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The health of the ocean: What's at stake?

Renowned oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle discusses why the health of the ocean should matter to everyone, and what individuals–including kids–can do to help make it better. By Ford Cochran

National Geographic hosted a live recording of National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation at our Washington, D.C. headquarters yesterday. During the program’s first hour, host Neal Conan spoke with journalist Joel Bourne (author of National Geographic magazine’s October 2010 cover story on the Deepwater Horizon disaster), NPR science reporter Richard Harris, and Florida State University oceanographer Ian MacDonald about the fate of spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico and of the creatures who encounter it. During the second hour, Conan discussed the larger fate of the world’s ocean with two oceanographers and National Geographic explorers, NG Fellow Enric Sala and NG Explorer-in-Residence Sylvia Earle. I interviewed Earle shortly after the program.

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Photograph of Sylvia Earle by Tyrone TurnerWhat’s at stake when we talk about the health of the ocean?

What’s at stake concerning the health of the oceans is people. As go the oceans, so goes whatever we care about: the economy, our health, our security. Most importantly, it’s the ability of the planet to support us.

Ed Wilson a year ago in the summer of 2009 had his 80th birthday celebration in New York, and he said we’re letting nature slip through our fingers. Actually, the real problem is nature may be letting us slip through her fingers.

Nature is resilient. There were natural systems and life was here long before humans arrived, and life will go on no matter what, with us or without us. Our challenge is to say look, this is it. Earth is this little blue speck in the universe, and we’ve got to take care of that that keeps us alive.

When I was a kid in the middle of the 20th century, no one imagined that we humans could affect the nature of nature. It seemed preposterous, and many people still think that there’s nothing we could do that could possibly alter the way the ocean works, that could possibly affect the atmosphere, that could possibly make a difference about the overall temperature of the planet. But now we know that we do have the power to change the way the natural systems that keep us alive function.

Since the middle of the 20th century, 40 percent of the plankton is gone–reduced that much according to a study that recently appeared in Science magazine that’s based on long-term observation of life in the sea. Plankton, why should we care about that? This is what generates oxygen. Take a breath. Where did the oxygen come from that we breathe? It’s generated and renewed all the time. People say, well, it comes from plants, comes from rain forests, comes from the trees in our parks and even the grass in our lawns. That generates oxygen, right, grabs carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, right? Right.

But most of the action, maybe 70 percent, takes place in the ocean, in the plankton, these tiny little organisms that most people don’t even know about, let alone care about. But they should, they must. It’s what keeps us alive.

We can’t see it, generally. We can’t see our heart either and yet we know it’s important. Taking care of the ocean is like taking care of your heart. If we fail to do so, we’re not going to survive. If we fail to take care of the ocean, we won’t survive. You spoke about “hope spots” in the ocean. There has been a lot of bad news coming out of the Gulf of Mexico, a lot of discouraging news. There are species that have been lost from the seas that are never coming back. But you said that the good news is we still have ten percent of the sharks. Could you talk about the hope spots, the things that are encouraging when you look out at the ocean?

One of the questions that we got as a consequence of our NPR interview was “What can I do?” A feeling of despair, that the problems seem so overwhelming. My response was that this is the most important time ever. We’re the luckiest people ever to be on the planet because for the first time we have the capacity to really understand how dependent we are on natural systems.

We understand that we have the power to change the way the world works. We also have the power to govern our actions, to maintain the stability of the systems that keep us alive. We didn’t know that it mattered a few decades ago, that we can change on a geologic scale the way the world works within a matter of a few decades, half of a century. The real challenge that we face is that right now, armed with this new knowledge gained because of the technologies that we have to go high in the sky, look back on Earth and see the system as a whole. For the first time we begin to connect the dots, to understand that the sands of Africa can blow across the Atlantic, wind up in Washington, D.C. or continue across the air currents in the sky, dust the snows of Colorado with this dust from Africa. And keep going in the currents all around the world connecting the way the world works.

And the same is true in the ocean, those currents can take what we have enabled through our actions or inactions, whatever. The big spill in the Gulf of Mexico ultimately connects with the whole world. It may not happen in the next two weeks, in the next few months, but ultimately everything connects.

What we’re putting into the air in our cities is really contaminating the planet as a whole. The excess carbon dioxide is driving global warming, it’s driving climate change, it’s driving sea level rise, it’s driving the change of chemistry including acidification of the ocean. We didn’t know that a few years ago. Now we know it, and that’s the key: Knowing is the key to our survival.

But of course if we just know and don’t care, so what, nothing happens. It’s a combination of knowing coupled with caring that leads to action.

And we don’t have a lot of time. If you follow the trends where we were in the middle of the 20th century, we’re going to be in the middle of the 21st (if we continue business as usual) with the decline of fish in the sea, mostly the big ones, but also many of the small and medium ones too. That 90 percent, the trend is disastrous. But we still have sharks, we still have tuna, we still have a few grouper, we still have some menhaden [also known as rockfish], we still have, not as many, but there’s still some herring out there. And it’s true of, not just fish, but oysters and clams. We have the capacity to eliminate them. We could, considering what we’ve done in 50 years, if we continue.

We have that kind of power. Or we have the power of governing our actions so we give oysters a break, so we give tuna a break–so we give ourselves a break. Use this moment of understanding for the first time in history while there’s still time to turn things around. If we wait another 50 years it will be too late for a lot of creatures.

On my watch, during the time when I was a kid, the last monk seal disappeared from the Gulf of Mexico. It was a part of the ecosystem that maintained the integrity of the Gulf of Mexico. We’ve seen the decline of manatees, turtles, sharks, groupers, snappers, tarpon down to dangerously low levels. For the monk seals, it was the end. We can’t put them back. They’re gone. But these other creatures … there’s still a chance. And a chance for them means a chance for us.

