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Actress Kate Walsh Is Taking Governments To Task For Their Role In Marine Degradation

Actress, activist and entrepreneur, Kate Walsh is passionate about marine conservation. Despite being one of the busiest actresses in the industry, with starring roles in the ABC dramas Grey’s Anatomy and Private Practice, as well as Netflix’s Thirteen Reasons Why, The Umbrella Academy, and Emily in Paris, she has been a long term partner of nonprofit ocean conservation organization, Oceana, advocating for the world’s oceans and marine life, having played a key role in the passing of protective legislation for the lower US Eastern Seaboard and Belizean Reef from deep water drilling.

But for Kate, there is so much more that could be done.

“Did you know that if plastic was its own country, it would be fifth largest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions?” Kate asks incredulously, her ginger hair and blue eyes personifying a real-life Ariel.

Walsh is an advocate and voice for change. She is passionate about carbon offsets, climate change, as well as ocean and marine life conservation and is not afraid to confront governments head-on for their role in climate change and ocean degradation.

“The ocean is so, so beautiful, and there’s so much more going on below the surface than I think most people realize,” she explains fervently. “If I can get more people to see that beauty, and understand the threats to it, and of course, encourage them to get involved and support ocean protections, then I’ll be happy.”

In this interview, Kate and I discuss the many ways that she is raising awareness and taking a stand to help preserve world’s marine ecosystems.

Daphne Ewing-Chow: Tell me about your love for the ocean… What life experiences made you passionate about marine conservation? Did you grow up next to the water?

Kate Walsh: I grew up in Northern California and spent a lot of my childhood at the beach, so I’ve always had a connection to the ocean. For a while there, I even wanted to be a marine scientist. I’m grateful I’m now in a position to advocate for our oceans.

After the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, I became acutely aware of how precious our oceans are, and how vulnerable they can be to human impacts. Since then, I’ve been speaking out against the many threats to marine animals and ecosystems, from offshore oil drilling and plastic pollution to destructive fishing practices, and of course climate change.

That’s one of the things I love about working with Oceana, I get to tackle all of these issues. Oceana has been campaigning for years to stop the expansion of dirty and dangerous offshore drilling in U.S. waters. I was able to travel to the Capitol a few times to meet with lawmakers and urge them to prevent the oil industry from making this huge problem even worse.

Oceana has also been working to address the plastic pollution crisis, which is something I’ve cared a lot about for a long time. That’s actually why I decided to get involved in ocean conservation in the first place. I love sea turtles, and just a single piece of plastic could kill one, if they eat it or become entangled in it. Knowing that and realizing just how much plastic pollution is pouring into the oceans every day is heartbreaking. But it’s not just the problem of plastic entangling and choking animals, I’ve also come to understand that plastics, oil, and climate change are all connected.

Daphne Ewing-Chow: So… what is the interconnection between plastics, oil and climate change?

Kate Walsh: Plastics are made from fossil fuels, and as we finally begin the much-needed shift away from burning oil and gas for energy, the industry is planning to ramp up plastic production, which will drive even more drilling. And plastic itself is a huge contributor to climate change. There are greenhouse gas emissions in every step of the production process.

It’s crazy to me that our governments are allowing the oil and gas industry to continue down this path of pollution, spills, and driving the climate crisis. Our leaders need to ensure that these industries shift away from fossil fuels, and require the transition to clean, renewable energy sources that won’t destroy our oceans and our planet.

Daphne Ewing-Chow: What is the value of reefs such as the local barrier reef in Belize? Why are they so important?

Kate Walsh: The beauty of coral reefs is like nothing you can imagine. Every time I see them, I feel like I’m in another world. I still remember how cool it was to snorkel with nurse sharks on the reefs in Belize. I visited Belize with Oceana in 2012 and got to see some of its most iconic reefs and underwater attractions, including the famous Blue Hole. This was just a couple years after the BP disaster, so that was certainly on my mind at the time. Picturing those colors, those animals being covered and choked out by oil was sobering. Especially since at the time, Belize was also considering opening up its waters to offshore drilling.

