “We need to find new ways to reconnect ourselves and our children to the world of nature before it’s too late.”
Shaw agreed. She said that Fowler had a big influence on her life when she was younger, and that recently he has encouraged her to speak out about what is happening in the oceans around the world. Shaw, a marine toxicologist, has focused her research on the impact of toxic chemicals on marine mammals.
“He’s encouraged me to speak the truth about the oceans and encouraged others to speak the truth in an open way,” she said. “We need to talk about the problems, to tell the truth about these problems. People don’t want to be told everything is OK when it’s not OK.”
Shaw listed some of the problems facing the world’s oceans because of years of abuse: plastics, acidity from the carbon dioxide entering the ocean, depletion of fish populations from overfishing, and toxic chemicals that harm marine life throughout the food chain.
“We have done such damage to the ocean,” she said. “We’re not talking about something we might hurt. This is something we’ve already hurt.”
Both Fowler and Shaw spoke of the BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the impact it will have on the oceans.
Much of Shaw’s research has focused on the impact that toxic chemicals have on ocean mammals, and she said she is very concerned about how the spill and the use of chemical dispersants on the spill will affect the overall environment of the gulf region from the smallest microbes to humans.
The dispersants create small globules of oil that remain suspended in the water column, Shaw said. They break down the oil, she said, but they also are able to break down membranes inside the bodies of fish and mammals, making it easier for the oil to be absorbed.
“We’re not seeing all the death that’s happening below the sea,” she said. “It’s not just oiled birds and dead fish. It’s going to be worse.”
Fowler said that the BP spill may finally be a tipping point that will open people’s eyes to the bigger picture, to the fact that the world is connected and that what we do can affect everything else.
“A lot of people are seeing this and seeing how severe the problem is,” he said. “When they get reports from people like Susan, people are going to start getting serious about it.”
That the BP spill has had a negative impact on tourism — a major driver of the American economy — has been noticed by the American people, he said.
“Economics is a No. 1 incentive,” Fowler said. “When you start getting into their pockets, that’s going to get people’s attention.”
Shaw recently spoke at the TEDx Oil Spill conference in Washington, D.C., where she discussed the impact of toxic chemicals on mammals. MERI is working with gulf agencies and other scientists to conduct a scientific analysis of the impacts of the oil and dispersants on the gulf.
To mark its 20th anniversary, MERI also is launching a new initiative, Oceans 20/20: Vision for the Planet. The goal of the campaign, according to Shaw, is to evaluate the ocean environment and develop ways to make it healthier.
The campaign is based on MERI’s 20 years of research and will include a strategy to educate the public and develop effective policy changes in the U.S. and beyond.