Protecting Our Oceans and Challenging the Powerful
10 Questions with ocean activist, Randy Sturgill
Randy Sturgill is a passionate, knowledgeable advocate for oceans and against what humans are doing to them, so you better come prepared if you want to debate him. He grew up in rural Harnett County in a house that was connected to the county jail. His dad was the chief deputy and his mom cooked for the prisoners as well as the family. Today he lives in the Wilmington area and is the North Carolina senior field representative for Oceana, a worldwide nonprofit organization dedicated to ocean preservation.
He has challenged local politicians to do more while mobilizing grass-roots advocacy. Sturgill’s efforts among those of many others resulted in the current ban on offshore drilling and seismic blasting off the southeastern coast. He continues to advocate for permanent protections.
Sturgill minced no words in responding by email to the following 10 questions, which have been lightly edited for style and space.
1. You’ve become well known for your advocacy against offshore drilling and seismic testing. What’s your “elevator speech,” one or two paragraphs that best explain why you believe these efforts should be opposed?
Offshore drilling is dirty and dangerous and has no place off North Carolina’s coast.
With 3,375 miles of coastline, North Carolina’s clean coast economy supports around 62,000 American jobs and $3.1 billion in gross domestic product through activities like tourism, recreation and fishing.
Stopping new offshore drilling is also a crucial step toward addressing the climate crisis. Our own analysis found that permanently protecting all federal waters from offshore drilling can prevent more than 19 billion tons of greenhouse gas emissions, which is equivalent to taking every car in the nation off the road for 15 years. It would also prevent over $720 billion in damages to people, property and the environment.
Our ocean can be a major part of the clean energy solution in the form of offshore wind. In fact, responsibly sited offshore wind has the potential to generate more electricity than our nation currently demands.
2. What’s the current status of offshore drilling and seismic testing off the waters in our region? What pivotal votes or decisions are looming and when do you expect them?
The federal government recently announced that it would hold a new lease sale for offshore drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, covering approximately 80 million acres. This was just five days before Hurricane Ida made landfall in the Gulf, and since then, the U.S. Coast Guard has received hundreds of reports of pollution, including multiple new oil spills, in the wake of the storm.
This runs counter to President Biden’s commitment on the campaign trail to issue no new leases for offshore drilling.
While there’s currently a 10-year moratorium on drilling off the coasts of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia and Florida, we’re calling on President Biden to make it permanent. We must end all new leasing for dirty and dangerous offshore drilling if we are going to protect our coastal communities, economies and climate.
Just this month, legislation is moving forward as part of the budget reconciliation package that would permanently protect the Atlantic, Pacific and Eastern Gulf of Mexico from new offshore drilling. And thankfully, opposition to offshore drilling is not a partisan issue. It’s supported by every East and West Coast governor, more than 390 local municipalities, over 2,300 local, state and federal bipartisan officials, and East and West Coast alliances representing over 56,000 businesses.
While seismic airgun blasting and offshore drilling aren’t currently on the table, the fight for the Atlantic is far from over. This is a people-powered movement, and we need to be more vocal than ever to permanently protect North Carolina’s coast and the entire Atlantic from offshore drilling once and for all.
3. If you had to spend one day on the opposite side, what would you push as the most powerful and effective argument in favor of offshore drilling? (Feel free to add a sentence explaining how you’d debunk it.)
There’s not really any good argument for drilling in the Atlantic. Sure, the oil industry often offers false claims about jobs and economic benefits from offshore drilling. But what they don’t tell you is that offshore drilling threatens our state’s clean coast economy, which supports around 62,000 American jobs and $3.1 billion in gross domestic product through activities like tourism, recreation and fishing.
4. You’ve also been involved in trying to stop the shark-fin trade and reduce plastics pollution. Can you explain the key points of these issues and why local folks should be concerned about this?
