Law and Albacore
Oceana board member and actor Sam Waterston on the state of the sea.
Thursday, August 7, 2008
Something about Sam Waterston exudes authority. Maybe it’s his unwavering eyes beneath a thick bushy brow, or his tendency to enunciate words with a crispness that matches his perfectly tailored suit. It could be his role as District Attorney Jack McCoy on Law & Order, or his history of other gigs playing authority figures, including Abraham Lincoln on more than one occasion.
Even Stephen Colbert picked up on that je ne sais quoi that casts Waterston as the man behind the curtain. A recurring segment on The Colbert Report is aptly titled, “Sam Waterston Says Things You Should Never Believe In A Trustworthy Manner.” (Example: “First you give me the jewels, then I’ll pull you out of the quicksand.”)
In real life, advocacy groups are more than happy to tap Waterston’s authoritative persona. He spoke for the short-lived political group Unity08, which aimed to back a bipartisan candidate in this year’s presidential election. He has also contributed to humanitarian groups Meals on Wheels, United Way and Refugees International. For most of the past year he has served on Oceana’s board, advocating policy changes to protect the world’s seas.
The Weekly caught up with Waterston July 19 during an Oceana fundraiser at Carmel Mission Ranch. The actor seemed at ease on Clint Eastwood’s property, chatting before a backdrop of grazing sheep, the Carmel River and the Pacific Ocean.
What is it that makes Waterston’s work on ocean policy– or any celebrity’s activism, for that matter– matter? Former Central Coast assemblyman Fred Keeley, who helped pass the Marine Life Management Act of 1998 and attended the Oceana event, offers one theory: Celebrities lend prestige to their chosen causes.
But Waterston, of course, has already thought this one through.
What role do you and other actors play in getting Oceana’s message out?
The channel of information to folks like us is not fast enough, and it’s not trustworthy enough, and it’s not accurate enough. Oceana seeks to be the grease on the slide. And that’s where Ted [Danson, actor and fellow Oceana board member] and I come in: To try to get the news out. We don’t get a free pass, but we do get to be heard, and that’s the deal.
What do you do differently because of what you know about ocean problems?
It affects what I eat by way of seafood, in an immediate way. I refer to the list [the Blue Ocean Institute Guide to Ocean Friendly Seafood]. Some of it’s about pollution and mercury, and some of it’s about endangered fisheries, and some of it’s about bycatch, and so on. Once you know all that, your choices become limited. That’s an immediate thing that you can do. But the big question– the $64,000 question– is, what do you do with that awareness? It’s a gigantic political question. Whoever wins the election in November, what organization is going to be in the room when the president says, “Tell me what the situation is”? Who’s going to move the status quo in anything like the time it’s obvious it has to be moved?
I saw your plug for Unity08, which is largely about getting away from partisanship. Do you have a favorite presidential candidate?
Yeah. I think we need a major change.
And his name is… ?
At this moment I am almost certain that I am going to vote for Obama. But really, I am for anybody who is going to do the necessary change, and I think that’s the right way for voters to think. One of my lessons from Unity08 is the degree to which a person matters in American politics as opposed to policy. What we need is somebody who’s going to get these necessary things done. And the truth is, there is nobody that’s going to get these things done. It’s going to be pressure, just like all the other politics get done. So what can people do? Push.
“THE UNITED STATES HAS CUSTODY OF A VAST AMOUNT OF HIGHLY PRODUCTIVE FISHING GROUNDS. IT’S IN EVERYBODY’S INTEREST TO SEE THAT THE FISHERIES ARE PROTECTED AND RESTORED.”
What sort of pressures will Oceana put on the next president?
Some of the things they’ll be pressing for are regarding climate change. And of course Oceana is heavy into reforming the way we fish. The United States has custody of a vast amount of highly productive fishing grounds because of its huge coast and all of the islands of the Pacific. Except for a person who has a loan on a boat that he has to pay tomorrow, it’s in absolutely everybody’s interest to see that the fisheries are protected and restored, and that the habitat is protected and restored.
Corn farmers in Kansas, very far from the nearest ocean: What’s their interest?
