When it comes to the ocean, Dr. Sylvia Earle is like waves crashing on the beach – she never stops. The pioneering oceanographer is everywhere, traveling around the world to speak to scientists, policymakers, advocates and schoolchildren about the urgent need to protect and preserve what she calls the planet’s life-support system.
A National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, Earle formerly served as chief scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. At the age of 81, she seems only to have accelerated her pace as the threats to the ocean have grown from climate change, overfishing and plastic pollution.
Earle has led dozens of deep-sea missions and logged more than 7,000 hours underwater. She is also the founder of Mission Blue, a California-based nonprofit dedicated to protecting critical ocean habitat by supporting the expansion of marine reserves.
She was named the first “Ocean Elder” by OceanElders, a group founded by technology investor Gigi Brisson to bring together global leaders on ocean issues, including Jean-Michel Cousteau, Sir Richard Branson and Nainoa Thompson.
Oceans Deeply caught up with Earle last week in New York City at the first-ever United Nations Ocean Conference. The week-long gathering brought together 4,000 national leaders, diplomats, scientists, advocates and business executives to work out how to implement the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal 14. The initiative sets seven targets related to ocean health to be achieved by 2030, including ending overfishing, protecting at least 10 percent of the ocean in reserves by 2020 and reducing the impact of ocean acidification. We talked to Earle about the conference, the importance of marine protected areas, overfishing and the looming threat of deep-sea mining. This is the first in a series of interviews Oceans Deeply will conduct with Ocean Elders.
Oceans Deeply: We’re talking on the final day of the U.N. Ocean Conference. Has this week left you more or less optimistic about the prospect that the world will take concrete action to protect the ocean?
Sylvia Earle: I came in excited because the conference is happening. This is the first time the United Nations has come together with a meeting dedicated to ocean issues. That’s a great step in the right direction. It is, after all, most of the world and it’s been largely neglected. Even at those famous climate meetings in Paris, the ocean was simply a footnote. Some of us pushed pretty hard to get recognition of the ocean as the primary driver of climate, shaping not just climate but weather and planetary chemistry as the great thermal regulator of the planet.
Am I optimistic? I think I’m cautiously optimistic. I think this is a launching pad for the deliberations that will follow. There is still the broad ignorance that is the biggest problem facing the ocean. You don’t see front-page headlines about what’s going on in the ocean, about the loss of coral reefs, about the acidification of the ocean driven by excess carbon dioxide that we have put into the atmosphere that is warming the planet but is also causing acidification of the seas. The ocean needs a good voice, a steady, constant voice that highlights what’s going on and makes it relevant to people.
Oceans Deeply: The expansion of marine protected areas was a frequent topic of discussion at the Ocean Conference. Why are they so important?
Earle: The idea of protecting the ocean is a relatively new idea because when I was a kid the common wisdom was that the ocean is too big to fail, that we should use the ocean, taking things out, putting garbage in. Even now there is the thought that if you protect a little bit of ocean, we can use the rest with impunity. So presently about 3 percent of the ocean has fairly strong protection but 97 percent is not protected at all or has weak protection. So fishing is allowed in most of the ocean.
If we just flipped it around and said let’s protect 97 percent because we want the ocean to continue to do what it’s been doing for all of human civilization and well before, shaping the way the planet works. We have to protect our life-support system. We will use the ocean but do we have to, as my friend Carl Safina says, plaintively, do we have to use it up – as we have been using it up with a 90 percent drop in many of the big fish, tunas, sharks, swordfish.
We’re disrupting the food chain of the seas. So how do we fix it? We think big. We think about large protected areas.
Oceans Deeply: There’s been a lot of talk about an international treaty to protect the biodiversity of the high seas. Would that be sufficient to protect the ocean?
