Oceanographer Dr. Sylvia Earle is sometimes fondly referred to as “Her Deepness.” She has set records for solo diving, lived in underwater laboratories, and navigated dark corners of the oceans in small submarines. In the course of her research and exploration, she has spent more than 7,000 hours underwater marveling at the diversity of the oceans.
photo Kip Evans
At 79, Earle has watched the oceans change radically in her lifetime. She has had a front-row seat from which to view coral bleaching. She has witnessed up-close the destructive power of industrial fishing operations, and she has seen the global reach of plastics pollution.
When not undersea, Earle spends much of her time advocating for the conservation of our “life support system,” as she often refers to the ocean. During the course of her 50-year career, she has worn many hats, including chief scientist of NOAA, field researcher, nonprofit founder, and National Geographic Society Explorer in Residence. In the process, Earle has contributed greatly to our growing understanding of ocean ecosystems. “I wish we could go back 50 years armed with what we know today,” she says. Despite witnessing the seas deteriorate before her eyes, Earle doesn’t despair. Preserving the health of the oceans is a challenge that inspires her to do more. After all, she says, “It’s just going to get harder as time goes by.”
You’ve spent a long time studying the ocean, roughly half a century, if I’m not mistaken. How has our understanding of the ocean changed over the course of your career?
I think it is safe to say that more has been learned about the ocean since the middle of the twentieth century, since the 1950s, when I first began exploring the ocean. At the same time, more has been lost. There has been more change, of a negative sort. I mean, the good news is we know more, but we’ve also been witnessing an era of unprecedented loss, destruction, change. And not changes for the good.
Good changes are that we now know better than ever before where the mountains are; we have better maps. Although only about 10 percent of the ocean has been mapped with the same degree of resolution that we have for the land, or the moon, or Mars, or Jupiter. And much of the ocean still really is not well mapped at all, as evidenced by the inability to determine what the sea floor configuration is like where that aircraft went down in the Indian Ocean. We had to map first, and then look for where the airplane is, so little is know about that area.
At this point in time, what do you consider the most pressing marine issue?
Well, naturally you think about what we are putting into the ocean – pollution issues, and ocean acidification as a consequence of excess carbon dioxide that is entering the sea, as a consequence of burning fossil fuels. We need carbon dioxide to power photosynthesis, but too much of a good thing causes changes in planetary dynamics. That means, among other things, that the ocean is becoming more acidic. That is bad news, for everything, including the basic life support functions that we take for granted. We really don’t know what changing the chemistry of the ocean will do, except that it certainly makes sense for us to hold the planet steady in ways that have favored us throughout all of our history, and the changes in the acidity of the ocean could signal some really radical shifts in things such as carbon capture and oxygen production and the many things we have heretofore relied on as more or less stable.
And the plastics in the ocean – that’s new, since the middle of the twentieth century. Plastics were a novelty when I was a kid, but now they have become a plague in the ocean. They still serve us well in so many respects. It’s not that all plastics are the problem, but single use plastics where you use something once and throw it away. It’s a really bad habit that we’ve gotten into that has to stop, not just because of problems for the ocean. It isn’t just trash, not just the unsightliness of it, or even the entanglement of animals that is the problem. It’s is also the influence on the chemistry of the ocean there too. Many toxins are introduced, toxins concentrated around bits and pieces of floating plastic. Anyway, that’s one whole area of issues of pollution under a broad category.
It is also what we are taking out of the ocean. Unprecedented levels of ocean wildlife have been and are being extracted using technologies that did not exist until close to World War II. The technologies and materials have enabled us to find, capture, and market half way around the world – distant places – whatever we have taken from the ocean. To look at whatever wildlife in the sea – whether it’s shrimp, or fish, or crabs, or oysters or clams or whatever – they are treated as commodities, in spite of new insight about the importance of life in the sea just as life on the land. We need trees for more than board feet of lumber, and fish are much more valuable alive than they are on a plate. And yet, we are slow to respond to the evidence. Now 90 percent of many of the big fish are gone. Tuna, swordfish, cod, even many of the small ones like menhaden and anchovies, are at unprecedented low numbers, owning to our capacity to extract on an industrial scale. There is nothing like it in the history of the planet.
