Actor Ted Danson plays an environmentalist in real life

Island residents and visitors enjoy clean ocean waters and unspoiled beaches like Lucy Vincent Beach. But for how long?
File photo by Susan Safford

Island residents and visitors enjoy clean ocean waters and unspoiled beaches like Lucy Vincent Beach. But for how long?

Ted Danson’s life has included two great passions.

His first is well-known. As an award-winning lead and cast member, he has appeared on many well-loved television programs and in popular films that include CSI, Bored to Death, Damages, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Becker, Cheers, 3 Men and a Baby, The Onion Field, Body Heat and much more.

His second passion is less well-known: saving the world’s oceans.

Mr. Danson was the founder of the American Oceans Campaign in 1987, now part of the world’s largest international ocean advocacy group, Oceana, on which he is a board member. He is also the author of “Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them.” He has spent more than 20 years bringing attention to the challenges that face our oceans, today.

Mr. Danson and wife, Mary Steenburgen, are also longtime Island seasonal residents. During breaks in their hectic acting and philanthropic lives, they escape to their Chilmark getaway home. This summer, the couple helped the Vineyard Playhouse raise over $100,000, and they continue to be very active in the Possible Dreams Auction, the fundraiser for Martha’s Vineyard Community Services.

We spoke by telephone for almost two hours as Mr. Danson drove along the Pacific Coast Highway from the set of CSI in Los Angeles to his home in Ojai, California. An edited and condensed version of the interview follows.

When you founded the American Oceans Campaign in 1987, what was the prevailing reason and mission?

It starts with my family. My father was a scientist, the director of a museum and research center outside of Flagstaff, Arizona. I grew up with a sense of there is a lot that has come before us and a lot that will come after us. So, it is important that we act as stewards when we are here. Plus, my mother was a churchgoer and a spiritual person. These — science, stewardship and spirituality — are the cornerstones of what I believe in: let science lead the way, but you need the sense of spirituality, and that we are all in this together, and we all have an impact on each other.

So acting was a natural outlet for this sense of stewardship and spirituality?

Ha. Well no, then yes. Acting, and Cheers, propelled me into the world of celebrity. I started to think that I need to be responsible with all that came with being famous. Plus, it was timing. When I was on Cheers, I moved into a neighborhood in Santa Monica where there was a local fight with Occidental Petroleum. They were planning on slant drilling for oil of Will Rodgers State Beach and I went to a meeting. There I met Robert Sulnick who was an environmental lawyer and activist. One thing led to another, we worked together and ultimately stopped the oil wells from being drilled in Santa Monica. We also became friends and decided to see what else we could accomplish together. So we started an organization to protect the oceans. That is, more or less, how the American Oceans Campaign came to be.

At the time, what was the prevailing attitude towards environmental conservation?

But, when we started, there wasn’t a lot of attention being paid to the oceans. It was hard but incredibly rewarding. We were able to get more people to pay attention. We were a small team, but we quickly became respected and were able to make some real progress. I was the spokesperson, the chief fundraiser. I was always the actor standing next to the scientist or lawyer saying, “thank you for paying attention, now please listen to this expert who has something important to say.” Then, after about 15 to 20 years, we ended up merging with a number of other nonprofits into Oceana, which become the largest international ocean advocacy group in the world. To be honest, I was a little burned out and really looking for an exit at that point. But Oceana is such an incredible force for good that it reinvigorated me and I’ve continued to work hard for them and the oceans.

Was the early support you received for the American Oceans Campaign bipartisan or primarily Democratic?

Back then it was bipartisan. Several Republicans, including Senator Chaffee (R, Rhode Island) stood up with us. Plus, we received a tremendous amount of encouragement from the congressional delegation from California at that time. Barbara Boxer, George Miller, and Leon Panetta really supported us. Today Oceana is bipartisan as well. If this were a partisan issue we would be dead in the water. Thankfully it’s not. A lot of times you will find bipartisan support for ocean issues. George W. Bush did an amazing amount of good work for the ocean, putting aside huge areas in Hawaii into marine protected areas. And, the conservative President of Chile, Sebastián Piñ;era (with a lot of help from Oceana) has created one of the world’s largest no-take zones close to Easter Island (by a seamount chain called Salas y Gómez).

As you said, in 2001, the American Ocean’s Campaign merged into an organization called Oceana. What is the principal mission of Oceana?

Oceana is focused on winning policy change that will have a real impact on the oceans. We are campaign-driven and address overfishing, bycatch, habitat destruction, offshore drilling, and pollution. You might ask, what’s the most important thing that is stressing our oceans? It’s not over-pollution, as many of us think. It’s overfishing. A huge number of the world’s fisheries have collapsed and we are at a tipping point where things could irreversibly collapse if we don’t change how we manage the oceans.

