The Marine Environment: A Look Back, A Look Ahead

Recently, I was privileged to talk for several hours with Sylvia and Jean-Michel about the marine environment and the profound changes that have occurred in the last century, and what we have to look forward to as we begin a new millennium. Their shared passion and knowledge of the subject brought a view that was at once both frightening and hopeful, but beyond all, deeply thought-provoking.

Al: If we look back at the last century, what are the most crucial occurrences and trends that have affected the health of the marine environment?

Sylvia: The sheer number of us is a major part of what has created the current pressures. At the turn of the century, there were fewer than 2 billion people on earth. There were 2 billion by 1930, 4 billion by 1980, and we are close to 6 billion today. That rapid increase in such a short period of time has brought tremendous change. This, coupled with a coincident technological explosion has given us the wherewithal to reconfigure the environment, land, air and sea—even space to some extent. Much of this has happened not just in the last 50 years, but even in the last 25, and the pace is accelerating with respect to the sea. Our means of exploiting it and its creatures, of extracting its wildlife, are being redefined through new technologies and more efficient ways to track these animals, to identify them, capture them, quickly process them at sea and market them around the globe. We´ve created a totally different way of looking at the world through our technologies and through the demand that has come about through our increased population.

Jean-Michel: I completely agree. We have finite resources and the demand is rapidly rising. This is the real dilemma: Is there enough for all of us? We know very well that in countries with fewer people and more wealth, people are better fed, their health is better taken care of and ultimately they will get some education. And only when people are having these basic needs met can we hope for them to care about the environment and the future; for those who are starving, and there are at least a billion people right now who are, they can´t care about the state of the earth 20 years from now. They have to wonder about how they are going to feed their kids tomorrow, and it´s hard to go much beyond that.

Al: Let´s establish some general parameters; what is the reality as to the state of the ocean and its creatures?

Sylvia: Well, back in the 1960s, worldwide, there were aspirations of trying to achieve an annual take of some 100 million tons of wild-caught fish and other creatures from the sea. We never quite reached that level, although around 1989 we came close. The take, since then, has been declining, despite greatly increased efforts. We´ve invested more heavily in technologies to find and remove wildlife from the ocean, but there just isn´t as much there anymore, and in the process, we´ve disrupted the capabilities of the natural systems to continue. Part of the reason is because the techniques we are using are so destructive; like long-lining that indiscriminately takes, irrespective of whether the catch is usable or not, and bottom-trawling devices that are used for scallops, shrimps and certain fish, which are, in effect, much like using bulldozers to catch birds and squirrels in the forest.

Jean-Michel: Yes, and what we should emphasize is that as the technology improves, we become vastly more capable of finding and catching certain species. That gives the false impression that the numbers of those fish are being generally sustained. The reality is that there are fewer and fewer fish in existence—we´re just a lot better at catching them. And we are catching more of them than can be tolerated for many of the species to continue to sustain themselves. In essence, we are not living on the “interest,” we are living off the “capital.” We are not harvesting any species in a sustainable way; we are basically going bankrupt.

The reality is that there are fewer and fewer fish in existence—we’re just a lot better at catching them. And we are catching more of them than can be tolerated . . .

Sylvia: When species such as Blue-fin Tuna in the Atlantic are down to only 10 percent of the number they were 30 years ago, they´re already bankrupt. In California, the numbers of creatures such as Bocaccio are down to less than two percent of what they were 30 years ago. It doesn´t take a mathematician to think, “Wait a minute. Something´s not right here.”

It may be possible for us to continue to look to the sea as a place to extract a certain amount of food, but there is little hope that we can simply go on the way we have for the past century. We´ve demonstrated already that what we are doing does not and cannot work. The sea cannot sustain the level of perdition our species is imposing. I worry about the situation continuing to worsen, because I´ve attended international meetings lately where the discussions concern a gearing up to begin taking from the last three remaining concentrations of wild protein on the planet: Krill from Antarctica, squid from the open ocean and coastal waters—there is no regulation of the numbers of squid that can be taken—and finally, the creatures of the mid-water deep areas, which have previously been protected because of their inaccessibility.