So all that said, what we are putting in and what we are taking out are really major problems. But, the number one problem that really underlies the others is communications, lack of people, generally speaking, knowing why the ocean matters, knowing what we’re doing to the ocean, seeing the cause and effect relationship between the decline of the ocean and the perils that presents to the future of human civilization. So, until we make that connection, until people know why they should care, and then affirmatively take action as a result of knowing, we’re going to see a continued move in the direction of decline.
Last year, President Obama expanded the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument, creating the largest marine reserve in the world that is completely off limits to commercial resource extraction, including commercial fishing. How far do you think marine reserves will take us in terms of protecting the ocean?
Well, protected areas are vital. It’s like saying, ‘protect your heart.’ What can you do? Well, you remove the stress if you can, you do what you can to maintain your healthy life support system, your body. In this case, the ocean is our life support system, and to the extent that we can take the pressure off, then we are benefiting the way the world works, benefiting the present and the future of humankind. But, so far, the part of the planet that is fully protected, including the part that was recently protected by President Obama’s action, is under three percent. In fact, it’s just barely creeping up on one percent that is fully protected, that is, where even the fish are safe.
So suppose you said, ‘I’m only going to protect one percent of my heart.’ Is that enough? How much is enough? Well, I think we need to respect all of it. And, like the doctor who is treating a sick patient, first do no harm with your actions. Do everything you can to take care of the vital systems that keep us alive. That means looking at the ocean with new eyes, looking at the fish with new eyes, looking at what we’re putting in the ocean, with respect to dumping, whether it is garbage or sewage or whatever. Treat is as if your life depends on it, because your life really does depend on it.
And concerning President Obama’s action, that was a wonderful, positive move, cause for celebration. And people have been celebrating around the world. However, it would have been twice as large. He originally, last June, proposed twice the size that ultimately was given protection. The reason that it got derailed was because of the tuna industry. These are not local fishermen who are just trying to make a living feeding their families; this is the large, industrial, factory-scale operations where fish are not feeding people who need something important to eat. It is not supplying protein. It is supplying bank accounts. Tuna today are just big business. They’re mining the ocean, clear-cutting the ocean of fish that are sold not, again, for food security, but for corporate bank accounts. And when people understand that, they should just say, ‘wait a minute, we want a healthy ocean.’
Tuna are down to a tiny fraction of what they were when I began exploring the ocean. Not just Bluefin tuna, the one that commands the highest price, but tunas generally are so hammered, so sought after. Again, not to feed families and communities, but to feed almost an endless market for a high-end luxury taste for things like sushi and sashimi.
Along those lines, I’ve read that you don’t eat fish.
No, I don’t.
I’m curious when you made that decision and what ultimately motivated you.
It’s all about knowing. I used to consume fish. You can come from a seafood loving family, but now that I know, I can’t do what I used to do. It’s all about, not just knowing fish as fish on their own terms, but recognizing their much greater value in the oceans, and also their desperate states right now. Fish are in serious trouble globally. The populations that we’ve disrupted – we’ve disrupted whole ecosystems, and whole cycles of nutrients in the ocean.
We are taking about nitrogen or phosphorous or the ability of the ocean to capture and hold carbon, which has really become recognized, for forests, as a vital contribution for holding the planet steady. What is now coming to be recognized is blue carbon – the role of fish and whales and other ocean wildlife, not just carbon-based units, but also for carbon capturing and carbon sequestration. If you take 100 million tons of ocean wildlife out of the sea every year, which we are – sharks, tunas, and all of the other great cornucopia of life in the sea – you are essentially, just as when you clear-cut a forest, you are releasing the carbon. You are allowing it to be put back into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.
I know you have really spent a lot of time underwater. What is your favorite thing about it, and how does this time underwater inform your views of the ocean?
Well, being in the ocean is physically pleasurable, especially in the warm clear water where you can just sort of melt into the water and become a part of it, like a jellyfish (laughing). And it’s just glorious to be weightless in the sea, and be able to do the kinds of things you might dream about, like you can essentially fly in the ocean underwater; and breathing underwater is such a pleasure; and with little submarines, to be able to just glide along not just in areas where scuba divers can go, but down thousands of feet beneath the surface, something that, in a few decades, many more people will have the capacity to do. Just like in the early days of flying, very few people in the twentieth century knew what it was like to be up in the sky, you know, higher than you could jump or climb a mountain. But the technology is rapidly advancing that makes personal exploration of the ocean into the deep, dark, cold, unexplored parts much more accessible.
