This blog is an outlet for sharing some of the more interesting issues that I work on as a consultant to conservation groups and foundations. It includes articles I've written for a public audience, to educate others about these issues in a way that has meaning to them. Enjoy.

September 8, 2010

Obama Enacts Ocean Zoning

By Amy Mathews Amos

Amid the ongoing coverage of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, a major development in how we use and manage offshore waters has gone virtually unnoticed. On July 19 President Obama an executive order directing federal agencies to come up with plans to, in effect, zone the oceans within our territorial waters in much the same way local governments zone land.

Before Tea Partiers cry foul about a new intrusion by the federal government, we should look at what the high seas have become.

We’ve always thought of the seas as free, wild, and infinite. A place we go to get away from rush hour traffic and office cubicles. We picture waves rolling under the bow of a boat, sails full, sun bright. Or white breakers crashing on lonely stretches of beach. To most of us, the ocean seems unimaginably big. Vast. Endless.

But it’s not.

The tar balls washing up on Gulf of Mexico beaches remind us that it’s getting pretty crowded out there. And not just with oil rigs. Walking the shore, we can’t readily see the fierce competition underway for pipeline routes, mining sites, sewage lines, communication cables, fishing fleets, and more. But in reality, things are bumping into each other much more often at sea, whether it’s oil and water, cables and corals, or ships and whales.

Often literally colliding: A 90,000-ton container ship can kill a 100-ton right whale when it hits it. Ship collisions are the biggest source of human-caused death for these endangered cetaceans. The second biggest is entanglement in fishing gear.

To bring order to the seas, it’s time to take our cue from the land. Hence, the Obama administration’s move to begin the process.

For decades communities have used zoning to reduce land-use conflicts and protect property values. In 2008, Massachusetts became the first state to apply this idea to the ocean. With 400 years of seafaring behind it, Massachusetts entered the 21st century struggling to balance modern demands like fish farms, sand mining, and wind farms with declining fisheries and thriving tourism. With the state’s passage of a comprehensive ocean “zoning” law, it now has a framework to identify which offshore areas are appropriate for which uses, and to flag potential conflicts in advance. The Obama Administration wants to do the same thing in U.S. ocean waters and the Great Lakes.

Called “marine spatial planning,” this concept is rooted in conservation. Australia pioneered it in the 1980s to protect valuable coral reefs, seagrass beds, and mangroves in its world-renowned Great Barrier Reef National Park.

Protecting special places in U.S. waters isn’t new either. Just as our national parks preserve special areas on land, national marine sanctuaries protect resources like the sunken wreck of the Civil War ship USS Monitor off the North Carolina coast, and the country’s northernmost coral reefs in the Flower Garden Banks of the Gulf of Mexico.

But the idea of ocean zoning goes far beyond conservation. The Obama Administration sees it as a way to promote economic development too. Identifying areas suitable for various economic, industrial, or conservation uses in advance can help reduce conflicts and facilitate compatible uses.

This includes energy development, which increasingly drives how we use the ocean. In Massachusetts, conflicts over the location of liquefied natural gas terminals, tidally-driven energy facilities, and wind farms fueled change. At the national level, intense pressure for offshore oil and gas drilling leases adds to the urgency.

The catastrophic BP spill in the Gulf forces the question: what areas should be off limits to oil and gas drilling, and where can we develop more sustainable, renewable energy sources so these disasters don’t happen in the future?

Not surprisingly, the idea of flagging parts of the ocean for specific uses raises hackles. To many, this simply doesn’t fit the romantic image of a free ocean. Recreational fishing interests in particular are opposed to anything that might restrict fishing access.

Dr. Elliott Norse, president of the nonprofit Marine Conservation Biology Institute and a leading thinker and supporter of marine spatial planning, likens the idea of a free and open ocean to a “sacred value.” According to psychologists, sacred values are concepts that defy rational decision-making, based solely on strong emotion. No promise of practical benefits can easily sway someone away from a sacred value.

But clinging to outdated notions of what we want the oceans to be could do irreversible harm. We’re placing tremendous new demands on the seas and need a more thoughtful approach to managing them.

The time for marine spatial planning has come. If there was any doubt before, surely those doubts should have sunk with the Deepwater Horizon.

© Blue Ridge Press 2010. Amy Mathews Amos is an independent environmental consultant advising conservation groups and others on marine conservation issues.