Sharks are not only some of the coolest creatures on Earth, they are also the ocean’s top predator, critical to sustaining the marine food web and thriving ecosystems. Healthy shark populations are also a great source of income for the U.S. coastal economy. In Florida alone, shark tourism fueled over 3,700 jobs and generated more than $221 million in revenue in 2016 (which is 200 times the revenue of all U.S. shark fin exports in the same year).
Unfortunately, sharks are in trouble. Today, nearly one in four sharks and their relatives are threatened with extinction. A major cause is the demand for shark fins, which incentivizes overfishing and shark finning, which is the cruel practice of removing a shark’s fins at sea and throwing the shark back overboard, where it drowns, starves to death or is eaten alive by other fish. While finning is illegal in U.S. waters, the fins themselves can still be bought and sold within our borders, and every year upwards of 73 million sharks end up in the global fin trade. We must ban the buying and selling of shark fins in the U.S. to reinforce our status as a leader in shark conservation and bring the world closer to ending the devastating trade in shark fins. Congress has the chance to do that right now, by passing the Shark Fin Sales Elimination Act. The Senate recently passed this important bill as part of a broader legislative package, and we’re now calling on the House to do the same.
On the plastics front, we know that roughly 33 billion pounds of plastic enter the ocean every year — that’s equivalent to dumping around two garbage trucks full of plastic into the oceans each minute. An estimated 900 marine species, including many endangered species, are affected by marine plastic pollution as they mistake it for food or become entangled in it. This marine plastic isn’t just a problem for our oceans. It’s been found in our own food, water, air and bodies — scientists are still figuring out what this means for human health. Unfortunately, recycling will never solve this problem. Only 9% of all plastic waste ever generated has been recycled. And in the 50 years the industry has spent touting its recycling promises, it’s also been ramping up plastic production. It now expects annual production to more than triple by 2050 — as production increases, so will the amount of plastic entering the ocean.
The only way to effectively combat this environmental crisis is to stop plastic pollution at the source. Companies need to kick their plastic habit and turn to sustainable alternatives, like reusable and refillable systems. To ensure they do this on a large scale, we need governments to pass legislation that reduces the production and use of unnecessary single-use plastic. Here in the U.S., Oceana has supported local and state governments as they lead the way in passing laws banning the use of certain single-use plastic products. The federal government needs to follow suit, and Congress is already considering a comprehensive bill that would do this and more, which Oceana has been urging lawmakers to pass. The Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act would phase out unnecessary single-use plastic products; protect fenceline communities by putting a moratorium on new and expanded plastic facilities across the country; and ensure cities and states have the ability to continue their progress in combating the plastic pollution crisis. Also on a national level, Oceana is pushing for the National Park Service to ban the sale of single-use plastic in all 423 of its national parks in an effort to reduce plastic pollution within and outside of these treasured areas.
5. Overall, when you look at all the environmental challenges facing our oceans, particularly in this region of the country, what is most likely to keep you up at night?
The thought that my children and grandchildren won’t be able to enjoy the same wonders I did growing up – clean air and clean oceans, pristine rivers and beaches, a stable climate, vibrant local wildlife, things like that. I’ve seen a lot of change over the years, and I can’t shake the feeling that my generation is responsible for a lot of the problems the ocean faces today. That’s why I do as much as I possibly can to defend it. If we can all work together to right some wrongs and save our wonderful oceans, we can take pride in what we leave behind for our children and future generations.
6. When it comes to ocean issues impacting our region, how helpful (or not) would you describe the efforts of politicians with direct influence on our region, including Congressman David Rouzer, our county commissioners and our local state legislators?
I’ll first say that the progress we’ve made for the oceans in our region is all largely thanks to grassroots activism – to the power of the people, businesses, environmental groups and the many small-town mayors, councils and boards that united in opposition against offshore oil. I’ve found that on this local grassroots level, defending our coast against drilling is extremely popular and bipartisan.
