“We take 100 million tons of sea creatures out of the ocean every year and replace them with 100 million tons of garbage,” says Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer and the National Geographic Society’s Explorer-in-Residence.
In her new book, ‘The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean’s Are One,” Earle explains how close we are to a tipping point.
She founded Mission Blue to create a network of marine protected areas, or “hope spots,” large enough to restore the ocean’s biodiversity. Last year, the TED Foundation awarded her the $100,000 “One Wish to Change the World” prize.
We met during her recent trip to New York.
Lundborg: Does the Gulf oil spill make you angry?
Earle: I consider it a big two-by-four to the head. We’d slipped into a kind of complacency about drilling.
Lundborg: Don’t the containment efforts so far seem lame? “Top hat?” “Junk shot?”
Earle: Working in water this deep highlights the inadequacy of our technologies.
Unless you’re prepared to deal with the chance that it could go haywire, you shouldn’t do it. This spill should make everyone question what we’re allowing to happen with our eyes wide open - - nothing has been hidden.
Lundborg: What’s the worst thing about this spill?
Earle: The ocean is being poisoned. It’s not just the oil itself but also the dispersants that are complicating and magnifying the impact of the harm.
Lundborg: Which areas are most affected?
Earle: One critical area is near the surface, where the dolphins and sea turtles come up into the slick, breathe the toxic air and get chemicals on their skin. Birds land unwittingly and get their feathers and lungs affected.
But the little guys drive the system as a whole, and that’s the area of greatest concern.
Lundborg: How long-term is the damage?
Earle: Toxins that get in the food chain will be there for some time to come. Oil from the Exxon Valdez still lingers in the beaches. It’s in the rocks and it’s still written in the depressed numbers of otters and the changes in the populations of birds. Plus we don’t even have the ability to calculate the impact on fish and other creatures in the sea.
Lundborg: The Gulf is one of Mission Blue’s hope spots, so what happens now?
Earle: Even if an area has been totally ravaged, if we can take actions that help turn things around, there’s still hope.
You can go too far, though. We destroyed the last of the monk seals in 1952. There’s no hope for them, but there are still a few grouper and tuna that should be left alone and given the chance to recover.
Lundborg: You write that you haven’t been on a dive in the past 30 years without seeing garbage. That’s shocking.
Earle: Even in submersibles, going 2 1/2 miles beneath the surface in the Nankai Trough many miles offshore, I’ve seen evidence of what we’re dumping into the sea.
Lundborg: We’ve taken out 90 percent of the big fish?
Earle: And a lot of the small ones too, the menhaden, anchovies and herring. We’re seeing an accelerated decline now.
Look at the photos of Ernest Hemingway and the giant trophy fish he caught. We have miniature versions today - 2 feet instead of 10 feet long. It’s appalling.
Lundborg: Whales are still being slaughtered for fertilizer, ivory trinkets and cat food?
Earle: Japan, Norway and Iceland are killing large whales and they’re rich countries. Denmark is killing smaller pilot whales in a horrible way and other countries are also hunting.
Role of Subsidies
Lundborg: The whaling industry is subsidized so why can’t it be stopped?
Earle: So is the fishing industry. We’re paying billions of dollars so commercial fisherman can destroy the ocean.
People don’t know the real cost of the shrimp that are on their plates. Trawling for shrimp is like bulldozing a forest to catch songbirds and squirrels. You throw away the forest and all the other creatures and shake out a few pounds of protein.
Lundborg: People should stop eating sushi now?
Earle: For every pound of sushi that goes to market, 10 to 100 pounds are thrown away as by-catch. There are also the problems with mercury, fire retardant and pesticide contamination. Yum, yum.
Lundborg: You say that consuming blue fin tuna is like eating snow leopards and pandas, so no one should eat tuna anymore?
Earle: Blue fins are the most at risk partly because they are the most desired. Yellow fins and others aren’t as depressed, but it doesn’t mean they’re not in trouble.
Lundborg: So what can we eat?
Earle: Think about the economics. To make a pound of chicken, it takes about two pounds of plants, sunlight and 7 months.
Tuna is at the top of the food chain so it takes 10 to 100,000 pounds of plants for a pound of tuna. That’s not a good deal.
Farmed catfish, tilapia, carp and certain mollusks are the best choices.
Lundborg: People still think the ocean is free for us to exploit, so how can that change?
Earle: The most valuable resource that we’re obtaining from the ocean is life itself: It’s the air we breathe, it’s the carbon dioxide that’s grabbed by the ocean, the thermo- regulation, the services that we have a hard time putting a number on.
What’s your life worth?
(Zinta Lundborg is a writer for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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