Author Spotlight: Ted Danson

In the past 25 years, actor Ted Danson has become one of the world’s most influential oceanic environmental activists. We asked him what got him hooked on saving the oceans

If you were Ted Danson at the end of the 11-year run of Cheers in 1993, you might have just wanted to find a beach and put your feet up for awhile. But Danson could never look out at the ocean without worrying about its future. In the past 25 years, Danson has become one of the world’s most influential oceanic environmental activists. His marine advocacy began in the mid-1980s, when he teamed with environmental lawyer Robert Sulnick to defeat Occidental Petroleum’s bid to drill 60 oil wells near Will Rogers State Beach. In 2001, Danson helped found Oceana, a global marine conservation group. Danson’s new book, also titled Oceana (Rodale) and co-written with Michael D’Orso, is a beautifully-produced volume that paints a bleak picture: 90 percent of the “big fish” that existed in the 1950s are gone, and if current practices aren’t changed, the remaining 30,000 species could disappear within the next half century. We caught up with Danson and asked him what got him hooked on saving the oceans. 

“I grew up in Arizona, my father was an archaeologist and anthropologist, and we were surrounded by science and by a sense that life isn’t just about you — there’s a lot that had come before, and there’s a lot, hopefully, that will come after you. Your job is to be a good steward of what you’ve been given and pass it on. Then, flash forward to 1984, Cheers was a big hit, and I had a sense of, ‘How do I be responsible about this?’ I was taking a walk with my two daughters, Kate and Alexis, on the beach in Santa Monica. They were about 8 and 4, and we came across a sign that said, ‘No swimming. Beach closed.’ The water was polluted. When you look out at this glorious, gorgeous ocean, and you’re told not to get into it — I think that started a process in me. 

“Over the years I’ve learned a lot, but it is because I’ve been standing next to scientists and lawyers and policy makers. My job has always been to go, ‘Hey, this is what I’ve learned. This is what I’m hearing, and I think you should know about it. So please listen to this incredibly bright man or woman standing next to me.’ Basically, what I’ve learned over these 20 years is that our oceans really truly are at a tipping point. We literally are overfishing our oceans. We could fish them out commercially in the next 40, 50, 60 years. The reason why we care is because it’s an 80 to 100 billion dollar a year industry worldwide. So from an economic point of view it’s crazy not to take care of it. Over a billion people, mostly in poorer countries, depend on fish for their protein, and 200 million depend on it to make their livelihood. So it’s not just taking care of the environment, it’s about world hunger, it’s about the economy, it’s about jobs. The good news is we know what to do, and in our lifetimes or our children’s lifetimes, if we do the right thing, we will know whether or not we succeeded. How do you want to answer your grandkids’ question, ‘Did you know about this? And what did you do about it?’”

Photograph by Kate Danson