If they ever eat fish for dinner, that’s part of it. Harrison Ford said that Conservation International is talking a lot about “Lose it there, feel it here.” Since 71 percent of the Earth is ocean, some loss felt in the ocean is going to be felt everywhere. The brush fires are fresh news right here, but just as El Niño affects what happens to the corn in the Midwest, so will this. There’s no place that this is not going to be felt. The question is, is the farmer going to find out in time, and be convinced to act, and talk to his congressman in time? And then we’re back to where we started: Greasing the slide.
You’re involved with Refugees International and other causes. What drives your passion for ocean issues?
Well, talk about “Lose it there, feel it here.” The great new thing in refugees’ issues is climate refugees. That’s going to be a horrible new market. And the military leaders of the world are making contingency plans for this. What’s going to happen when everybody in the zone that is arid or gets flooded votes with their feet and moves to the next country? There’s an old story about a guy who had lived in Europe during World War I and was so horrified by what everybody had done to everybody else that he decided to get as far away from European troubles as he possibly could, and he moved to Guam. And everything was fine until World War II. So this isn’t escapable.
If [Law & Order District Attorney] Jack McCoy were pressing charges against destroyers of the ocean, who would he charge?
Bottom trawling is a very obvious culprit, because it doesn’t just get the fish; it gets the habitat, which sets back everything. But then, who’s responsible for bottom trawling? Obviously the guy who owns the bottom trawler, but also all the customers, and a myopia of governments and regulators. So there’s plenty of blame to go around. It’s time we got on our bikes and did something.
A lot of fishing people feel that the solutions being proposed by ocean activists and researchers put the burden on them.
It’s very easy to say, “Well, the guy that’s doing the bottom trawling is to blame.” But the guy is doing the bottom trawling because a whole chain of people behind him are encouraging him to. The market is saying, “You can’t afford to worry about whether there’ll be fish tomorrow, because you can’t make a living unless you fish for all the fish today.” Well, somebody has to change the setup. And there are models for this. People are doing it. Iceland is doing it. They give the fishermen who are doing the fishing an interest in leaving the fish in the sea.
So it’s about using more carrots than sticks.
A combination of the two. Anyway, the alternative is the great big stick of “Sorry, there’s nothing.” It’s so obvious that doing these right things will be beneficial to all the players, including the fishermen. And it is Oceana’s contention that the interested parties in good faith working together, not as enemies, not in automatic conflict, not without a willingness to compromise, can surely do together what it’s in everybody’s interest to do. It feels to me like there are blockages in the system that don’t need to be there. But I guess the eagerness with which I’m speaking reflects the fact that I don’t think there’s a lot of time.
Law & Order often hits on the theme that in trying to create solutions, we cause more problems. I think of the debate around ocean fertilization– dumping a whole lot of iron ore into the sea in hopes that it will cause plankton blooms that will suck up CO2.
Yes, but short of these sort of mega-solutions, there are all kinds of comparatively moderate things that can be done. Oceana is expert in the fisheries themselves. Oceana is being driven by circumstance into climate change. But what you and I are talking about is, “Don’t take all the fish out of the sea. Stop doing dumb things; start doing smart things.” That doesn’t deal with these gigantic issues [such as acidification and climate change]. There is a timeline there, with built-in effects no matter what we do, coming down the pike. But when it’s all been resolved, and all of those complex problems have been dealt with, we want there to be codfish and rockfish and all kinds of fishies still swimming around. That we can do something directly about today, and so we should.
So that we can keep eating seafood?
That’s definitely a part of it. But also for the sake of the wonder of it all. And also because this wondrously complex system we have to thank for the fact that we’re alive and here at all. For our own survival, for the beauty of it all.
There’s an element of the sacred there. You’re an Episcopalian; how does your faith play into your activism with Oceana?
[Long pause.] I would not know how to begin to answer that question. I haven’t really figured out how to talk in a public way about faith, because the public conversation about faith seems to be so messed up. I’m just terrified of having what I say about it seem to be pigeonhole-able into one of these categories that reflect so much prejudice. It’s an important part of my life, and I figure it must have an important effect on how I think and what I do. Certainly in the face of lots and lots of bad news, it’s easier to be an optimist.
Are you an optimist when it comes to the fate of the planet?
I’ve played with a lot of attitudes toward life, and at this stage in my life, it seems to me that there is no other option. Despair is a dead-end street, so there’s only one way to go forward, and it’s to think that it’s going to be OK in the end. Otherwise, what the heck! Let’s call the whole thing off. That’s the whole lesson of history: We’re still here. And things are quite extraordinarily beautiful.