"I've always been kind of a shill," says Ted Danson. "The guy out in front of the tent saying, 'Thank you so much for watching "Cheers," come on in and let me introduce you to the marine biologists who have something really important to tell you.'"
The former Sam Malone might seem an unlikely environmental activist, but Ted Danson has quietly been advocating on behalf of our oceans for 25 years. Now he has taken his commitment to a new place: bookshelves.
His recently released first book, "Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do To Save Them" (co-written with Michael D'Orso, Rodale, $32.50), is a reflection of his experiences and what he's learned. It begins, as Danson did, with the perils of offshore drilling and moves on to pollution, ocean acidification and overfishing reaching crisis levels at both the top and the bottom of the food chain.
"It's a huge environmental disaster in the making that doesn't have to happen," Danson said by phone from New York. "We can change this. That's part of what the book talks about."
"Oceana" tells the story of that precipice, a thorough and scientifically grounded narrative of how and why our oceans are endangered. It's both immersive and easy to dip into, filled with short asides, beautiful photographs and explanatory charts.
The book points out the quandary of abundance — though swordfish and tuna are readily available to us in stores, their ocean populations have declined 90% since 1950, which was reported by marine biologists in 2003. That small-scale fisheries, which for the most part fish sustainably, employ 25 times more people than industrial fisheries, which use what Danson characterizes as massively destructive practices, often with the help of national subsidies. And that the acidity of the world's oceans has risen almost 30% since the Industrial Revolution, making it harder for small sea creatures to form shells and causing desert-like die-offs of coral.
"Bottom trawling destroys the nurseries," he says, explaining the threat to marine life. "They roll right over coral reefs and little rocks and nooks and crannies and turn them into gravel pits."
Does he worry about putting himself forward in this way as an ocean advocate? "No, I don't," Danson says. "I think bad acting is more of a hazard for me than being a spokesperson."
"Oceana" is not just the title of his book; it's also the name of an international nonprofit organization —Danson sits on its board of directors — that will receive a portion of the proceeds of the book's sales. The organization he co-founded in 1987, the American Oceans Campaign, merged in 2001 with the newly minted Oceana, formed by the Pew Charitable Trusts and other foundations. Danson's activism has led him to testify before Congress and to attend meetings of the World Trade Organization.
He can talk about the wastefulness of commercial fishing fleets, the known and unknown effects of the Deepwater Horizon gulf oil spill, and why easing off fossil fuels benefits our oceans — and he probably will when he appears on stage at the L.A. Times Festival of Books at noon on Sunday.
Danson was on set with his wife, actress Mary Steenburgen, when he met a literary agent who suggested he might write a book like "Oceana." His first answer was an emphatic no, but soon he changed his mind. "There's a lot going on underneath the water that we have no idea about," he says. "It's very serious, and we're at a real turning point."
Scientists involved in ocean work welcome the actor's efforts. "Danson is using his celebrity in a positive way," says Sylvia Earle, a former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and one of the world's leading oceanographers. "There's a sense of urgency of having a book where information of this nature is accessible to the general public. He articulates the many ways people can make a difference. Not only what they can do, what they must do."
As the crisis looms, just 1% of all environmental dollars go to support causes related to the oceans — although they make up 70% of the Earth's surface.
"Some people leave you feeling that it's hopeless," says Earle. Danson's book doesn't. Each photograph is followed by a practical way to get involved and, more importantly, a sense of hope.
"I believe that if you come at an issue or a problem with a heavy heart, or fear, you either don't do anything because it overwhelms you or you end up doing something that might not be effective," Danson says. "I think it's really important to keep a light heart when you do this kind of work."
If his spirits flag, Danson has his day job — he's had some juicy television roles lately, including Arthur Frobisher on "Damages" and George Christopher, the elegantly hedonistic editor on HBO's "Bored to Death."
Danson, 63, can also be seen in the new Beastie Boys video, "Fight for Your Right Revisited," for the song "Make Some Noise." "If you go around talking about fish, you have to scramble to find ways to remain hip," he says with a laugh.
"By the way, I drive cars, I burn oil, I eat fish I shouldn't be eating. We're all in this together," he says. "I'm not giving you a lecture on you doing something wrong — hopefully I'm exposing what's happening to our oceans in a way of hey, let's all do something about this, if you choose to, we need your help. The oceans need your help."
What can people do? The book's suggestions include signing online petitions, raising awareness and purchasing the right fish — the SeafoodWatch app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in particular, can help those who find themselves in the grocery store trying to remember which is better, fresh or farmed salmon.
"My wife. Mary. said a great thing when I went off on this book tour," Danson says. "She said the most important thing you can tell people is go to the beach. Go look at a sunset over the water, go have a great fish dinner someplace. And remember how much you love the ocean, how much joy it brings to your life."