The Ocean Comes to the Capitol

CHOW youth representatives Pia Visaria, Sean Russell, Amelia Fortgang, and RCC’S Chloe Wetzler.
Photo: Tori Hunt.

Every June, just before beach season, advocates for protection of the ocean and marine life flood the nation’s capital and wash across Capitol Hill hoping to get the public and policy makers to realize that the nearly three-quarters of our planet that shimmers in blue from those classic space photos is what life on Earth depends upon. Capitol Hill Ocean Week, or CHOW, is both an extended conference and advocacy days hosted by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation during Ocean Month. CHOW teems with a colorful, coral reef’s worth of policymakers, civil servants, academics, advocates, students, and practitioners in the private sector — all working on coastal, marine, and Great Lakes issues.

As the co-lead of the Rachel Carson Council Coasts and Ocean Program Oceans and Coasts program, I was able to attend CHOW to represent the RCC, to present, and to deepen my knowledge about emerging issues, policy solutions, and new technology. Since this was my first time at CHOW, I didn’t know what to expect out of multiple days of panels, speeches, and networking, but reflecting on it, my experience at CHOW has been one of the most memorable weeks of my RCC Presidential Fellowship. Even days later, I feel excited, inspired, empowered.

Emma Chong, EarthEcho International, interviewing CEQ Chair Brenda Mallory.
Photo: Chloe Wetzler.

CHOW week kicked off with the bustle and buzz of coffee at the Rayburn House Office Building before the “Hill day” of individual advocacy meetings. But I was particularly interested in an event called Upwell: A Wave of Ocean Justice, hosted by Azul, the national grassroots organization working with Latinos on ocean conservation, the Center for American Progress, a Washington think tank with a major ocean program, and Urban Ocean Lab, an organization concerned with the future of coastal cities. Ocean justice, the shared concern and goal of “Upwell,” is to make access to the many resources that flow from the ocean and the ability to shape ocean policy more equitable and representative. This is crucial because a disproportionate share of coastal climate effects like sea-level rise and flooding from intense storms are borne by marginalized and poor communities of color. So efforts to activate and engage young people from such coastal communities are key — to show them that there are career opportunities in this field, and to support and empower them to stand up for and fight for the health of their communities. Among the many leaders presenting, it was especially inspiring to hear from officials of the Biden-Harris Administration, Deb Haaland, the Secretary of the Interior, and Chair Brenda Mallory of the White House Council of Environmental Quality.

Ocean Awards Gala, Union Station. Photo: Chloe Wetzler.

Upwell was followed by the Ocean Awards Gala, hosted by the National Marine Sanctuary Foundation. Union Station, transformed with blue and green lights into a glittering marble aquarium, was bustling with marine enthusiasts wearing marine-themed accessories or shades of blue – aquamarine, azure, cerulean, cobalt, turquoise and teal — for the occasion. The Awards Gala is both a charity auction to raise funds for the foundation’s ocean and Great Lakes conservation projects and a ceremony to recognize leaders in marine conservation. Violet Sage Walker, Chairwoman of the Northern Chumash Tribal Council, and her late father, Chief Fred Collins, were honored with the Sanctuary Wavemaker Award for their dedicated efforts to fight for the designation of the proposed Chumash Heritage National Marine Sanctuary. Chair Brenda Mallory received the Leadership Award for the climate and environmental justice work she is championing within the Council of Environmental Quality. Finally, National Geographic’s Pristine Seas, a research and exploration media project that pushes for the creation of marine protected areas globally, won the Conservation Innovation Award.

Solomon Pili Kaho’ohalahala
(better known as Uncle Sol).

The next day featured panels and speeches on topics ranging from leadership for climate action to community stewardship of protected waters to a pulse check on offshore wind in the United States. I presented at the Bloomberg Ocean Initiative panel where I was asked to share my perspective on why involving young people in High Seas conservation work is essential to protecting biodiversity beyond national jurisdiction. It was an honor to present alongside Solomon Pili Kaho’ohalahala (better known as Uncle Sol), Douglas McCauley, and Nichola Clark. Uncle Sol is a native Hawaiian who fights for the incorporation and prioritization of Indigenous voices in marine conservation decisions. Dr. McCauley is an associate professor at UC Santa Barbara and directs their Benioff Ocean Initiative. And, last but not least, Nichola Clark, head of ocean governance work for the Pew Charitable Trusts whom I had the pleasure of meeting earlier this spring when she was at Duke presenting to our Ocean Policy Working Group’s Spring Symposium.

That night was the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)’s annual Fish Fry to celebrate sustainable fisheries. It was an unforgettable evening walking around the Department of Commerce’s courtyard trying fried alligator from Louisiana, Pacific geoduck fritters, Atlantic swordfish, fresh Tuna poke, firecracker shrimp, and my personal favorite — raw oysters. Seeing ocean advocates, fishermen, and regulatory staff connecting over fresh seafood was a powerful reminder that people have a joyous connection to the ocean and marine life. If we can tap into the widespread love of seafood and wanting to protect and prolong such feasts, perhaps we can accelerate progress toward creating thriving coastal communities and marine ecosystems.

Dr. Rick Spinrad with members of EarthEcho International and NOAA.

Thursday, the final day of CHOW, held more speeches, lightning talks, and panel presentations. But my favorite part was getting to attend the official signing of a memorandum of agreement between EarthEcho International and NOAA to enhance youth engagement in ocean restoration and protection. EarthEcho International is an ocean conservation and advocacy non-profit founded by Phillipe and Alexandra Cousteau, grandchildren of the renowned ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau. I have been volunteering with EarthEcho since 2019, first as part of their Water Challenge Ambassador program, and now as a member of their Youth Leadership Council. EarthEcho has been working with a variety of non-profit and government organizations to establish and expand opportunities for young people to be meaningfully involved in ocean advocacy. Over the past few years My EarthEcho peers and I have gotten to meet with members of NOAA to exchange ideas and collaborate; so, it was gratifying to see my colleagues’ hard work and dedication translated into tangible progress. The signing ceremony was then topped off by hearing directly from NOAA’s Administrator, Dr. Rick Spinrad, who spoke about his excitement and commitment to this youth partnership.

After the signing, we headed over to the Dirksen Senate Office Building for the closing reception, where I was joined by several other Rachel Carson Council Fellows.

It was exhilarating to see all of my old ocean friends and to make new ones throughout my immersion in CHOW. And, after getting to know the individuals within Federal agencies and organizations, as a youth ocean advocate, I am hopeful and excited to see what the future holds for our ocean planet knowing that the current administration is supportive of marine conservation and ocean justice. Thus far, the people working on coasts and ocean issues have proven to be incredibly genuine, dedicated, and cooperative. Perhaps it is because working in marine conservation is not something people pursue because it is flashy or will be lucrative. Instead, they are driven by passion and hope. I was proud to be among them. Overall, I was reinvigorated by an amazing week and all the optimistic energy I felt at CHOW. My love of the sea and of the endless ocean was deepened once again.

“To stand at the edge of the sea…is to have knowledge of things that are as eternal as any earthly life can be.” – Rachel Carson

RCC Stanback Presidential Fellow – Chloe Wetzler

Chloe Wetzler is the co-lead of the RCC Coasts and Ocean program. She is a dual Master of Environmental Management and Juris Doctor student at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Law School. At Duke, she is the symposium coordinator for the Ocean Policy Working Group and a student researcher for the Nicholas Institute of Environment, Energy, and Sustainability.