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The roaring tide
Sausalito-based Seaflow works to make the oceans quieter and safer for marine creatures
Jim Doyle, Chronicle Staff Writer

San Francisco Chronicle

8th October 2004

Trying to help save the world's oceans on a shoestring budget has its setbacks and frustrations, but Seaflow's founders, staffers and volunteers have designed a simple formula for staying in the game.

Seaflow, a community of concerned citizens based in Marin, is a paradigm of grassroots activism. The small, fledgling organization is free-spirited, but also dead set on reducing ocean noise pollution. The eco group reflects a unique mix of passion, science and politics.

"A lot of environmentalists work too hard, get burned out and don't sustain themselves," said George Taylor, a Seaflow co-founder and board president. "One of our goals was not to replicate the same mistakes of other nonprofits. Communication difficulties, power struggles, staff and volunteer burnout. ... I think we've been able to tap into people's creativity because they feel connected, respected and heard."

Seaflow's primary goal is to help build an international movement to create laws that restrict noise underwater. Its concern: A proliferation of human-generated noise pollution threatens the long-term survival of marine mammals and other sea creatures. Other recognized threats to marine mammals include ship collisions and the entanglement of whales, dolphins and porpoises in fishing nets.

Oceans are acoustic environments. Sound travels farther and faster in water than in air. There is little visibility underwater. So marine mammals and other species of sea life rely on acoustic signals to navigate, hunt, communicate and avoid predators.

Humans are causing an increasing amount of ocean noise pollution, whose leading sources include active sonars employed by the military, offshore oil drilling, seismic testing for oil, the use of explosives, underwater construction and commercial shipping.

Those assaults are occurring at a time when the oceans are already burdened by overfishing and toxic pollution. In certain instances, the use of active sonar during Navy exercises has been closely correlated with mass strandings of marine mammals.

An investigation by the Navy and Department of Commerce found that the use of tactical mid-frequency sonars aboard Naval warships during a sonar exercise in the Bahamas in March 2000 caused the deaths of six beaked whales and one dolphin. Ten other stranded cetaceans were returned to the water alive.

The Pew Oceans Commission report last year urged the creation of a comprehensive research and monitoring program to study the effects of sound on endangered or threatened species of marine life.

In the past four years, Seaflow, whose slogan is "protecting our living oceans," has emerged as a key player on ocean noise issues. Its principals have met with Pentagon officials and policy makers on Capitol Hill, attended major scientific conferences and distributed alerts on whale strandings.

"The oceans are in stress right now and we need to assume that any of our explorations or colonization of the sea will further compromise its health," said Michael Stocker, a Seaflow science adviser and bio-acoustician. "It's not just whales or dolphins we're concerned about, but our very own food supply."

Stocker drafted language on ocean noise for the California Ocean Management Action Plan, which will serve as a role model for other states. He also advised Sen. Barbara Boxer's office on an ocean protection bill that she is scheduled to introduce.

"I go to conferences and break bread and drink beer with Navy guys," Stocker said. "I address them non-confrontationally. It's not about establishing a frothy-mouthed advocacy relationship with these people. . . . As (environmentalist) David Brower would say, 'You never know where your allies will come from.’ "

Seaflow's activities include public education, scientific consulting and citizen lobbying. But its principals and volunteers also talk about "process.” They espouse the benefits of a "non-hierarchical and transformative" organization that will enable them to "be the change we want to see in the world.” They speak of "the web of life" and how much damage humans cause by rending it.

Political networking, street theatre and workshops on underwater bioacoustics are all part of Seaflow's mix. Its community meetings range from scientific and policy discussions to presentations of music and poetry. Its delegates wear dolphin costumes at the annual Fairfax Festival and Parade.

Seaflow workshops on "sustainable activism" offer environmentalists an introduction to "deep ecology" principles of eco-philosopher Joanna Macy that address the despair, anger and burnout that are prevalent among activists.