However, I’d also say that our politicians aren’t always living up to their constituents’ wishes, in our region especially. For example, Brunswick County has more opposition resolutions to offshore drilling than any other county in the nation – 13 across its towns and cities. And yet this widespread demand for action has fallen on deaf ears. Our county commissioners haven’t listened. Congressman Rouzer is even more disappointing – he’s one of only two congressional members on the Atlantic coast who still supports offshore drilling. That’s unacceptable.
It’s up to us, their voters and the source of their power, to continue engaging these decision makers and putting the pressure on, to ensure they live up to our ideals and dutifully defend our interests, not the interests of the oil industry.
7. You are a big promoter of grass-roots advocacy. What are some specific, tangible things that people in Brunswick County and the Cape Fear region can do right now to protect the oceans?
Yes, I’ve seen the power we all hold together firsthand, thanks to the passionate people of Brunswick County and Cape Fear. These past eight years have proven change is possible through citizen activism at the grassroots level. Victories like those we’ve had against offshore drilling were only possible through the combined voices of voters, small businesses, environmental organizations, fishermen and local governments. No one works alone.
What we need to do now is push for permanent protections, continuing the fight from the past two administrations into this new one. With offshore drilling, I often say we’ve won the battle but haven’t finished the war – we’ve held off oil interests this long through public pressure and a collection of resolutions, but we need our demands firmly codified to safeguard our future and ensure our coasts remain oil-free. So keep lighting up phones, showing up to town halls, sending emails to representatives, writing letters to the editor in your local papers, anything to show that we’re still here and that we won’t let offshore drilling happen. Together we can get Congress and the Biden administration to pass permanent protections against drilling in the Atlantic.
8. Climate change’s impact on the ocean is having a negative and even scary impact on all the barrier island communities, and their continued growth as destinations for retirees and vacationers drives the local economy. Are the barrier islands doing enough to address these issues, and what do you think they should be doing that isn’t being done?
Climate change is definitely one of the biggest threats we face today, and nowhere is that clearer than in our barrier island communities. You don’t need a scientist to tell you what’s happening, because you see it right in front of your eyes. Over the last 60 years, I’ve watched water levels get higher and higher, the need for beach renourishment and infrastructure repair skyrocketing along with it. It’s only going to get worse if we do nothing, so it’s time we confront the leading causes of climate change and sea level rise. Stopping new offshore drilling is a logical first step in our transition to a healthy climate future, and expanding clean, renewable energy like offshore wind is part of the solution.
9. It’s fascinating (at least to me) that you grew up with a father who was the chief deputy in Harnett County and you lived on the jailhouse grounds. What about that experience was most influential on the person you became?
Yes, we had a house that seemed like any other – two stories, red brick, tidy patio with rocking chairs, kids running around – except for the big steel door in the kitchen that connected it to a six-celled jail. That was just home for me, from age 5 to 19. My mother cooked for everyone – the food on our table was the same as that on the plate of whoever was “visiting” next door. Around age 10, I started helping my father bring out the dinners, and over the years, I had many conversations with prisoners. I even learned to play cards from them.
My father was definitely my greatest influence – he instilled me with a drive to do the right thing and taught me that you need to fight hard for the causes you believe in. Those lessons have guided my life and kept me on a path of public service, from a career in law enforcement to years of political campaigning to now spending each day fighting for our ocean with Oceana.
10. Can you tell us something about yourself that might surprise people? What do you like to do in the times when you’re not busy saving our oceans?
I really enjoy music. I have played guitar for about 30 years, mostly just for myself. I still have that small dream that I’ll play for an audience one day, though. I especially love to play around with my Fender bass.
When COVID hit, I went looking for another hobby to add – one that could take up a good chunk of time and be tackled at home. So, for the past year or so, I’ve been building a 1965 Shelby Cobra replica in my garage. A great blue, with those iconic double white racing stripes across the center. Hopefully I’ll have it completed by the end of the year!