On Saturday, June 9, thousands of people are expected to march from the Washington Monument and past the White House in a rally to protect the ocean. Just a few blocks away, hundreds of other people are set to paddle down the historically toxic and still highly polluted Anacostia River, which flows to the Potomac, then the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean. The occasion: the first-ever March for the Ocean, which will be accompanied by more than 75 sister marches around the world, according to organizer Blue Frontier Campaign.
March for the Ocean is the fourth major environmental and science-related demonstration in recent years to be held in Washington, D.C. It follows the 2013 Forward on Climate march and rally, the 2017 People’s Climate Movement and the 2017 March for Science. David Helvarg, executive director of the Blue Frontier Campaign, said the goal of the march is to help people see how their everyday actions, such as driving a car or using plastic water bottles, are linked to real-world ocean issues in the hope that they will change their habits and mobilize to protect the marine environment. He acknowledges that doing so won’t be easy.
“This march will be challenged in trying to make those connections real for a larger public not engaged in marine science or practices,” said Helvarg. The march, he added, will be a success if it can “spark a national and global debate over practical solutions to explore and restore our seas and the communities, both human and wild, that depend on them.”
According to Helvarg, marchers will focus on offshore oil drilling, ocean plastic pollution and coastal communities.
Previous marches have brought environmental issues such as climate change to center stage. But President Donald Trump’s 2017 withdrawal of the U.S. from the Paris agreement and a sharp drop in federal financing of basic scientific research since 2012 suggests that while public demonstrations spark discussions, meaningful change is harder to come by.
Many of the nearly 200 partners – nonprofits, institutions and corporations – Blue Frontier Campaign has invited to join the march are working on tangible projects that address offshore drilling, plastic, coastal resilience and other marine issues. Plastic is perhaps the biggest focus of the march. Blue Frontier is collaborating with partners WeTap and Parley for the Oceans to keep the event plastic-free.
Los Angeles-based ocean conservation organization 5 Gyres collects scientific data about ocean plastic pollution. It uses that information to educate the public and advocate for policies that reduce plastic consumption. Marcus Eriksen, 5 Gyres’ cofounder and research director, has coauthored major scientific papers on marine plastic pollution, which in turn have been used to support legislation such as California’s 2016 statewide ban on single-use plastic bags and the 2015 U.S. Microbead-Free Waters Act.
“As an organization focused on stopping the flow of plastic pollution to our planet, we are pleased to see this issue as a focal point” of the march, said Anna Cummins, 5 Gyres’ cofounder and director of global strategy. “Given the fact that plastics are made from fossil fuels, the plastics and offshore drilling issues also go hand in hand, and we hope that the messaging around the march will remind people that this intersection is where plastic pollution and climate change are in fact linked.”
In the D.C.-area, the nonprofit Anacostia Watershed Society is working to reduce the flow of plastics in the Anacostia River. It organizes cleanups and public education campaigns about how to reduce consumption of single-use plastics and how to manage trash responsibly.
In 2009, the organization installed a large “trash trap” on Nash Run, a major Anacostia River tributary, to count the trash it collects. The Anacostia Watershed Society has published its trash trap data. This has contributed to a successful push for legislation curbing use of single-use plastic items such as Styrofoam food containers and single-use plastic bags in Baltimore, Montgomery and other counties in its watershed, said James Foster, the organization’s chief executive officer.
“In the Anacostia watershed, we live downstream, and things also flow down from here,” said Foster. “I tell our local communities that when it comes to keeping our oceans healthy, we need to start here.”
Helvarg said Blue Frontier has spent much of the past 15 years attempting to unite the marine conservation and maritime communities to support legislation for ocean conservation. While it has successfully built a constituency that’s pushed ocean policy in a “good direction,” according to Helvarg, that approach has changed in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. He said his organization’s slowed progress in the legislative realm made him rethink his strategy, pushing him to initiate a large public demonstration that he thinks could put a renewed focus on the need for strong ocean and coastal protection policies.
“While our march coalition is widely diverse, Blue Frontier’s perspective is that we should encourage people to march for the ocean in June and vote for the ocean in November,” said Helvarg. “During 30 years as a journalist before founding Blue Frontier, I discovered that while it doesn’t guarantee it, democracy is still a necessary precondition for protecting the environment, more than 71 percent of which, of course, is ocean.”