"We're doing serious scientific work, and serious political work. But there's more to this organization," said Seaflow co-founder Vivienne Verdon- Roe, an Academy Award-winning filmmaker who has made documentaries on nuclear weapons. "We have a profound reverence for life. . . . The kind of world we're going to create really depends on our behaviour in our daily life. We really encourage people to have the time to walk by the ocean and appreciate the things they're trying to save."

On a recent Sunday morning, Seaflow board members and volunteers celebrated the fall equinox on a stunning stretch of Rodeo Beach in the Marin Headlands. Hallie Austen Iglehart, a Seaflow co-founder, led a meditation and ceremonial drum circle to mark the turning of the seasons.

"It's a fun thing to do, but I think it's also important that we connect back in with the cycles of the planet," said Iglehart, an author of books on women's spirituality. "It helps us remember on a visceral level, not just an intellectual level, our place in the web of life. We're celebrating the ocean; we're celebrating ourselves."

Days earlier, Stocker held an informal walk along the same beach with a handful of Seaflow volunteers, talking about the impact of human-generated underwater noise on the ocean habitat. He spoke of "the sounds beyond the waves," of snapping shrimp and croaking grouper.

He spoke of the dangers of active sonar arrays. In recent decades, Navy and NATO manoeuvres have coincided with strandings of whales in the Bahamas, the Canary Islands, the Virgin Islands, Hawaii, Madeira, Japan, and the Mediterranean Sea near Greece.

"People thought the ocean was silent and marine life was deaf," Stocker said. "Now, whenever a whale washes up on shore, the first thing people ask is, 'Where was the Navy?’ "

It's tempting to view Seaflow as a David versus Goliath story: a small band of environmentalists taking on the Department of Defense, with some degree of success. But the pint-size eco group would be hard-pressed to claim solo credit for any major victories.

Seaflow works closely with other environmental groups. Together, they have slowed the Navy's plan to deploy a new low frequency active sonar system for the long-range detection of hostile diesel submarines in three-quarters of the world's oceans. The Navy insists that low frequency active sonar poses only a negligible risk of harm to marine mammals, and that its mitigation measures -- for example, not using sonars when whales are believed to be in the vicinity -- will reduce the risk.

Stocker and other environmentalists contend that the Navy has not sufficiently studied whether high intensity acoustic signals may hurt or kill these endangered or threatened species.

"I think the scientific community is still trying to understand how the variety of species of marine mammals interact and are affected by sonar," said Lt. Mike Kafka, a Navy spokesman. "The Navy annually budgets over half a billion dollars for environmental programs including millions of dollars specifically dedicated for marine mammal research...This reinforces our commitment to being good stewards of the environment while defending the nation."

Kafka said that Navy ships use active sonar, which emits periodic bursts of sound, less than 1 percent of their time at sea. Lookouts are trained to spot marine mammals before and during sonar training exercises. Others listen (with passive, or silent, sonar gear) for whales and dolphins. If marine mammals are found to be in the vicinity, the active sonar is shut down.

"Seaflow has been very effective -- especially in the Bay Area, but increasingly more widely -- in speaking to the dangers that active sonar and ocean noise pose to the marine environment," said Michael Jasny, a lawyer for the Natural Resources Defense Council, which has sued to restrict the Navy's use of active sonar. "They participate in policy dialogues, raise awareness in the media, educate the public, all from a perspective that is both committed and scientifically informed."

Seaflow is closely affiliated with the International Marine Mammal Project of the San Francisco-based Earth Island Institute, which has led the effort to stop the slaughter of dolphins by tuna fleets, to end commercial whaling and to end the use of drift nets.

In 2002, Seaflow initiated brainstorming sessions for U.S. environmental groups concerned with ocean noise. The sessions led to the creation of the Ocean Noise Coalition, a loose-knit alliance of more than a dozen groups committed to marine conservation, including the Ocean Mammal Institute, National Resource Defense Council, Sierra Club, Humane Society, Oceana, and the Animal Welfare Institute. With the help of Earth Island Institute, Seaflow hosted two of the coalition's meetings this year.

