Mary Crowley

Preserving Our Oceans

Recorded: August 4, 2012

How is the health of the oceans connected to the health of the planet? Why should we care and what can we do about ocean pollution? Ocean pollution expert Mary Crowley has dedicated her career to the health and protection of our oceans.

The Pacific Ocean is choking on plastic— bottles, buoys, plastic bags— and some experts say cleanup is not only impossible, but strategically misguided. Mary Crowley, a former sea captain, has seen first-hand the extraordinary amount of plastic in the ocean. She has made it her mission to combat this issue and is determined to find ways to clean up the mess. Ms. Crowley believes that there are many ways to approach the problem of plastic in our oceans, and although it is a daunting task, we should not abandon our will to clean up the oceans.

In the late 1970s, when Ms. Crowley learned that the seas she loved were under siege, she decided to make saving them a project of the Ocean Voyages Institute (OVI); a small nonprofit she’d founded at the same time as her yacht chartering business. Ocean Voyages Institute is dedicated to ocean conservation and the preservation of the maritime arts. She also directs Project Kaisei (, a nonprofit organization that focuses efforts to clean up the plastic in the world’s oceans, starting with the garbage patch in the Pacific Ocean.

Mary Crowley: I think the ocean like all of nature is so compelling that if you have the honor and privilege of spending much time around it, that you get involved in wanting to preserve it. After I finished college, I moved to the San Francisco Bay Area and I started teaching sailing and then I started doing boat deliveries. People would need boats taken here and there, you know, Tahiti, back from Tahiti, back from Hawaii, back from Mexico. Along the way, I met George Kiskaddon who is a real mentor to me.

George and Lillian Kiskaddon were the founders of Oceanic Society, which they envisioned to be like a Sierra Club of the oceans. George really believed that if you conceived of something, you could make it happen, it was just a matter of how much energy and money and time you were willing to put into it.

And so, you know, the early days being around George and being part of Oceanic Society taught me a lot, but he very tragically died of cancer and then the organization changed. It used to be kind of Harry Bridges and June Dagmond and I on one side, because we really wanted to be an environmental organization and to be activists and to do things for the ocean. And the rest of the group didn’t want to stir anything up. I ended up going off and starting my own organizations which were Ocean Voyages, a yacht chartering company and Ocean Voyages Institute whose purposes are very similar to the Oceanic Society, which I believed in, is preservation of the maritime, arts and sciences, the ocean world and island cultures.

Huey Johnson: It so often happens in organizations. If you have a young leader emerge, this conflict occurs and it’s very healthy. I think some of the best ideas in the best organizations have emerged that way. You share a concern about the future of the oceans,
I know that.  Can you describe what you’re trying to do about it?

Mary Crowley: The truth is, all of us that love the oceans have known that we don’t put enough effort into preserving them. I mean, the ocean is 72% of the planet. When people ask Sylvia Earle, my friend and associate, what the greatest threat to the ocean is: Is it pollution? Is it all the ocean debris–which I’ll talk about in a moment? Is it over fishing? And she says very clearly, “The greatest threat is ignorance.” It’s that people do not understand that the health of the ocean is connected to the health of the planet and to the health of each one of us. We know much better now and our oceans are clogged with our debris.

Huey Johnson: What can you do about it?

Mary Crowley: Well, I believe that there’s myriad solutions and that they all need to be pursued. One of the things Ocean Voyages Institute has done is put together a marine debris collection think tank. And I have wonderful leading naval architects and marine engineers and fishermen and ocean scientists working with me on figuring out the best ways to do cleanup. It’s pretty easy to adapt different types of fishing equipment so you could actually fish for these plastics. And that fits in very well, because there’s real problems with overfishing and depleting our ocean stocks. So I think we should be paying fishermen to be doing ocean cleanup, and to give fishing a break and therefore let the stocks replenish.

I think there’s great hope using types of biomimicry–to figure out, have nature help us figure out how to do this collection. You know I believe that we have to figure out how to go out there and do…

Huey Johnson: God, you’ve got a real challenge.

Mary Crowley: major cleanup and of course the problem is, who’s going to pay for it?

Huey Johnson: Yeah.

Mary Crowley: But I think the first problem is finding visionary companies or foundations or individuals to go out there a few times and do this major cleanup, because number one, we’ll learn a lot from doing it. We’ll show the world that it’s possible to do. So often when I talk to my daughter and young people, it seems like the more educated the young people are, the more faith they have in solutions and education and research. But part of that faith is sort of yes, well, we believe somebody will figure that out, and I guess I hope they’re right. I mean, I think each of us has to be that somebody in whatever our area is. We can’t count on other people. We have to work together collaboratively and really be trying to tackle the problems that we’re passionate about.