Blue Ridge Press is a syndicated news and commentary service reporting on the environment, published by more than 350 newspapers in 45 states, reaching more than 23 million readers.  See

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April 10, 2010

Killing Nemo

By Amy Mathews Amos

It’s a true story. Well, not exactly true – clown fishes and blue tangs can’t really talk like they do in Disney’s animated film Finding Nemo. But those beautiful fish inhabiting the aquarium in your dentist’s office or your cousin’s home really are taken directly from tropical coral reefs. And if you found yourself rooting for Nemo, brace yourself.

Each year an estimated 30 to 60 million coral reef fish are removed from tropical reefs and shipped halfway around the world for ornamental display in the United States and Europe. Along the way, many of them die.

Their perilous journey takes them from their coral reef home to a diver’s net, to a boat, to a holding facility, to a jet plane, an importer’s warehouse, then a retail store. They make this trip largely in plastic baggies and boxes, the water replaced every few days to replenish oxygen and remove built-up waste. Not surprisingly, the dirty water and stress take their toll. So to make up for the fish that die, divers take even more from the reef.

While we may find cartoon characters adorable, in reality few of us empathize with captured fish. But beyond the trauma to Nemo and pals is the impact of this largely unregulated practice on coral reefs. More than 85 percent of fish caught for the marine aquarium trade come from Indonesia and the Philippines. Overfishing is rampant in these countries, and controls are almost nonexistent. According to Dr. Brian Tissot, a biologist at Washington State University who has studied the impacts of the marine aquarium trade, some reefs have been “knocked flat” from overfishing, with fish populations a tiny fraction of what they would be without the aquarium trade.

But it’s not just fish populations that get destroyed. Coral reefs are structures produced by living organisms in oceans. The primary organisms typically are stony corals that secrete an exoskeleton of calcium carbonate, creating a reef that supports the corals and a huge variety of other animal and plant life. Divers often squirt cyanide into reefs to stun fish, making them easier to catch. Cyanide typically doesn’t kill the fish outright, but it does kill corals and other life on the reef. Divers also often pry corals apart to find fish hiding in crevices, destroying a reef structure that took decades or centuries to build.

All of this comes at a time when corals can least afford it. Pollution and overfishing for food are major problems on these reefs. And corals are notoriously vulnerable to increases in water temperature and other effects of climate change. According to Tissot, the net effect of removing reef fish in such large numbers is that we are making coral reefs less able to handle stresses like global climate change. “Our best defense against climate change is a stable reef with an intact ecosystem. A reef that retains its own natural complexity will be more resilient to these changes.”

The good news and the bad is that this destruction is driven largely by demand in the United States and Europe. Because we created most of the demand, we can also change it. According to Eric Borneman, a coral biologist at the University of Houston and an author on the aquarium hobby, “Just reducing the mortality rate would make a huge, huge difference.” He urges hobbyists to buy fish only from reputable businesses that source from responsible exporters that can trace their fish to its source. These businesses sell healthy fish that clearly have been handled well throughout their journey. Although they may be more expensive initially, the higher survival rates of these fish make them less costly because they don’t need to be replaced – and therefore don’t fuel demand for overfishing on coral reefs. He also urges hobbyists to learn “which fish are almost impossible to kill and which are almost impossible to keep alive” in captivity. Those that won’t survive in a tank should never be removed from a reef.

Brian Plankis, president of the nonprofit Reef Stewardship Foundation, maintains, “Everyone can take action to help coral reefs, not just hobbyists.” He recommends reducing your personal carbon footprint by driving a more fuel efficient vehicle, taking public transportation, and purchasing electricity from renewable sources.

Ultimately, changes need to happen on the water in source countries to eliminate overfishing and cyanide use. But changing demand in the United States can help: without a market, there’s nothing to sell. Changes to U.S. import laws are needed to prevent unregulated or poorly managed fish from entering the country. Stricter shipping requirements to reduce the number of fish that die en route may also be necessary.

In the meantime, keep rooting for Nemo. The future of the world’s coral reefs may depend on it.

Amy Mathews Amos is an independent environmental consultant advising conservation groups and others on marine conservation issues.

© Blue Ridge Press 2010

Blue Ridge Press is a syndicated news and commentary service reporting on the environment, published by more than 350 newspapers in 45 states, reaching more than 23 million readers.  See

Please respect all copyrights.

March 12, 2010

Charting Her Course to NOAA

“I have real glasses somewhere,” Lois Schiffer laughs as she puts on a pair of red framed eyeglasses missing the right arm. The newly installed General Counsel of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is trying to read a memo from her staff to prepare for an upcoming phone call. “Okay, I’m up to speed,” she says after a few moments, returning her attention to her visitor.