Earle: There’s another avenue of thinking that might be given consideration. Why not exclude all fishing from the high seas because presently only a small number of nations are there and they’re subsidized. Take the subsidies away, the taxpayer money really making it financially possible for industrial fishing to go out more than 200 miles [320km] past their national boundaries, and some go much further than that. We see the investment some countries are making in going to Antarctica or traveling the world with their fishing fleets – just raping the ocean, bulldozing, clear-cutting the ocean of life.
We [didn’t] think we’d be capable of taking so much in a matter of a few decades but this is part of what’s driving this precipitous drop in the populations of sharks and tunas and swordfish and even the small fish. When we take hundreds of millions of tons of ocean wildlife over the years, consistent, consistent extraction, you’re cutting big swathes through the food chain, breaking the machinery. It’s like taking pieces out of your computer. I wonder how much we can take and have it still work? Well, not very much as it turns out. We already have taken so much so fast. As an insurance policy for our existence, let’s just stop fishing and give the ocean a break and give it time to restore these broken links.
Oceans Deeply: You spend a lot of time traveling and speaking at events like this to engage public support on ocean issues, but you also continue to explore the ocean on expeditions. Does the ocean still surprise you?
Earle: I have to keep my gills wet. You never know what you’re going to find when you go under the ocean. It’s not just finding new species – although that’s really easy. You can find new families, new orders, new classes, even new phyla.
We’re constantly surprised. But it’s also new behaviors. New connections. It was only recently that observers in the ocean learned that sometimes groupers team up with moray eels to go hunting together. Like, whoa, this is interesting! It’s fascinating to see these associations, close associations that we were not aware of, most people aren’t aware of because they never see a whole fish unless they go to an aquarium. Fish have faces, fish are individuals, fish have personality, they have associations that we’re just beginning to get to understand. They’re not just pieces of meat, they’re not just commodities.
It took us a while to learn that about whales and now people cherish knowing individual whales and where they live and where they go. It wasn’t that long ago when whales were just valued as pounds of meat, barrels of oil, grind them up for fertilizer. Today, it’s still happening but people for the most part see the value of a whale alive far exceeding the value of a whale dead. But we’re also seeing it with sharks, we’re seeing it with life on coral reefs. Not so long ago, a coral reef was just in the way of a housing development. You can dredge it and fill it and put hotels on top. Now we have a better perspective on what coral reefs give us.
Oceans Deeply: The ocean faces myriad threats. Are there any particular ones you’re most concerned about?
Earle: In the 1980s for the first time there was discussion about deep-sea mining. There’s shallow-sea mining right now for sand. A lot of sand is taken for so-called beach restoration, sometimes where there has been no beach before or to repair damage from storms, killing whole ecosystems in the process. But people don’t know that sand is a habitat and it’s alive. We just hadn’t thought about it.
Now the deep-sea mining is justified because of the case made for extracting rare earth minerals for our cellphones and our computers. And while there are plenty of sources on the land, there are a lot of people who object to having mining activities in their backyard. But the deep sea, who’s going to complain? And the mechanism was set up through the law of the sea for the International Seabed Authority to assign leases to companies and countries to mine the deep sea. There’s certain constraints about damage to the ocean above, but for the most part nobody’s looking, nobody is much caring.
This should be in the headlines, wake up world! These systems have never been touched by humans ever. Ever. And we’re allowing a very small, tiny, elite group of companies, individuals within a small number of nations, to establish the right to destroy, literally unravel these systems that have taken all preceding history to put into place and we’re going to just consume them for a very small amount of minerals and in the process contaminate enormous parts of the ocean. And who’s paying the cost for us? Well, we are – and all of us in the future will be and we can’t put these things back together again.
I don’t want to get in the way of enterprising businesses or profitable businesses, but I don’t want to pay the cost that they’re not accounting for. I don’t think anybody should be asked to pay the hidden cost. I think we should make them face up to it because I don’t think they can do so.
The biggest problem is ignorance. The knowledge is there. Get up to speed. Make it a priority to tune in, to find out not only what’s happening but turn it around and ask what you as a person can do to make things better than they otherwise would be if you just go with the flow.