A 100% recyclable interview with Oceanographer Sylvia Earle – Part I

Do a Google search on “Sylvia Earle”. If your results are anything like mine (over half a million listings!) the first three references will be a Wikipedia bio, her “National Geographic Explorer in Residence” profile, and Dr. Earle’s own website, Mission Blue.

Here’s some of what the venerable Geographic has to say about Dr. Earle:

“Sylvia Earle, called “Her Deepness” by the New Yorker and the New York Times, “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, and the first “Hero for the Planet,” is an oceanographer, explorer, author, lecturer, with experience as a field research scientist. (…) Former chief scientist of NOAA, (…) founder of the Mission Blue Foundation (…) has authored more than 150 publications, lectured in more than 60 countries, appeared in hundreds of television productions”, (…) “led more than 60 expeditions and logged more than 6,000 hours underwater, (…) setting a record for solo diving to a depth of 1,000 meters.”

In August 2010, as part of an ongoing collaboration between National Geographic and Fairmont Hotels, the Fairmont Mayakoba hosted a conference by the honorable Dr. Sylvia Earle on the importance of ocean life. Just minutes after finishing her lecture Dr. Earle was swiftly transported to Cancun’s airport, where she boarded yet another plane, this time to rendevouz in Russia with filmmaker James Cameron for a historical descent aboard a MIR nuclear submarine into Baikal, the world’s oldest and deepest lake. Amazingly enough, just another day in the busy life of explorer Sylvia Earle.

The following interview was possible thanks to the great Public Relations Staff at Fairmont Mayakoba, as well as to the generosity of  Dr. Earle herself, who gave up what could have been a peaceful break in a hectic day to answer my questions. Her deep knowledge, passion and ability to communicate were captivating, both during our private conversation and later as she spoke to a mixed audience of guests, journalists and hotel staff, using her laptop computer to project awe inspiring images.

This interview was originally published as a news item in my general photography website, ivangabaldon.com, a full year before our first post in RIDE INTO BIRDLAND. I’m now honored to recycle it for the benefit of all our readers.

And so I give you, without further ado – Her Deepness, Dr. Sylvia Earle.

Dr. Earle during her lecture in August 2010, at the Fairmont Mayakoba in Quintana Roo, Mexico. (Photos © Ivan Gabaldon).

Dr. Earle, cataloging sea life has been a life-long project for you, but along the way you discovered another mission, one that has to do with the impact of human activity on Planet Earth. Can you tell us about this change, and the moment when you realized that studying any number of species was not enough?

Exploring and understanding the nature of life in the sea is fundamental, I haven’t stopped and I continue to take delight in looking at ecosystems and finding how many of what kind of creatures live where, from seaweeds to the invertebrates, to the fish and mammals, even the birds. But I began to be aware in the 1960s that places I loved were being lost to activities that humans impose on the ocean. From filling bays and changing the shoreline, to extracting large quantities of ocean life using techniques that are terribly destructive, like the trawlers that scrape the ocean floor and take large quantities of everything, most of it  just thrown overboard and a small amount kept.

Additionally, as the number of people on the planet increased, the demand for ocean wildlife also increased, and instead of just people going out in small boats to catch fish for their families and their communities, they began to catch more to send to distant markets, this in connection with the increase of new ways of refrigeration and transporting. So the fish being caught in the Gulf of Mexico might wind up in Tokyo, in France, or somewhere in Australia. Anywhere in the world could be a market for what is caught in the Gulf of Mexico.

A worker cuts tuna at the Tokyo Metropolitan Central Wholsale Market. Known popularly as Tsukiji Market, it’s the biggest fish market in the world, moving 700,000 metric tonnes a year with a value in excess of 5 billion dollars. (Source: Wikipedia. Image: Chris 73 / Wikimedia Commons)

I could watch and see the transformation, based on my own observations from when I knew the Gulf and other places in the world in the 60s and 70s, to what I saw it changing over time. Now it’s confirmed that we have the capacity to change the nature of nature. Ninety percent of many of the big fish that we like to eat are gone, and many of the small ones too. Because we have the ability to catch and market globally what once was locally consumed. But we haven’t caught up with the reality. Our laws, our policies, even our attitudes still reflect what was known to be possible fifty or sixty years ago, but it’s not possible today. Because the fish are just disappearing, and the lobsters, and the crabs, and the shrimp. We’re too good at catching them, but not good enough at understanding what the limits are.