So that, for me, is the real joy of going down into the ocean, and meeting creatures, and observing the wondrous diversity of life on earth. On the land, only about half of the many major divisions of life occur over all the continents and islands put together, the terrestrial parts. But even in a bucket of seawater you may find as many of these major divisions of animal life, plus a nice dollop of photosynthetic organisms as well. Fifteen phyla would not be uncommon on a single chunk of rock or in a single bucket of water taken from the ocean, if you count the larval stages, which you naturally have to do. And it is about the same number of phyla of animals, about 15, that occur on land. And you have to more than double the number that occur in the ocean. About half of the creatures that occur in the ocean occur only there, of the major divisions. Think of starfish and their relatives. There’s no counterpart anywhere on the land or anywhere in fresh water. Or look at the whole category of life that includes the jellyfishes and the corals. Well, there are a very few freshwater jellyfishes, but they are such a small number compared to the great, great majority that are out there in the ocean. And so on down the list. There are a handful of freshwater sponges, but there are thousands, tens of thousands of marine species. So the dominant diversity of life on earth, contrary to what some people think, is not rainforests, as wonderfully diverse as they are. It’s the ocean! It’s the ocean!
According to some studies, ocean diving can compromise reef health. How do you balance the desire to experience reefs and dive, with not wanting to harm them?
It’s pretty easy to not harm the ocean through diving. It’s so easy to weight yourself and show respect for the creatures that are there. And, if occasionally, a bit of coral is snapped off or whatever, that’s a small price to pay for what an educated ambassador for the ocean can contribute at this point in time. Divers are not the problem, unless they’re armed with spear guns.
There is much more danger about fishing than there is diving. Fishing is not, across the board, a really bad thing, but industrial fishing, I think categorically should be stopped, because methods are so destructive, and the amount of wildlife they take is so enormous, and the capacity to alter the nature of the ocean, the nature of nature, the nature of the way the world works, is so great. Catching something for dinner, like shooting a duck, it leaves a space. And if we’re gonna feed seven billion people, we’re not going to do it with wild ducks, we’re not going to do it with wild fish, we are going to do it by cultivating carefully and efficiently the sources of calories that will provide us with food security.
It is baffling to me that we have legal limits on some creatures that are at such low levels. Every abalone counts, every tuna counts, and why we insist on continuing to take, justified on the basis of food or sport or whatever it is. The value left in the ocean is so much greater, we need to just pull back and realize the reality of the time we’re in.
Given that we are realizing what a big impact we are having on the oceans, how do we translate that knowledge into action and start protecting the ocean?
Well it’s starting already. In California, for example, there is a network of small but really critically important fully protected areas that some have justified on the basis of, ‘oh, we’ll get more fish if we protect these areas, and there will be a spillover effect.’ You protect fish so you can have more fish to kill; that’s the rationale. For me, we have to kind of reverse the logic, and say we need to have more fish, so we can have more fish, so we can have more fish, because we need to recover from centuries of extracting without knowing the limits. Especially in recent decades, we have technologies that take whole populations of squid, or entire schools of fish; trolls that are not just destroying the targeted species, but are taking everything that is just in the path of the net. It’s like using a bulldozer to catch songbirds or squirrels – take the whole forest and throw the trees and everything else away so that you can have a little bushel of wild birds.
What role do you think that regulation can play, both domestic and international, in safeguarding our ocean ecosystems?
Regulations are really critically important to rein in those who are more concerned about their short-term gains than the benefits to society as a whole. So you need governments, you need laws, not to govern the behavior of the good guys, but to find a mechanism to enforce those who misbehave. If everybody were on board and saw the reason for taking care of the ocean, there would not be a need to have laws about dumping, or extracting fish or other wildlife, or to have protected areas. But we’ve already learned on the land, if you don’t establish a park and defend it, it only takes one or two people sometimes to break the faith of the rest of the community.
It was a problem in the early days of national parks. People complained to Theodore Roosevelt that it did no good to establish a park because people would just go in and shoot the birds and the animals and cut the trees, and there would be no way to enforce this.