As General Counsel, Schiffer is the top legal officer for all agency activities, including fisheries management, the National Weather Service and more; overseeing a staff of 100 attorneys. It’s a familiar role for her. As an Assistant Attorney General at the Department of Justice under President Clinton, Schiffer oversaw a staff of 400 lawyers and litigation related to natural resources on behalf of all federal agencies.

On this blustery Friday afternoon in a spacious but spare office at the Commerce Department, not fully unpacked after four weeks on the job, she is booked for the afternoon with meetings and phone calls until around 6 p.m. Men in gray suits and crisp white shirts periodically tap tentatively on her door throughout the afternoon to see if she has a spare moment to discuss urgent issues. An assistant reminds her that she has a pile of papers to sign.

“It’s so excellent,” she says when her 3 p.m. meeting is canceled, giving her a little more time. After listening to the staff in the outer office marvel at her energy level, her demanding schedule, and her additional responsibilities as an adjunct professor at Georgetown University, you believe her. Who wouldn’t appreciate an extra hour of time? But otherwise, you’d never know it. As she talks joyfully about her new hobby of walking marathons, Lois Schiffer makes juggling the long hours, substantial responsibility, and steady stream of demands look easy.

Much of this comes from years of experience. Schiffer jokes that her first day at her new job was the day she got her Medicare card. While a reminder of her impressive energy, it also hints at the challenges she has faced in reaching her current position. Women now comprise almost 50 percent of law students in the country, but when Schiffer entered Harvard Law School in 1966, few women did. The dean at the time let her and the other 34 women in her class of 500 know that women don’t belong in law school, men do. In her property law class, the professor had the few female students sit conspicuously in the front of the room when the class studied dowries, to draw attention to their second-class status.

Despite this, Schiffer was proud to be there. “There was a sense that we were pioneers,” she says of herself and her female classmates. “I thought we were gonna make it.” She enjoyed the intellectual rigor and was committed to pursuing a career that could make a difference in people’s lives. “You can’t dismiss the importance of the civil rights movement at that time,” she notes. “This was a time when people believed that government could solve problems.”

Her Harvard roommate Dr. Josephine Briggs agrees. Now the Director of Alternative and Complementary Medicine at the National Institutes of Health, Briggs says “it was preconciousness-raising at that point. Women’s issues, while there, weren’t the dominant issues in our lives. We saw ourselves as wanting to have careers doing the public good, and thought it would all work out.”

Schiffer’s first job out of law school was providing legal services to the poor in Boston. She liked the work, but didn’t like Boston and returned to Washington D.C. where she grew up, the oldest of four siblings of immigrant parents. Her mother worked for the Department of Health, Education and Welfare on women’s health and labor issues. After stints as a law clerk and at a private firm, Schiffer worked on women’s issues herself at the Center for Law and Social Policy. Her big break came in 1978, when James Moorman, a political appointee under President Carter, offered her a management position at the Land and Natural Resources Division at the Department of Justice. “I’m not qualified,” she replied. But Moorman thought otherwise. He was looking for a woman to help him revamp a sleepy low-profile division into a top legal team. The opportunity came with hazards though: her position typically had gone to men who had moved up through the ranks in the agency. Once there, many let her know that they thought she got the job only because she was a woman. Regardless, Schiffer was hooked. Soon after starting at Justice, a friend convinced her to fill a vacant spot rafting down the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon. She has worked for environmental protection ever since.

Later, as Assistant Attorney General in 1996, Schiffer went West again to attend a ceremony in Nevada, and was reminded of the progress made by women since the beginning of her career. All of the five high-ranking officials attending the event were women, including the Regional Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Attorney General of Nevada.

Still, the American Bar Association reports that women comprise only 31 percent of the lawyers in the legal profession and less than 20 percent of partners at private law firms. On average, female lawyers make almost 20 percent less than men. Some have argued that such gaps are the result of different choices that women make to balance careers and family. That hasn’t been a concern for Schiffer, who is unmarried and doesn’t have children.

David Uhlmann, who worked for Schiffer at Justice and is now Director of the Environmental Policy and Law Program at the University of Michigan., cites her intelligence, commitment, and knowledge as reasons for her success. “Substantively, she’s as good as it gets,” says Uhlmann. But she can be rough on those who haven’t done their homework or otherwise don’t pass muster; a style that has turned some people off over the years. Uhlmann wonders whether this has prevented her from reaching even higher levels in government. Regardless, Schiffer’s advice to young women today is to find something they really want to do and be persistent despite inevitable frustrations.

Persistence clearly has paid off for her. “Here they are,” she says triumphantly, holding up a pair of intact pink eyeglasses after rummaging through her shoulder bag.

Not quite effortless, but definitely successful.