Abandoned Lobsters, Immortal Nets, and John Denver: Q+A with Ocean Hero Finalist Kurt Lieber
BY: Justine Sullivan
Kurt Lieber – Huntington Beach, CA.
A longtime ocean advocate and diver, Kurt founded the Ocean Defenders Alliance in 2002 to clean up abandoned and discarded fishing gear from California’s coastal waters. If not removed, this ghost gear can snare and kill sea birds, fish, and marine mammals and damage essential marine habitat. To date, Kurt’s organization, comprised of a network of hundreds of volunteer divers, has removed 22,000 lbs of nets, 20,000 lbs or marine debris and over 200 traps from our seas.
What was your first victory and when did you start believing you could make a difference?
While diving off of Anacapa Island in 1999, I came across an abandoned lobster trap. It had four lobsters stick in it. One was huge, and all of them were going to die in there if I didn’t get them out. I broke open the trap door and put my arm in there, trying to grab them. I chased them around the trap to no avail. An instructor and his students were watching me from a distance, and I could tell they were laughing at me because of their excess bubbles. The entire team swam over and showed me how to grab a lobster, as it was rather apparent that I had never handled one.
I filmed the entire event as they released the lobsters. When we returned to the surface and climbed back aboard the boat, everyone was talking about it, even the divers that hadn’t participated. They all thought it was so cool that someone set those lobsters free. They wanted to know if anyone was doing it on a regular basis. That’s when the idea started forming in my mind that I could not only release animals caught in traps, but that there were people out there who actually care and were looking for opportunities. A year later, a boat was donated to me and I started recruiting friends and fellow divers to work on it. Soon we were going out to locate and remove ghost gear together – and we formed an alliance for ocean defense.
Please explain why your contribution is important and why voters should choose you as a winner of the 2013 Ocean Hero Awards:
When I started on the issue of ghost gear, its impacts, and who was doing anything about it, I found little information. There was not much scientific knowledge about quantities of ghost gear or how it was affecting marine wildlife. Personally witnessing the damage being done in my coastal waters compelled me to “dive in” and remove what I could. Through presentations to concerned locals, I soon developed a small crew of volunteers to help me with boat repairs, scuba diving, and photo/video projects.
As Jacques Cousteau demonstrated, the compelling images we can show people are the most powers tools at our disposal. Words can’t convey the grace of a dolphin swimming in the wild, or the horror of a beautiful sea lion drowned in a gill net, so Ocean Defenders Alliance (ODA) works not only to remove deadly debris, but also to educate through images. My happiness and full life are a direct result of my experiences in the oceans. I feel the very Ieast I – and all of us – can do is give back. Every time ODA removes a net or a trap, while ascending to the surface I experience a sigh of relief knowing we have saved many ocean critters.
What is one piece of advice someone has given you that has aided your efforts?
Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
When I started contemplating what I saw as not being addressed by any other organization (i.e. ocean debris, I thought to myself “Why would I want to start an organization when there are already so many out there?” This reminded me of the Margaret Mead quote above. With this in mind, I felt that my little band of ocean defenders could, and should, take this issue on. And actually, there are no other nonprofits in southern California solely dedicated to this issue, so our small group is, indeed, much needed!
What’s your most recent accomplishment in relation to your ocean conservation efforts?
In 2009, someone called me to let me know that there was a huge net draped on a wreck just off of Catalina Island, and the net was ensnaring a variety of marine life – everything from crabs and fish to sea lions, dolphins, and sharks. The wreck is called The Infidel and sank in 2007. Even though the net was killing untold numbers of critters, because it wasn’t deemed a navigational hazard, there was no law stating that it had to be removed.
When we first got down to the site, it was the spookiest thing I had ever seen in all my diving years: the entire boat, all 65 feet of it, was engulfed in its own net. I could not see the boat at all, just its massive, net-covered silhouette. Over the course of three days, we successfully removed about 1,000 pounds of this net. This is a squid net, made out of nylon, and very lightweight, so 1,000 pounds represent a massive pile. Scientists estimate that such nets will last 650 years in the water. I had contacted the LA Times to see if they might want to cover the story. They did, and sent out a reporter and photographer to spend one day with us…The story quickly gained international coverage and we had more media covered from that one weekend than we had had in our entire history…It was a watershed moment for our organization. Donations and grants started coming in, and for the first time I did not have to cover the majority of our operating costs from my personal bank account.
What is your favorite ocean or beach-related song or band?
Every time I hear John Denver’s “Calypso,” I get this urge to get on a boat and just get out there and jump into the salty deep – on behalf of a good mission. We don’t know what our future holds, but we can make decisions today that will give us the opportunity to get out there and explore the spiritual richness that can only be found by immersing yourself in nature.
Inspired by Kurt Lieber? Vote for him to be a 2013 Ocean Hero!