By Ragnar Carlson // February 25, 2009 // Originally published on Honoluluweekly.com
Stuart Coleman, the writer and educator best-known for his 2004 bestseller Eddie Would Go, was recently named the first Hawaiian Islands Field Coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, the California-based environmental organization dedicated to ocean conservation. He spoke with the Weekly this week about past successes and plans for the future.
For those that aren’t familiar, or who don’t know the nuts and bolts, tell us about Surfrider Foundation.
You know, I think everyone has an awareness of the symbol and a basic idea of what we do, but there is a lot of confusion about what we actually do. We’re a nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to the preservation and enjoyment of the world’s waves, oceans and beaches. We focus on [the acronym] C.A.R.E.: conservation, activism, research and education.
It’s interesting, because my personal environmental story parallels Surfrider’s. I lived in Malibu at one time and used to surf a lot there. Every now and then after it rained, I would get so, so sick, with stomach flu-like symptoms and all kinds of things. Eventually, I learned it was this horrible wastewater runoff polluting the nearshore waters that was making all the surfers sick. That’s where Surfrider got started.
Really? That same beach?
Yes, in 1984. It was organized over many different issues, but that was one of the main ones. This ragtag group of surfers, who started out concerned about their own interests, really got their act together, to the point that now there are 60 chapters around the world with more than 50,000 members. It’s definitely gone global at this point.
I recently visited Surfrider Foundation headquarters in San Clemente, and it happened to be the same weekend that they were celebrating victory in the “Save Trestles” campaign. California wanted to build a toll road through San Onofre Park, and surfers and environmentalists were dead-set against it. It took ten years, but this group of surfers overwhelmed the hearings and made it clear that they would not accept it, and then won.
What are some examples of local success?
I think the biggest victories locally are that we were able to save Pupukea/Paumalu, Waimea, Sunset.
When you talk about “saving” those beaches, what does that mean?
They wanted to develop the Pupukea/Paumalu mountain area, the headlands there, and put in multimillion-dollar houses. But all of the associated runoff and sediment ends up in the ocean. We worked with Defend Oahu Coalition to stop it.
Our biggest victory within the last couple of years was the Save Kakaako movement,where they wanted to build three luxury condominium towers down there on state land. It was a done deal. They had one public meeting, right around Christmastime, so they could just push it through, but they were overwhelmed by the response. The highlight was showing up at the governor’s State of the State address with 400 people in red shirts. We made such a presence that there was no way for them to move forward. Once again, what started out as a small group of people grew into a big coalition, and we won.
Explain the Rise Above Plastics campaign you’re working on.
It’s a campaign that’s part of my role as Hawaiian Islands Coordinator. I needed one big issue that could unite all the local chapters. Rise Above Plastics is a way to make people aware and educate them about the proliferation of plastic bottles in our waves and ocean. I got interested in the Junk Raft guys when they came here—
Yeah, we talked to those guys. They were great.
What a great way to make people aware that plastic never goes away, and also that it’s not only environmental, it’s a health issue too. The plastic gets smaller and smaller until it ends up on our plates as seafood. All the toxins in the water gather to these plastics and we are eating them. And of course it’s also a wildlife issue. Over a million seabirds and over 100,000 sea mammals die each year from ingestion of or entanglement in plastic.
That’s where you get an emotional connection, especially with young people.
So you feel like you’re having some success with it?
The great thing about Rise Above Plastics is that everyone always says what can I do? One person stopping using plastic bags will stop more than 400 plastic bags from going into the environment each year. One person who commits to using a metal water container will save over 160 plastic bottles. So one person can make a huge difference.
Sure, it’s a pain in the butt at first – I always forget my shopping bag. But for me, switching to a metal container was no trouble at all. I don’t use any plastic bottles at all.
The other thing about reducing our use of plastic is that it saves so much from the landfills. When you take out all that plastic, you give all those landfills more life.
What kinds of events do you have planned?
We do a lot of beach cleanups. They’re partly reactive, but they’re also proactive in that we educate people at the cleanups, show them how to lobby legislators, and bring people to where they’re looking at the whole watershed, mauka and makai.
How did you get specifically involved with Surfrider?
When I really got involved was after the 2006 sewage spills. That’s when I realized what was at stake, that we could lose our most precious resource, which could affect our health, our recreation, our economy, everything. I realized that we needed to start developing statewide policies for this stuff. We need to bring all the agencies together, because right now they’re kind of working at cross purposes. So that was the big motivation. We had been petitioning for a Hawaii coordinator for Surfrider for a while, and we got it, but the economy has turned it into a part-time position. Part of my job is also to do fundraising. Keep it fun, and keep it funded [laughter.]
It’s such a delicate mix, in that you have hardcore activists who are really dedicated to the science and the politics, and then you have these surfers who are concerned, but also want to have fun. So we kind of alternate our meetings between speakers and beer and then a more formal environment.