Well two things happened. First, by having the legal framework, there was authority then to move in and apprehend those who were misbehaving. If there had been no designation, there would be nothing you could enforce. It would still be a free-for-all. By specifically delineating areas, then you have the authority to protect. The other thing is that the attitudes of people have changed. So even outside parks, there tends to be greater respect once people know why it matters. For example, take the bird watching community. They really value songbirds because they’re beautiful, they add much to their life, they make life more interesting. So they protect them, not just because they are in a protected area, but because they value them. We need overarching guidelines about protecting species migration routes and all of that, but we also need that ethic, caring, and we certainly need an ocean ethic to really underpin all the rest. If everyone respected the real value of taking care of the ocean, we wouldn’t need a law. But it’s helpful to have a law for those who tend to misbehave no matter what.
Do you think there is still time to stop and even reverse the damage we have done?
Well, we have to do the best we can in the circumstances that we have available to us. I wish we could go back 50 years armed with what we now know. But the best we can do is take what we’ve got, and realize that it’s not gonna get better. That, in fact, the sooner we exercise our power to protect what remains of the systems that keep us alive, the better it will be. It’s just going to get harder as time goes by.
So, I said ten years ago that the next 10 years will be the most important in the next 10,00 years for doing what it takes to ensure an enduring place for humankind in the future. And here we are 10 years later, and we haven’t achieved that magic place where we know that what we’re doing now will be okay. In fact, it’s quite the opposite. If anything, we’ve upped the amount of effort going into killing ocean wildlife, and now we know about problems that were not considered important 10 years ago, like ocean acidification. We are seeing an ever-increasing avalanche of plastics in the ocean. We are seeing a heap of indifference.
But at the same time there is a growing awareness, which is the best way to counter indifference. People who know might care. They can’t care if they don’t know. They might not care even if they do know, but they can’t if they don’t know what the issues are. So I’ll say it again: The next 10 years will be the most important in the next 10,000 years in terms of shaping a future where humans can have a hope for an enduring place within the natural systems that keep us alive. Better if we had had the knowledge of today applied 10 years ago, or 20, or 50, but you know, you deal with what you’ve got. It’s going to get harder. The sooner we act to protect as much of the natural fabric of life, the watersheds, the areas that are still in pretty good shape, whether they’re on the land or in the ocean, we can help restore animate systems, largely by taking the pressure off.
photo by Kip Evans
Like Chesapeake Bay. Stop killing menhaden. Stop taking the oysters. Just give the clams, and the crabs, a break. Just stop. Just stop. What’s hard about that? Just cold turkey. Just stop killing them. And watch what happens. Give them five years. Give them 10 years. There are plenty of things that people can eat without eating the things that maintain the healthy ocean systems that people seem to care about so very much. The finest and best use of the ocean is not what we can take from it to eat. It’s our existence that we take from the ocean that is the highest and most important thing. And now that we can see it, it ought to be like ‘oh, now I understand, now I’ll go this way instead of that way, because if I continue what I’m doing, the problems are going to get worse.’ And we are at that point in history where, as never before, we’ve got knowledge available that did not exist even five years ago, and the ability to communicate in ways that didn’t exist until quite recently. So I consider this a sweet spot in time. We’re right at this crossroads, and I’m not alone in observing the urgency of taking the knowledge we have and applying it to ensure that we can do the best we can with it.
And if anybody thinks that we can escape to another planet, you should really get serious about looking at what it takes to send people to the moon or Mars, and imagine relocating seven billion people anywhere else other than here on earth. We have a planet – truly it is a miracle. You look at all the unfriendly options out there in the sky, galaxies of other places, but none with a built-in life support system that is exactly right for humankind. So first priority should be to keep the world safe for our children. This is not just about guns and wars and things, this is about making it possible to continue breathing. Do you like to breath? Listen up if you’d like to have water that magically falls from the sky. Listen up if you want to have a planet that works in your favor. Take care of the ocean. Get smart. Get educated. Get knowledgeable. Use your power, whoever you are.
We are so close to the edge on so many fronts. In one way, at one time, you might say ‘humph, it’s so depressing.’ And on the other hand you might say, ‘This is so exciting, this is exhilarating. I can make a difference. What I do or don’t do can have an impact on the world.’ And we aren’t making this up. It is the truth. What you do or don’t do has an impact on the world. So be positive, make a difference.
If you had one thought, or one lesson, that you could instill in people about the ocean, what would that be?
Take care of the ocean as if your life depends on it, because it does.
Zoe Loftus-Farren is an Earth Island Journal contributing editor. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
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