We should be able to figure it out. We should be able to take some without destroying the golden goose, or the golden fish in this case. The golden gulf, the golden ocean. So I have been transformed from being a scientist, just curious about the nature of the world, and have shifted to becoming a voice for the ocean, to try to get people  to understand how connected we are to the sea, and how the sea is connected to us.

A trawler’s catch of glass shrimp and myctophids. They “scrape the ocean floor and take large quantities of everything, most of it just thrown overboard and a small amount kept”, says Dr. Earle. (Photo NOAA)

You have also said that the next ten years may be the most influential in the next ten thousand years. Can you elaborate on that? Do you think it’s realistic to expect such a huge cultural change from human society in such a relatively short period of time?

It may not be realistic to expect that humans will understand the consequences of what we’re doing to the living systems that keep us alive. But when you think about it, we’re the only creatures on the planet who have the capacity  to understand and act. There are creatures as old as I am, swimming around in the sea. Some fish are at least as old, some are much older.  Turtles can live more than a century, some whales can also be more than a hundred years old. There are some corals in the Gulf of Mexico that may be several thousand years old. They may be somehow aware that things have changed in their lifetime, but they don’t know why, and they don’t know what to do about it.

We’re the only creatures who do know why, and the only creatures with the capacity to do something about it. So it may be a hopeless quest, to think that any of us could be a strong enough voice to communicate to our species that the natural world is in trouble, and so are we. But it’s not hopeless, we have time. Not a lot of time, but if ever there was a time it’s now, because never before had we known what we now know. Fifty years ago we didn’t know there were limits to what we could take out of the ocean or put into the ocean, but now we know.

Knowing is not enough, we also have to act.  There are ways that people have changed. Once it was learned how damaging smoking cigarettes is, a lot of people have stopped. There are places you can go were smoking isn’t allowed. It doesn’t stop everyone from smoking, but there is a greater awareness and policies, even laws now, that reflect this new awareness. When it was discovered in England that if you eat beef you might get mad-cow disease, overnight people stepped away and stopped eating beef, because they knew it could be harmful. So when people know, there’s a chance they can change, and quickly. When it became widely known that mercury is so high in tuna and swordfish and sharks, many people said, I’m not going to eat that anymore because it has bad effects on me. It’s bad for mothers and their children, it’s not a recipe for health. So there are reasons that people may relate very directly to their own health that might cause them to rethink.

When large numbers of people understood the consequences of smoking, or feared eating beef infected with mad-cows’ disease, cultural attitudes and even laws changed rather quickly. A swift change in our attitude towards the Ocean is urgently needed, Dr. Earle argues. (Left: Graphic by penubag; Right: Photo by USDA, in the public domain).

There are broader issues now, like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We can see the correlation between that and global warming.  We now have this big chunk of ice, three times the size of Manhattan, that just chipped off  Greenland and is floating around in the Atlantic. That should be a wake-up call: look, it isn’t  just a bunch of crazy scientists talking, this is happening. And there are consequences back to us. Think of what would happen to Yucatan when the sea level rises.  It’s happened before, it’s happened many times in the past, sea level goes up and down. Never so quickly. This is unusual and it’s also something we have power to change if we cut back on CO2.

And it’s not just global warming and the sea level rise, there’s also something new that we didn’t know about, acidification of the ocean. It’s bad for coral reefs, it’s bad for the ocean’s chemistry as a whole. There could be a profoundly significant effect on young fish, it changes the chemistry of their world and the chemistry of our world. And it’s all related to our appetite for fossil fuels. Yet if we can make that turn and take seriously the need for alternative energy and for conserving what we use of the fossil fuels we’ve got, we have the power to make a difference. We just have to believe it, and then do it.