If on our watch we see species after species just disappear forever, it means that the ingredients that we need to keep the world running in a way that can include us as a part of it, we’re going to lose that. Or we’re going to save it. So this is the most important time, if you could choose a time to be around. Come on, kids! Don’t be discouraged. Be empowered.

And it’s not just the kids, it’s the kid in everybody. The CEOs need to know, with their power and their companies, they have a magnified voice. Teachers have a magnified voice. Moms and dads have a magnified voice.

Kids, because people (believe it or not) listen to kids with a special kind of listening, if you just use your voice and let yourself be heard, let your concerns be heard. Tell the adults around you that you care about having a world where there’s sharks. You don’t want to see them disappear. Advise them: Don’t eat tuna. We need to give tuna a break. And swordfish, and groupers, and snappers. Maybe once in awhile, if you really have to have those creatures on your menu, okay. But mainly their value to a healthy ocean for us, as well as for them, really, really matters.

A group of kids with an organization called Weird Science Kids posted a question for you on National Geographic’s Facebook page. They said the kids and crew here would like to know what can be done, if anything, to save the coral reefs that are dying across the globe.

One thing you can do is to let those around you know that it matters, and that you care. If you don’t let that voice of yours be heard, it’s almost a vote to let the coral reefs die. That sounds harsh, but unless your voice is made known, you’re part of the problem. Part of the solution is in saying through letters to your congressman, to your teachers, in your schools, to your moms, to your dads, letting the world know that you want to grow up in a world that has coral reefs. And half of them are already gone since I was a kid. They’re either gone, or they’re in a state of serious decline. In parts of the Caribbean, 80 percent are gone. Gone!

It doesn’t mean that the chance for recovery is gone, because there’s still some left. Let your support for marine protected areas be known. When I was the chief scientist at NOAA, letters from kids, pictures from kids, got passed around, put up on bulletin boards. All letters count. And when we don’t hear from people, we think people don’t care. How do we let those who are making decisions on our behalf, supposedly, know that we care? You write them a letter. You send them an email. You send a picture. You join an organization that is in support of doing the right things.

I know it sounds dull, but it isn’t dull. It matters. Every voice counts. And you don’t have to join an organization. All you have to do as an individual is to find out how you send an email–you guys are savvy in these matters–and get somebody else to do it too, and then somebody else. And then ten somebodies. And then 20, and then 50, then 100 and 1,000. And those voices cannot be ignored.

What is being ignored is the silent ones who aren’t expressing themselves. Write a song. Write a poem. Take pictures. Use your powers. There are now means for kids, independently and by joining together, to use the new ways of communicating. Start a wave. Be a part of the solution. You can do it. One more question from a student that was posted on our Facebook page. Her name is Jessica Sundheim. She writes “I wish I could skip class and tune in to the program. I’ve seen pictures of the ocean floor after fishing vessels drag nets over it. The floor goes from a living environment to looking like a barren field. How long does it take to recover from that damage, and how important is that recovery on a scale from floating plastic garbage dump to Japanese whaling?”

The biggest problem is ignorance, and you’re putting a light on that ignorance. People don’t know that the cost of shrimp is a dead ocean floor. Dragging a net across the ocean floor is like using a bulldozer to catch songbirds in a forest. Just throw the forest away, shake out of a pounds of protein, throw everything else away. It’s not a good thing to be doing, but most people just don’t know.

You know. Let others know. That’s power, the power of knowledge, the power of communicating.

There are Saturdays. There are times after school, and even in school. Raise your hand. Ask your teacher what can you do, that you care. There’s a sense of urgency that sometimes seems to get drowned out by the day-to-day activities. But don’t lose heart for what you can do in school.

It’s important to gain the power of what you can learn in school. I am so glad that I not only finished high school, but that I went on to college and then I went on to get a master’s degree and a Ph.D. because it’s credibility. People will take you more seriously if you can speak with credentials that say, well, they’ve done the hard work. They’ve learned the math. They’ve figured out from teachers, from the books, from the new means of gaining knowledge, and they’ve had personal experiences, so I will listen to them.

The more you can gather in terms of whatever going to school counts for, both personally through what you can bank in your own brain, but also the credibility that it gives you to others who will trust the fact that you’ve been to school. It matters, even though sometimes it seems like a waste of time, it really isn’t. You can do so much armed with the knowledge you can gain.

If school isn’t for you, then don’t worry. You know, some people say I just can’t stand it. You can make your own path. Don’t be discouraged. Whatever it is, whoever it is you are. Follow your heart and don’t give up in terms of learning. If you can learn in school, great. If the best way you can learn is to go out and be in the ocean, great. Or combine it. I combined it, and I’m so glad that I did. If you can learn in a library, on your own, whatever it takes. But never stop asking questions. Never stop adding to your own data bank. Every new thing you can learn, every new experience you can have, makes you a better, stronger, more credible, more powerful person. That’s education. Read “My Blue Wilderness” by Sylvia Earle in the October 2010 issue of National Geographic magazine, see what Enric Sala had to say after the Talk of the Nation broadcast, learn more about the ocean from National Geographic, get classroom resources for teaching about the oil spill, and find out what you can do to help at

Ford Cochran directs Mission Programs online for National Geographic. He has written for National Geographic magazine and NG Books, and edits BlogWild–a digest of Society exploration, research, and events–and the Ocean Now blog. Ford studied English literature at the College of William and Mary and biogeochemistry at Harvard and Yale, with a focus on volcanoes, forests, and long-term controls on atmospheric CO2. He was an assistant professor of geology and environmental science at the University of Kentucky before joining the National Geographic staff.

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