What is a specific policy that needs to be addressed right now?

We need to limit bycatch. Bycatch is the unintended catch of commercial fishing activities that often result in huge amounts of fish and other ocean life being thrown back, dead or dying. Tons of fish are wasted and thousands of marine mammals, sea turtles, sharks, and sea birds are injured or killed every year as bycatch. Enormous trawl nets scoop up virtually everything in their path and immature and adult fish, as well as sea turtles, marine mammals, and sharks are captured on the 1.4 billion baited hooks set in longline fisheries every year.

These super trawlers drag the size of the United States every year.

Under existing laws, the U.S. government is required to reduce bycatch and the deaths of the unintentionally captured fish, birds and animals. But the steps taken by the National Marine Fisheries Service — the federal agency responsible for the management of U.S. fisheries — have been grossly inadequate. So, Oceana is calling on the federal government to address bycatch as is required under existing law and immediately implement three critical measures to end wasteful fishing practices — count, cap, and control.

How have you been successful in getting this message out?

By making it relevant to people’s lives. And, it is. Today we are often talking about is world hunger, biodiversity, and more. Once people realize how they are connected to the oceans, they are willing to listen.

Estimates from the United Nations have the global population exceeding 9 billion in 2050. Can fish farming feed a world of 9 billion?

Fish farming is not the answer. Primarily because the fish we farm in the sea — like salmon and tuna — eat other fish. So fish farms feed the farmed fish lots of ground-up little fish. It takes, for example, as much as four pounds of wild small fish to create one pound of farmed salmon. So, you actually lose protein and accelerate overfishing with this kind of fish farming. The better solution is to simply manage our world’s wild fisheries better because there is a huge payoff in doing this.

A recent study in Science found that if we put in place better management, we can increase the amount of wild fish by 40 percent. Oceana has estimated that, if we put in place real science-based fisheries management, we could feed 700 million a healthy seafood meal every day. This is so important because close to a billion people already depend on wild seafood as a primary source of animal protein. And, wild fish can help bridge the gap for the estimated two billion additional people projected to be on earth by 2050. Plus, eating seafood instead of red meat helps to reduce obesity, cancer, and heart disease. And it has less impact on our climatebecause it doesn’t create methane and other climate related gases. Don’t get me started!

With your connections to Martha’s Vineyard and New York City, what are your views of Cape Wind or East River tidal turbines?

Overall I think both are good. I would rather be looking at wind turbines than an oil rig any day and if something goes wrong with your wind turbine it makes a big splash as opposed to a horrendous oil spill. I know it’s tricky, and a lot of my friends are against it, but I think the alternative is worse. Oceana’s team of scientists have found that the wind energy potential off the Atlantic Coast is so great it could generate about 30 percent more electricity than offshore oil and gas in the same area.

If business as usual continues, will we all be ordering jellyfish soup for dinner?

It may be over-dramatic to say that, but yeah, it is. This is why you need to have sustainable smart fisheries. We need to really manage and benefit from our marine ecosystem. Overfish the top of the food chain — the sharks, tuna, and swordfish — and what is directly below them begins to flourish. Soon all we will have are jellyfish.

As appetizing as that sounds, what can people do to prevent this from happening?

This sounds self-serving, but there is one solution I can offer everyone. It’s Oceana, a science-based organization that changes policy and gets things done. You don’t need to send money, though we’ll put it to good use, you can contribute your voice. It is very hard for you and me, people in their everyday crazy busy crammed life to feel like they can make a difference, but they can. Go on Oceana.org and become a Wavemaker. Sign up, check it out. With the click of your finger you can become an ocean advocate and make a huge difference around the world. We have changed policy because of you, so please check Oceana.org and become an international ocean advocate.

Closing line, Mr. Danson?

It’s probably more fun to play the oil executive on camera, but I’d rather be the environmental activist in real life. We don’t have to eat jellyfish soup, this could be changed. In our lifetime this could be changed and that’s exciting.

Tyler Alten has summered in Edgartown his entire life. His great grandparents, Reuben and Virginia Perin, first came with their friends, Brom and Allie Ault, in 1932 and stayed at what was formerly the Daggett House. He and his wife, Elizabeth, live in Brooklyn Heights, New York. Mr. Alten works for an energy and sustainability consulting firm in the New York/NJ area and is completing his Masters degree in Sustainability Management from Columbia University. This interview followed an assignment in a science journalism and communications class.