Half the coral reefs are already gone, in the Caribbean more than half. Gone, in my lifetime. I find that shocking. I can also anticipate that in the lifetime of my children they’ll be all gone if the present trends continue. I have four grandsons and I’m haunted by the vision of the world they will inherit and grow up in if we continue doing what we’re doing. There won’t be any tuna, sharks, swordfish, no coral reefs. The rain forests are already in bad shape and will be further diminished. I’d worry about oxygen in the atmosphere, because about seventy percent of it comes from the sea. If you change the chemistry of the ocean, where’s the oxygen going to come from?  I mean, yes, the rain forests, all green things produce oxygen. But the great majority comes from the sea, and we haven’t really respected that. We need to understand that as we change and alter the ocean to the extent that the ocean is in trouble, we’re in trouble, our future is in jeopardy.

A NOAA (AOML) in situ CO2 concentration sensor, attached to a Coral Reef Early Warning System station, utilized in conducting ocean acidification studies near coral reef areas. (Source: Wikipedia / NOAA).

You have personally given up eating all types of fish, which you define as “carnivores from the sea”, and advocate that behavior to save the seas. Again it may be said that such a huge cultural change is unlikely to occur rapidly, certainly not within a decade or two. Is there no area for compromise? 

I don’t tell people not to eat fish. I just set an example for what is right for me. Because I know what I know, and for me, I just can’t do it. I know too much about the importance of fish alive in the ocean, swimming around. I don’t need them on my plate dead, I need them alive in the ocean. And I also know what fish have in them that I don’t want in me. I really know too much, enough to know that fish are really not the best choice to feed me. Specially high in the food chain, the top carnivores, and most of the fish that people eat are grouper, snapper, swordfish, marlin, the tunas of course, and sharks.

Name a fish that you like to eat, then check out what it eats. You’ll find for the most part that they are high on the food chain, they go through many layers. And they’re not like cows and chickens, or pigs that will go to market in a year. Many of these fish are old, they have many years to accumulate the things that you don’t want in you: mercury, fire retardants, pesticides, herbicides, PCBs, all the things that we allow to flow into the sea that weren’t there fifty years ago but are there in abundance today. Or what falls out of the sky, burning fossil fuels, specially coal which is a major source of mercury. So we get the double whammy with the fossil fuels: polluting and contaminating the water, and also the things that we eat that come from the water.

What I do suggest to people is, certainly know what they’re eating and consider making it a special event, instead of expecting to find shrimp in every restaurant, every day, all over the world. Think about the real cost it takes, we’re not accounting for the real cost of wildlife, we think of it as free. For someone to go out and catch dinner to feed their families or communities, the way we did fifty years ago, there’s probably space for that, but when the numbers are so low, the more pressure we can take off of extracting wildlife from the sea, the better the chance that there will be wildlife in the future. The projections are very simple: having lost ninety percent in fifty years, how many years before they will all be gone? Or at least before commercial fishing will not be feasible, because there won’t be any fish.

400 tons of jack mackerel caught by a Chilean purse seiner. (Source: Wikipedia).

Scientists have made the calculations and they suggest that by the middle of the XXI century, it doesn’t matter whether we want to continue eating fish on a commercial basis or not, they’ll be gone. If we continue not only extracting at the level that we’re taking, but failing to protect the critical areas that they need for their survival, they’ll be gone.

To have wild creatures, whether it’s birds or migrating buffalo or fish in the sea, we need to protect the feeding areas, the breeding areas, the corridors over which they pass, those places where you have fish that don’t move very far. I’m finding out where those critical areas are, usually around coral reefs, that’s their home, they don’t go very far. For high-sea travelers like the turtles, sharks, swordfish, tunas, typically you need some international agreements to protect them over a wide range, so you need a number of different policies to protect the various kinds of needs that these creatures have.

And including ourselves in the mix, there are some people who for their whole history, going back many generations, have relied on food from the sea. But for the great majority of people, and our numbers have increased so fast, our deep history is not directly related  to consuming ocean wildlife. It’s clear that we have enough calories to feed more people than are now on the planet with the food we already have, that has been determined and calculated. Even though there are other reasons why having a global population of ten billion, instead of seven billion, puts a lot of pressure on the planet, as far as food is concerned from what we already grow there’s enough to feed ten billion people. The problem is the distribution of that food, and the water distribution is also already a growing problem.

(…to be continued)

Please visit Sylvia Earle’s website, Mission Blue, to learn more about the condition of the world’s oceans and how you can make a difference.


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