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The Eco Paddler: Fighting for the 71 percent

Op-Ed - How paddlers can step up to help the world's oceans

By Ken Campbell

I am standing atop a tangled pile of driftwood, kelp and assorted bits of trash on a gray beach near the northwest corner of the country.

Some of the wood under my feet once belonged to a Japanese house. It floated more than 6,000 miles across the Pacific, only to be smashed to bits while coming ashore. Beside it is part of a washing machine, a laundry hamper and various items that look like they were once in the medicine cabinet, washed into the ocean by the 2011 Japanese tsunami, half a world away.

It is raining lightly as I look out across the mess to the gray distance where sky and sea blend into one. A week kayaking down Washington's roadless Olympic coast to conduct beach debris surveys has been a stark reminder of the extent to which water connects us.

This is not primarily Planet Earth; it's Planet Water. We are riding on an overwhelmingly blue marble, not a green one. The Earth's surface is 71 percent water (that's roughly 326 million trillion gallons, if you're counting), most of it in the oceans. But despite being such a major part of the planet, we actually know more about the makeup of outer space than we do about what happens in the watery parts of our own world.

As paddlers, we are intimately attached to the water, not just for survival but also for recreation and adventure. With pollution, acidification and overfishing plaguing our oceans, and climate change threatening to exacerbate the crisis, it’s time for us to chip in to fight for the 71 percent. With the unique set of skills that kayakers and canoeists possess, we are often in a position to see things that others may not and may be able to use our abilities to make a difference.

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In 2012, our small team of paddlers visited over a dozen small and nearly inaccessible beaches to collect data that NOAA, Olympic National Park and various other local and tribal organizations have used to prioritize remote beach monitoring and cleanup. Not only was there much debris visible from the tsunami in Japan, it was mixed with an astounding amount of fishing gear, bottles and trash, almost all of it plastic.

That trip was a great way combine things like observation and data collection with the adventure of paddling, and there are countless other examples. Dave and Amy Freeman, a pair of outdoor educators from Minnesota, use the wilderness as a classroom to get kids fired up about the natural world and work to preserve their own special places in nature. In southeast Alaska, sea kayakers travel to remote sections of the panhandle to collect baseline solitude, campsite and invasive plant data for the Sitka Conservation Society. These efforts and the many others like them show the relative advantages that non-powered research craft can bring to many scientific studies focused on that precious 71 percent.

Noted undersea explorer and environmental superhero, Sylvia Earle, put it this way: "The single non-negotiable thing life requires is water." As paddlers, it is in our own best interests to learn what we can, not only in order to protect the ecosystems we treasure, but also to become connected with our environment on a deeper level.

— Check back for more of Ken Campbell’s Eco Paddler opinion column

Ken Campbell is a noted paddler, filmmaker and conservationist. Last year, he completed a 150-mile journey up the Washington coast in a a kayak that was constructed out of discarded single-use plastic bottles.

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The author sets off in Hyas yiem, his kayak crafted entirely of single-use plastic bottles.