Paddling to Save Oceans

04/30/09 Seán Kinane
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Margo Pellegrino is paddling an outrigger canoe from the Atlantic Coast of Florida to New Orleans in order to draw attention to the plight of the oceans.

Yesterday she paddled from Sarasota to Madeira Beach and took time out from her trip to speak to the media at Tampa Aquarium this morning.

Pellegrino set out by paddling south along the Atlantic coast on April 15th from the Harbor Branch Oceanic Institute in Ft. Pierce. Pellegrino is partnering in her 1200 mile journey with the National Resources Defense Council or NRDC “to build support for a Healthy Oceans Act and [protect the] oceans from global warming and ocean acidification.”

“It is a near crisis state, I think. And we can either turn a blind eye or actually do something. And it’s not hopeless, but the thing is, it’s pretty imperative that we do it now. So that’s why I’m paddling and that’s why I’m partnering with NRDC.”

The Florida Legislature is considering lifting a thirty-year ban on drilling for petroleum off the coast of the state.

“That is totally freaky,” Pellegrino says.

During a roundtable discussion with environmental activists at the Florida Aquarium Thursday morning, Pellegrino says she hopes to meet with Governor Charlie Crist during her trip to convince him to veto any drilling bill that is passed by the Legislature. She says sometimes the water in the Gulf of Mexico is too shallow for paddling within three miles of the coast.

"And that's like right where they would drill! Where you can draw water [in a canoe]."

David White, regional director of Ocean Conservancy, participated in the roundtable discussion. He agrees with Pellegrino that Floridians should resist drilling for fossil fuels off the Gulf Coast.

“Just talking about offshore oil drilling without talking about the larger context of moving towards renewable energy is very short-sighted and really doesn’t do much to protect our ocean and coastal resources.”

Pellegrino says she eats as much as she can on the voyage. She eats peanut butter and honey sandwiches and drinks water while paddling, but favors extra salty margaritas when her day is finished. The 5'4" slender mother of two will be 42 years old next month. Pellegrino allowed herself a day off after paddling 60 miles from Pine Island to Sarasota.

“There’s this jut of land coming up to the big inlet at Sarasota and it just smelled foul. Foul, foul, foul. And apparently they have sewage problems there.”

Pellegrino’s husband and two kids remain home in Medford Lakes, New Jersey during the paddling trip. This is her third extended paddling tour since 2007. The first was from Miami to Maine and from her home state of New Jersey to Washington, D.C. The most recent leg of her current trip ended Wednesday night after a 30 to 35 mile paddle to Madeira Beach.

“Actually I didn’t really paddle into Tampa, I paddled across [the mouth of] Tampa Bay. Yesterday was a howling northwest wind and it was quite a workout. So I had a nice night paddle. By the time I hit the Gulf [of Mexico] it was nice and quiet and the stars were out and the moon was shining and it was actually a beautiful evening paddle on the Gulf: nice and flat.”

Along the trip, Pellegrino is collecting messages from residents of Florida and the other Gulf states to take to their members of Congress. She uses an oversized plastic bottle to hold these “messages in a bottle,” which urge politicians to pass a national Healthy Oceans Act and to include provisions for protecting oceans in any climate legislation.

“To try to tell as many people as possible: let your elected officials know that oceans play an enormous role in our lives. … Basically it’s S.O.S. as in “Save Our Seas. Because right now our seas are what they are and we’ve been trying to encourage people to fill these out.”

Pellegrino is being assisted in her paddling journey and in her environmental activism by the NRDC. Melissa Waage is a campaign manager with the NRDC.

“We have no doubts that the oceans are in crisis. There’s a strong scientific consensus that we need to solve this problem now. 90% of our large ocean fish have disappeared in the last hundred years. There’s a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico, as you probably know, that can sometimes swell to the size of Massachusetts.”

To help clean up coastal waters, the Ocean Conservancy’s David White supports local summertime nitrogen fertilizer bans like the one enacted in St. Petersburg and being considered by Hillsborough County. He says it’s because “anything we can do to reduce the amount of nutrients and chemicals going into our waterways is a step that we must take if we’re going to have healthy coastal communities.”

“We’re essentially putting Miracle-Gro into these areas that encourage algae growth, which ultimately leads to dead zones, like the giant dead zone off the coast of Louisiana. So we’re actually once again changing the water chemistry in a way that is not beneficial to the health of Tampa Bay and our nearshore waters.”

As she prepares for the rest of her paddling journey up the Gulf Coast of Florida, Pellegrino calls on all people who appreciate the ocean to do their parts to save it.

“Individual action is great, and one person can do a whole heck of a lot. But we need a lot of ‘one’ people all at the same time and we need some pretty big people because certain big polluters also are considered individuals. So we need everyone, every individual, whether you are a lonely person or a big corporation, to be on the same page for our resources, because they are going down the tubes in a variety of ways.”

Pellegrino expects to leave at 7:00 am Friday for the 30-mile paddle from Madeira Beach to Holiday in Pasco County. Depending on weather conditions, she anticipates arriving in New Orleans around the 21st of May.

Margo Pellegrino’s blog about her paddling trip

Pellegrino’s Gulf Coast Paddle site

NRDC Action Center: “Tell your representative to co-sponsor a national Healthy Oceans Act”

WMNF coverage of St. Petersburg nitrogen fertilizer ban

WMNF coverage of Hillsborough fertilizer ban discussion

WMNF coverage of ocean acidification and warming

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