Ingrid Overgard, a Seaflow volunteer and graduate student at San Francisco State University, is creating an online database for the coalition that will include whale strandings and their possible correlation with Navy deployments and other ocean noise sources. Scientific reports and other information also will be posted.

Seaflow also has been in contact with activists from Central and South America, including those who are attempting to establish marine reserves. Other coalition members have pursued contacts in the European Parliament and the United Nations.

"We're doing just one piece of ocean work. We have to work collaboratively," said Mary Jo Rice, Seaflow's executive director, a longtime grassroots organizer. "We work to inspire and educate individuals and to harness their talents and creativity to best serve marine life."

Seaflow, an educational nonprofit with an annual budget of less than $100, 000, has offices in a former Army barracks at Fort Cronkhite in the Marin Headlands. Roughly half of its budget comes from hundreds of individual donors who have sent from $1 to $20,000. It also received grants from the Foundation for Deep Ecology, Earth Island Institute and other nonprofits.

"I think one of the greatest strengths of Seaflow is that we have a very responsive community," Rice said. "It's a very non-judgemental, supportive community. And we like to have fun. We try to keep things light. We try to be as inclusive as we can be. We try to hear everyone."

Seaflow relies on a network of professionals, ranging from accountants, attorneys and scientists to boat captains, caterers, and tax and marketing specialists who donate their time and services. Musicians have given benefit concerts for Seaflow. Artists have held studio sales. Others have donated airline miles to enable Seaflow representatives to attend ocean noise conferences.

The proceeds from a recent sale of Iglehart's handcrafted jewellery went to Seaflow. There are plans to hold an online auction this fall that will feature items ranging from art prints to sailing trips and Hawaiian vacation accommodations.

Still, cash is short. Seaflow wants to increase the hours of its limited support staff. Rice also hopes to expand Seaflow's base of donors to pay for projects, including a $5,000 portable display -- with strong visual and acoustic elements -- for educational events.

Seaflow has drawn more than 100 volunteers. Some attend workshops, participate in letter-writing campaigns to members of Congress, or staff information tables at local gatherings and distribute about 15,000 informational brochures each year. Others do research or plan fund-raising events.

"I think it's the love of the ocean that ties us together," said Seaflow volunteer Julie Perkins, a business development consultant. "They really have a way of reaching out and discussing the issues and getting people involved. It's truly positive activism. ... For me as a volunteer, it's refreshing and nonthreatening. They don't demand a lot of their volunteers, so I'm not afraid to come to their meetings. I don't have to put on a black banner and march."

Seaflow's monthly community meetings attract a mix of scientists, business people, military veterans, students, parents and artists.

The eco group was founded in 2000 by Iglehart, Verdon-Roe and Taylor, a Fairfax psychotherapist who has developed and served on several nonprofit boards. The trio had become concerned in the late 1990s about the disappearance of humpback whales from their breeding grounds in Hawaii following Navy sonar testing.

They called their new organization the Council for Living Oceans, and later changed its name to Seaflow.

"Seaflow is the little organization that could," Iglehart said. "We didn't even start out wanting to be an organization, but we keep chugging along."

Where to go
Seaflow will have an information table at the Farallones Marine Sanctuary Association's Ocean Fest titled "One Ocean, One World," from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Crissy Field in San Francisco. The annual oceanside event includes gourmet sustainable seafood, beer and wine tasting, kids art and education activities, and live music. Interested volunteers can reach Terri Julianelli at or leave a message at (415) 229-9335.

Seaflow's community meetings are held at 7 p.m. on the first Monday of each month in its offices at 1062 Fort Cronkhite, Sausalito, CA 94965. (415) 229-9366 or visit

E-mail Jim Doyle at