By Barbara Kessler
Green Right Now

From the plastic gyre in the North Pacific to the bleached coral in south; from the thinning populations of salmon, lobster and shark around the the world, the oceans are sending off distress signals.

Just opening the mail today, and checking a couple blogs, we stumbled upon two urgent calls for action, one to save the endangered bluefin tuna in the Mediterranean, the other sounding the alarm about the Beluga whales in Alaska, a tiny population of unique whales that lives within a discrete ecosystem in the Cook Inlet near Anchorage.

Greenpeace is urging Spain to set up a preserve to help save the bluefin, magnificent creature that can weigh hundreds of pounds. The bluefin has been fished to the brink of extinction, and efforts to protect it from further fishing have so far failed. The world’s appetite for tuna is large, fishing interests don’t want restrictions and governments want to appease industry and protect jobs. All these forces have conspired to make the bluefin the poster fish for overfishing at large.

The Beluga is in similar straits, but for different reasons. The Defenders of Wildlife helped win protections under the Endangered Species Act in 2008 for the Belugas, which live exclusively in Cook Inlet near Anchorage. Only about 320 of these intelligent animals remain in the world, a population that’s been reduced four-fold in a few decades. The Beluga has been losing ground, it is believed, because of pollution from sewage and waste dumped into their home waters. But Alaskan officials now say the Beluga is recovering, and have filed to remove protections, for these “canaries of the ocean” who communicate with elaborate whistles and squeaks. Critics, though, fear that officials are more concerned about ESA restrictions development at the Port of Anchorage.

If environmentalists have gauged it correctly, however, the belugas really are canaries, in the metaphorical sense. These animals are among countless species the world over  that are sending up flares as their populations dwindle to unsustainable levels in the face of relentless human “developement” and aggressive hunting, poaching and fishing.

The solutions that come to mind are so obvious, and not so easy to enact. We need to re-develop our cities and housing in ways that leave wild areas intact. We need to curb sprawl and question expansion. We need to eat responsibly, moving toward a more sustainable, plant-based diet, with livestock raised humanely and fed their natural diet.

If the Beluga and the bluefin don’t speak to you, there are hundreds of other urgent conservation matters demanding our attention around the globe. Sea turtles and sharks and chimpanzees and tigers and orangutans and pandas and rhinos and African elephants — all these iconic creatures are endangered. That’s not to mention the rainforests in jeopardy, the melting arctic alpine ecosystems and the polar bear. I mean no pun when I say I really can’t even bear to review that story.

Matters are spinning out of control.  Yes. Pieces are flying off as our merry-go-round of consumption accelerates. Mindless consumption equals destruction. And if I were I rapper, hey, I’d do something with that.

But back to business, and the oceans; the Beluga and the bluefin. What can we do?

We can actually do a lot. And at the risk of sounding like an eco-windbag, here are just four things you can do that will make a difference:

1 — Get rid of plastic bags. This might seem like a trivial to folks who’ve yet to discover that reusable totes actually work better anyway. But this fight has real meaning. Plastic bags, as far as we know, may last for 1,000 years in a landfill. For all practical purposes, plastic is forever. And while some plastic has its place. These floofy little bags represent needless waste. If you live in California, you can support the move to outlaw disposable plastic bags. Legislators there are considering a ban on plastic bags that would be a blessing to the oceans, and help reduce that shameful, gargantuan plastic gyre floating in the middle of the Pacific. This modern Godzilla is more than twice the size of Texas. If you don’t know much about it, check out this video:

2 — Quit eating endangered and threatened marine life. If you lived on a farm would you eat your last dairy cow? Would you kill the only bull? Do you understand non-farm analogies better? If you needed a T-shirt you wouldn’t burn down the Aeropostale store, right? Show some respect. Get a list of sustainable seafood. They’re available all over the web. Here’s a story we did about Seafood Watch, the Monterey Bay Aquarium watch list for marine species.

3 — Eat locally. No one makes this easy either. Restaurants and groceries typically don’t tell you where stuff is coming from. (And in so many cases, you don’t want to know.) You can find a few that are moving in this direction, though. One surefire way to shop locally is to visit your local farmer’s market. Eating locally cuts down on the shipping required to a get a food to you. The reduces carbon dioxide emissions, which helps reduce the greenhouse effect, which helps cool the planet and the oceans, which have been doing yeoman’s duty for decades as our main carbon sink. Scientists warn the oceans, which are becoming increasingly acidic, can’t take much more.

4 — Question development. Let’s face it, the U.S. Congress isn’t going to act on your behalf to slow climate change, at least not anytime soon. But acting locally might even be more productive when it comes to steering infrastructure in a greener direction. Stop by your next city council meeting and make sure they’re planning development that meets the new tests. Is it compact to curb sprawl (and further reduce carbon emissions)? Does it reuse those empty buildings sitting around all over town? Is a bigger road really needed or do the planning commissioners have their undies in a knot over nothing? Where’s the bike trail down that new thoroughfare?  There are countless ways to slow greenhouse gas emissions at the local level — and reduce runoff and sewage pollution that ultimately travels into freshwater and then oceans.

We’re not talking about stopping job growth, just questioning whether everything that’s bigger is necessarily better. Remember the gyre? Besides, we need to think about the jobs of the future. The people in Anchorage might not like having to choose between a bigger port and the beloved beluga whales.

But we all need to make choices.

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