Waves of Change: An Interview with Ocean Frontiers producer Karen Meyer

Robin Just

Those who say coordinated and collaborative ocean management can’t be done have yet to see the world through Karen Meyer’s eyes. Karen is the Executive Director of Green Fire Productions and the director and producer of Ocean Frontiers. This groundbreaking movie showcases the real-life experiences of fishermen, conservationists, energy companies, shipping interests, farmers, and local community leaders in four areas of the country who worked together to improve ocean health and the management of our oceans and coasts:

  • Recognizing that their fishing grounds were in jeopardy if they didn’t start planning better, the community of Port Orford, Oregon, united to create a unique Community Stewardship Area that encompasses not only their fishing grounds, but also the upland watersheds that drain into them.
  • A group farmers in Iowa headed to the Gulf of Mexico for a fishing trip to see why the Gulf needs to be protected from the nutrients that flow off Midwestern farmlands into the Mississippi River, and on to the Gulf, where they create enormous dead zones. “I guess I didn’t realize the value of it (the fishing industry) and how important it is” says one farmer, in a series of moving interviews. Some creative and effective nutrient management measures are being implemented across Iowa, with the full support of the farmers that use them – who feel like they have an obligation to not harm their downstream neighbors.
  • An extremely contentious conflict on the coral reefs of the Florida Keys (at one point a Marine Sanctuary Director was hung in effigy) involving the seemingly incompatible uses of tourism, recreational and commercial fishing and diving, and resource conservation led to a difficult but ultimately successful planning process and the creation of a special set of marine zones that could only have happened with the full involvement of all the stakeholders. As one commercial fishing representative said “It really worked out in our best interest that they’re protecting these resources because what they protect helps us in the long run.”
  • Right here in New England’s own Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary the unlikely allies of shipping industry representatives, natural gas companies, conservationists, and scientists came together to work on the difficult problem of shipping traffic around Boston striking and killing endangered whales. After careful and thorough research on the feeding habits of the whales, the shipping lanes in and out of Boston were re-routed to avoid the areas most heavily used by the whales. In a success story that is one of the best examples of regional ocean planning in New England  we find a blueprint for future ocean use decisions.

Karen talked to us recently about the film, and some of the outstanding stories of collaborative ocean management she has documented in Ocean Frontiers. Thousands of coastal residents, governmental leaders, and ocean users are seeing Ocean Frontiers in venues from theaters to the US State Department to home viewing parties. You or your group can host a screening, or find one near you here.

Robin: What is your goal for Ocean Frontiers?

Karen: To share the ocean conservation success stories that are unfolding across the country so that we can all learn from these ocean pioneers and begin replicating their successful approaches in our own communities. Together we are moving in a positive direction. We are educating ourselves about what works and incorporating the lessons learned as we move forward with regional ocean planning. More than a film, Ocean Frontiers is a campaign designed to inspire people to better care for the ocean, for the good of all.

Robin: What was it like talking with people in small towns and rural areas like coastal Oregon and Midwestern farming regions about ocean planning? How did they receive the idea?

Karen: We were talking with people in places where ocean planning was already in the works or actively underway – people who had seen positive results from ocean planning. So, they were happy to share their experiences and insights to help others in different regions where people are just embarking on ocean planning.

One thing we heard often was that people were resistant or concerned about ocean planning at the beginning – and then they realized that this could affect their use of the ocean, so it made sense to be involved. Through the course of ocean planning, when it was done well, people came away with a strong sense of ownership about how the ocean was being managed. They saw their input reflected in decisions that were made, they were proud of the collaboration among all decision makers and stakeholders, and they felt strongly they were ensuring a healthy ocean and healthy communities.

Robin: Who have you seen benefit from regional ocean planning?

Karen: In the Florida Keys, as one example, it’s been all of the stakeholders as well as the ecosystem – the coral reefs and the fish. The stakeholders include: commercial and sport fishermen, the dive industry, recreational boaters, the charter boat industry, scientists – and ultimately everyone who lives in or visits the Florida Keys.

Robin: What is your favorite ocean planning success story, or the one that surprised you the most?

Karen: The commercial fishing town of Port Orford, Oregon is especially significant to me. The town depends on natural resources for their economic livelihood: timber was big here, and commercial fishing makes up 60% of their economy now. The people of Port Orford show us that we can change the way we do business, we can have an environmental ethic around the way we fish and that this could be the key to maintaining a way of life and the economic engine of our coastal fishing towns. The Port Orford community has been willing to address the problems brought on by the boom and bust of the fishing industry and take some risks in pursuing the triple bottom line. They are thinking big, by looking at the entire ecosystem of where they make a living – land and sea – and they designated the Port Orford Community Stewardship Area that encompasses state and federal waters of their historic fishing grounds as well as the watersheds that feed into the nearshore.

Robin: What kind of responses do you get in the surveys you pass out after your screenings?

Karen: There’s been a phenomenal response to Ocean Frontiers. More than 80% of the people surveyed after watching Ocean Frontiers express not only a better understanding about ocean planning, but an intention to participate in ocean planning.  People tell us that they are thrilled to see that collaboration among competing interests is possible – and they see that it’s vital to our success. People respond strongly to the solutions portrayed in Ocean Frontiers and have let us know that they are tired of the doom and gloom stories we so often hear. Witnessing examples of deeply entrenched conflicts where different groups of people could never imagine working together, and then eventually finding solutions that address both economic and environmental concerns is invigorating and motivates the audiences to strive for the same.

Robin:  What has been the best Ocean Frontiers event so far?

Karen: The premiere in Port Orford, Oregon. Oregon Governor Kitzhaber, First Lady Hayes and Republican and Democrat leaders in the state legislature attended and in their opening remarks, all spoke as one, affirming the vital link between healthy oceans and healthy communities. It was a thrill to have this kind of a kick-off for Ocean Frontiers, which set the stage and the tone for all of the events to follow. To date, we have worked with 365 partners to organize 150 events for 10,000 people in 27 states and 7 countries.

Robin: What was it like presenting Ocean Frontiers to the US State Department?

Karen: We were honored to be invited to present Ocean Frontiers to the State Department. They are interested in the film because it highlights how industries, governments, and citizens can work together and find solutions to pressing ocean issues. Their work is primarily international so it was exciting to bring these stories from across the US to them and introduce them to the inspiring work taking place here.

Just going into the State Department and seeing so many people from all over the world there, the pictures of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton lining the hallways, it was impressive and an experience I won’t soon forget!

Robin: Who would you most like to see Ocean Frontiers?

Karen: President Obama

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