Sam Waterston is taking a stand in support of the world’s oceans.
by Mike Hammer photography by Andrew Matusik
AS A CHILD, SAM WATERSTON FELL IN LOVE with the New England coastline where he was reared. “I was a child in the days just after World War II,” he recalls. “Because of the war, fishing had been cut back significantly, and the oceans were plentiful. Growing up in Rhode Island, seafood was plentiful, full of variety, and inexpensive. Everyone believed the sea was inexhaustible until suddenly it wasn’t — and I knew I had to do something about it.”
The 80-year-old Law & Order icon has now resolved to use his enormous equity as one of America’s most respected actors to help restore the world’s waterways to the pristine and plentiful status he remembers from his youth.
He dove into the business of researching how much damage had been done — and even more importantly — what he could do to help stem the tide, and he was deeply shaken by what he discovered. On the advice of a good friend and fellow actor, Ted Danson, Sam looked into Oceana, a nonprofit organization dedicated to restoring the world’s oceans and waterways, that also boasted a long resume of environmental victories.
Recent triumphs have included helping to secure the banning of industrial activity in protected Canadian waters, ramping up digital monitoring of previously unregulated salmon fishing in Chile, and creating the world’s second-largest marine national park off Spain’s Mediterranean coast. “I saw that Oceana is an organization that gets things done and I wanted to be a part of that,” Waterston says. “Because of public pressure organized by Oceana, the Obama administration closed the North Atlantic for oil drilling for the next decade. Because of Oceana’s efforts, people up and down the coast lobbied for this destructive activity to end, and they swayed the governors of states on the Atlantic coast to join in.” He continues, “That gave me all the motivation I needed to get on board.”
He warns that in order to save species in the ocean — and secure our own survival
Sam joined Oceana’s Board of Directors in 2008 and within two years was testifying before Congress about the urgency of reversing ocean acidification. According to Oceana’s statistics, the world’s oceans absorb about 30 million metric tons of carbon dioxide every day. “It’s changing the chemistry of seawater and killing sea life,” Waterston says with palpable sadness in his voice. “To reverse ocean acidification, the United States must reduce its carbon dioxide emissions and transition to clean, renewable forms of energy before it’s too late.”
He warns that in order to save species in the ocean — and secure our own survival — we all need to change the way we live dramatically. Recognizing his commitment, Oceana elected Waterston Chairman of the Board last year, providing him with more opportunities to turn passion into action. “I feel so fortunate to have been placed in this position,” he says. “It’s a tremendous place with incredibly committed people and a history of important victories I would be proud to add to.”
Waterston’s family history includes some relatives that came from England on the Mayflower
One victory he’d love to add to Oceana’s record is replenishing the once-plentiful codfish population off the shores of New England and Canada. “I’ve seen first-hand the damage fisheries have done without serious regulation,” he says with passion. “Codfish drew Europeans to the Northeast Atlantic going all the way back to when the Vikings first got to Greenland.” Waterston’s family history includes some relatives that came from England on the Mayflower, so the history of the Northeast Atlantic runs in his veins. He says, “Alexandre Dumas wrote in the 19th century that if every cod egg reached maturity, you could walk across the Atlantic on their backs.”
To further the cause, he wrote an impassioned op-ed piece to try and compel the Canadian government to fall in line with American fishing restrictions to help save the species.
In it, he wrote, “In 2019, we stood — literally and figuratively — with the federal government to celebrate the new [Fisheries] Act, which for the first time included obligations to rebuild depleted fisheries and manage them sustainably.” Unfortunately, it seems the celebration was premature. He explains, “Rather than requiring clear, measurable actions to rebuild depleted populations to healthy levels, they went out of their way to avoid setting any enforceable standards.”
“Since the U.S. introduced a strong law in 1996 to stop overfishing and require rebuilding, 47 stocks have been rebuilt, generating about 54 percent more revenue than when they were overfished. The new Fisheries Act promised a brighter future for Canada’s fisheries. It’s time now to deliver on that promise.”
“And, if people make whales extinct, we’ll have exposed something awful about ourselves.”
Waterston’s focus is also riveted on the redemption of the imperiled North Atlantic right whales—he calls them the “Leviathans of the Bible”—which are rapidly disappearing from the planet. Oceana estimates there may be just 360 individuals left.
“Whales haven’t been diminished; they are what they were, magnificent creatures, but our capacity for wonder has been shrinking,” he warns. “And, if people make whales extinct, we’ll have exposed something awful about ourselves.”
He points to collisions with ships and entanglements with fishing gear as key factors
in the depletion of the species, with new threats emerging every year: key among them the deadly non-biodegradable plastics that are dumped into the oceans by the ton, that whales often consume or get caught in with deadly results.
But Waterston believes there is hope. “We have to produce less plastic because once it’s made, it’s here for good,” he says. “The equivalent of a garbage truck full of plastic goes into the ocean every minute. It’s an issue Oceana is rightly addressing with real urgency.”
He points out that Oceana is pressuring companies to take action to reduce plastic production and offer alternatives. It is also pushing for new legislation that will reduce the use of the deadly material in coastal countries worldwide, where a staggering 35 percent of plastic waste is generated each year.
“But the oceans are being killed by throwaway plastics,”
“Our oceans sustain life that could feed a billion people a healthy seafood meal every
day, forever. But the oceans are being killed by throwaway plastics,” Waterston says. “We should not be forced to pollute the ocean every time we eat, drink, or go to the store. We need a choice —a plastic-free choice.”
Luckily Waterston and Oceana are not alone in their battle to bring back our waterways.
In New York, the food chain has rebounded because of more stringent fishing regulations, the establishment of oyster farms in New York Harbor, and the resulting cleaner water that has welcomed the returning whales.
A significant factor was legislation to protect against over-fishing of Menhaden,
a small feeder fish, which is a key source of food for the returning whales. “It’s incredibly encouraging and a key proof of concept,” Waterston says. “This is the kind of thing that we’ve been fighting for at Oceana. It shows that the right actions produce results that prove our oceans can be fully restored if the proper actions are taken.”
And while Waterston remains highly focused on these noble efforts to save our oceans, he hasn’t given up on his storied acting career, which includes star turns on screens big and small, as well as the stage. The 80-year-old actor has played presidents (Lincoln, twice!); Shakespearian princes (Prince Hal in Henry IV and Hamlet); literary figures (Nick Carraway
“I can’t wait to be acting again,”
in The Great Gatsby); and journalists (Sydney Schanberg in The Killing Fields); not to mention his longtime role as District Attorney Jack McCoy in Law & Order, the series’ second-longest-running actor. He is looking forward to shooting another season of the hit Netflix comedy Grace and Frankie, with his equally accomplished castmates, Jane Fonda, Lily Tomlin, and Martin Sheen, as soon as the pandemic allows.
“I can’t wait to be acting again,” he says. “If it weren’t for the pandemic, I would be in a production of Measure for Measure at the Public Theatre in New York right now.
Working with Fonda and company is anything but work, Waterston says, and has led the former television D.A. to one of his more unusual experiences — getting arrested on the steps of the Capitol in 2019 when the issue-oriented cast assembled to protest climate change.
“It was a new one for me,” he laughs. “But getting arrested [during a peaceful protest] is
a wonderful way to get the message through to yourself about how deep your own convictions are.” And like the oceans for which he is a staunch advocate, Sam Waterston’s convictions are so deep they appear to be bottomless.