Why Political Hardball Can Save the Oceans


Doug DeMark
David Wilmot (left) talks with Senator Sheldon Whitehouse at the Ocean Champions annual reception honoring members of Congress in September 2010.

More than a decade ago a colleague and I were facing the prospect of losing another policy battle on Capitol Hill. Once again, we found that our compelling scientific case was not enough to carry the day and lamented, “If only fish could vote.” We should have said, “If only fish made political contributions to candidates to help them get elected.” Fish don’t but people do, which is why years later I cofounded Ocean Champions—the first (and still the only) ocean-focused organization working to elect political champions for ocean conservation.

Elections matter. If one cares about a public policy issue like conserving the oceans, success requires working closely with and rewarding (e.g., helping them get elected and reelected) those politicians who work to protect the oceans. It also requires holding accountable those politicians who would help destroy them. At the time of my “fish don’t vote” conversation, ocean conservationists focused on policy and were not involved in electoral politics. This has changed.

In 2003 and 2004, two ocean commissions, one independent1 and the other created by the federal government,2 released their findings. It was already widely understood that the oceans were in crisis, but the reports detailed the complexity and scale of the problems and proposed a number of policy solutions and reforms. At the same time, I was coauthoring an in-depth study of the effectiveness of the ocean conservation movement.3

Recognizing that there were successful public advocacy organizations that regularly won policy victories on Capitol Hill, our study set out to identify how. We found that they all employ the same tools and strategic elements, including fund-raising, communications, and grassroots organizing. However, one particular tool stood out—participating fully in the political process (professional and grassroots lobbying and direct involvement in the electoral process). Electoral politics is a fundamental aspect of our nation’s political process and the keystone to successfully advancing policy change. Thus, while a growing force of highly professional activists was working toward ocean reforms, they lacked the political power needed to achieve victory because they had not participated in the electoral process. Seeing this critical gap, Jack Sterne and I began the process of making the oceans a political issue by founding Ocean Champions.

As a political organization focused on oceans, and designed with the necessary political tools at our disposal (direct financial support to candidates, awareness building of candidates’ ocean conservation records, targeted campaigns to help pro-ocean candidates win), Ocean Champions represented a significant departure in the ocean conservation community. Initially, we had our skeptics. Many but certainly not all ocean advocates understood or accepted that full political engagement was necessary. Politicians, for their part, immediately understood, and pro-ocean candidates embraced us. They were grateful for our endorsement and support, and by showing our commitment to them we had a unique opportunity to help them strengthen their understanding and commitment to ocean conservation. (Needless to say, the politicians we have helped defeat understand the significance of ocean political action.) Many ocean philanthropists also saw the potential of political action and provided critical financial support. Today the majority of Ocean Champions’ support continues to come from individual donors who care about ocean conservation.

Ocean Champions’ electoral and legislative successes are encouraging. We have helped elect nearly 50 politicians (Democrats and Republicans) to the U.S. House and Senate. We endorse and support members of Congress with a résumé of leadership, such as Congressman Sam Farr (D-CA); we support members who we believe have the potential to become stronger leaders; and we help elect brand-new members who can become leaders on one or more ocean issues.

We have helped almost a dozen new members win (in some cases, their primary), ranging from Congressman Connie Mack (R-FL) to Senator Mark Begich (D-AK) to Congresswoman Kathy Castor (D-FL). We have also helped defeat antiocean politicians. In 2006, working in a coalition with political environmental groups, we targeted Congressman Richard Pombo (R-CA), who earned the distinction Ocean Enemy #1. Highlighting his ethical lapses and his extreme position on offshore oil drilling, which ran contrary to many of his constituents’ views, Ocean Champions played a significant role in defeating a powerful Congressman who had made the fatal mistake of attacking our oceans.

It is encouraging that more and more members of Congress, including key committee chairmen and senior members, are providing the leadership needed to advance positive ocean legislation. Working in a pragmatic, nonpartisan way, with a focus on building real and lasting relationships, Ocean Champions advances critical ocean legislation on issues ranging from harmful algal blooms and dead zones, to fisheries reform, to our nation’s response to the BP oil spill in the Gulf.

Politics can be messy, and political action is not for the faint of heart. Yet by engaging in political hardball, Ocean Champions has strengthened the ocean conservation community and enhanced its presence and effectiveness on Capitol Hill in the critical battle for healthy oceans and thriving coastal communities.