This wouldn’t have just been a threat to this vibrant and beautiful ecosystem, it would also devastate all the industries and jobs that depend on it: fishing, tourism, recreation… It’s the same story all over the world, we have these ways of life that have been built over centuries, and central to these livelihoods and cultures is a clean and abundant ocean. And then some oil CEOs want to come in and make a quick buck, but they don’t care what or who they destroy in the process.

That people are willing to risk the health of our oceans, and everything that they support: jobs, food security, natural beauty, a way of life — all for short-term profits makes zero sense.

Daphne Ewing-Chow: In a recent social media post that you made with respect to offshore drilling you said: “Offshore drilling is dirty and dangerous, and when they drill, they spill.” For those who don’t understand the environmental implications of offshore drilling, what did you mean here?

Kate Walsh: Well this gets to what I was just saying, but let me be more clear. The facts and history back this up: When they drill, they spill. I’ve talked to experts at Oceana and they’ve all concluded that any place you have oil drilling, it’s not a matter of if a spill will happen, but rather when. I keep talking about the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf because it was huge and devastating and made the news, but there are thousands of oil and chemical spills every year. And apparently after the BP disaster, investigators found all sorts of problems with the government’s oversight and the lack of safety culture in the oil and gas industry, but their lobbyists were able to push back against most of the new rules, and it’s basically just as unsafe and dangerous as it was in 2010.

Also, it’s not just the spills that threaten coastal ecosystems and economies, and ways of life. Now we have the very real and present danger of the climate crisis. We’re seeing it in bigger and more frequent storms and hurricanes, wildfires, droughts, coastal flooding — it’s here, today, and it’s going to get worse if we don’t shift away from fossil fuels as quickly as possible. A U.N. report earlier this year said we must make that change within this decade if we want to leave a livable planet for future generations. Stopping the expansion of offshore drilling is an obvious place to start since it’s already so dirty and dangerous. But then we can also see alternative solutions in the ocean, like offshore wind, but it must be done responsibly to avoid impacts to marine life.

Daphne Ewing-Chow: Tell me about your experience campaigning with Oceana to put an end to offshore drilling in Belize. How did it feel when the government banned all oil exploration practices?

Kate Walsh: Oh, it felt so good! Especially having spent the time that I did there, knowing that these pristine ecosystems would be protected, and that it’s actually written into law. That’s why I like working with Oceana, because they work to get these very specific policies passed that will protect our oceans. Protections like this need to be adopted everywhere. I know there are still questions about whether the U.S. government will allow offshore drilling to expand in its waters. I’ve worked on that campaign in the United States and remain hopeful that President Biden will keep his promise to end the expansion of drilling as his administration also rapidly expands renewables like offshore wind.

And it’s still close to home for me. I’m living in Western Australia now, and in recent years there were talks of major industrial developments in Exmouth Gulf in Ningaloo, a very special, pristine, and important marine ecosystem. Thankfully the people spoke up and those developments were rejected and now there’s talk of creating some protected areas. I hope those protections are enough. We’ll see.

Daphne Ewing-Chow: What needs to be done by governments to put an end to offshore drilling and how can the average person get involved?

Kate Walsh: The laws passed in Belize are a great example. And the reason that happened was because people came together, saw what was under threat, and stood up and demanded that their government work for them, instead of special oil interests. I’d like to see those existing protections strengthened and replicated all over the world, and I think more and more people are beginning to understand the importance of making their voices heard.

I want more people to understand that we need our oceans to be healthy if we want to be healthy. If we want to keep enjoying their beauty and their bounty, they need to be protected, and it’s the governments’ job to make that happen. But it’s our job to make sure governments are accountable to us, and not rich oil companies.

I hope people will find and join organizations like Oceana that have the expertise and experience to fight for our oceans and our environment and can also help get citizens’ voices heard by governments. That’s the only thing that has kept oil rigs out of the U.S. Atlantic so far, and that’s what kept oil rigs out of the waters in Belize.

But you can’t sleep on these things. Even if protections are in place, that doesn’t mean that someone down the road won’t try to dismantle them if there’s money to be made, or power to be gained. Our safety, our rights, our progress are never guaranteed.

So I guess the bottom line is, people need to get involved. Learn about the issues, find your place, figure out how you can contribute, even if it’s just a little bit. No one person has to do everything, but if everyone that pays attention contributes, big things can happen. But we really do have to keep paying attention.

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