But now nothing is really inaccessible if we make up our minds about it. Who would have imagined, not even 10 years ago, that nations would be targeting those rich, sea life communities of the so-called deep scattering layer, several thousand feet below the surface? It´s a mix of tiny crustaceans and little fish with lights down their sides, and small squids and other unusual creatures that have been too remote for us to even have identified for the most part, and now they´re going to be scooped up, in huge quantities, in fine mesh nets and turned into fish protein concentrate.

Al: And what about the coral reefs?

Sylvia: Well, I´ve heard many figures about what percentage of them have been lost in our lifetime, and projections as to what could happen in the next half-century. It´s hard to really know, though, because no one has made a full assessment. You can, however, tell some things from satellite imaging, aerial surveys and direct observation, and get a feel for what is happening. I´m reluctant to throw out a bunch of figures, but I´m not at all reluctant to suggest that there is a tragic downhill slide. The trend is frightening, and I see places I personally know that have changed drastically, and not for the better. Coral reefs in many places the last few years, places that would have seemed insulated from the problems that relate to high population densities, have been affected. People have come back from visits to some of the most remote reefs on earth saying, “What´s going on? Everything was dead!”

Al: And the chief causes?

Sylvia: The issues are very complex, but I think what is happening is a combination of stresses that relate in part to a slight global warming trend, which of itself, may be simply a naturally occurring cycle. The conditions in which many reefs must try to recover, however, with polluted water, important neighbor species missing or out of balance and so forth, are not natural. The reduced ability of coral communities to survive and recover from even natural occurrences is a very real part of the problem.

Al: If we compare what we are doing in the oceans with what we have historically done on land, the consideration of the transition from hunting-gathering to agriculture seems important. What role can aquatic agriculture play in providing options?

Jean-Michel: Obviously, that´s part of the answer. There are some big concerns, however, because in our efforts to grow and raise things, to farm the ocean, we´re making a lot of mistakes. What’s happening today with the shrimp-farming industry is a disaster to the mangrove areas of the world, where most of the shrimp growing is done. Already, an estimated 52 percent of the world’s mangroves have been cut, and they are continuing to go fast.

In the Pacific Northwest, a species of Atlantic salmon was introduced for farming that we were told could not escape the pens. They have escaped. We were told they could not breed in the Pacific. They are breeding now, already in their third generation. We were told they could not interbreed with native species, but they are. Beyond this, there´s a concentration of pollutants, like the untreated feces of the farmed fish and the uneaten food that goes through the mesh of the pens—80 to 85 percent of the feed is wasted, and there´s a large concentration of that food on the ocean floor that contains antibiotics and other chemicals that create difficulties for other species. There are a lot of problems that are coming out of the effort to farm the sea.

We need to learn to do it, but we need it to be done in more controlled ways, in controlled environments. Otherwise, we are going to actually contribute to an increase in the destruction of coastal areas and species.

Sylvia: We need to learn from our successes and failures in land agriculture and not make the same mistakes. While agriculture keeps us going, it is no panacea either. It is, after all, one of the largest sources of problems that relate to the ocean—think of the damage being caused by pig farms in North Carolina to local waters, and in the “dead zone” of the Gulf of Mexico, caused by what happens upstream in the Mississippi. And, of course, to try to raise top-of-the-food-chain predators doesn´t make sense, yet that´s where a lot of the efforts go, with attempts to farm salmon and even tuna. We need to start at the bottom of the chain, not the top. Catfish and Talipa are much better candidates. By learning some of the cause and effect relationships, we should be able to do much better than we have so far.

Al: With all of this, what do we do? How can we begin to bring about positive change?

Jean-Michel: Perhaps the good news is that provided we act, and do not completely eradicate a species, it can come back. We have examples like California Gray Whales and other species that were on the verge of extinction, but have rebounded because we stopped the destruction soon enough. I think we need to hang on to those examples and create new ones, because that´s really the hope of tomorrow.

Sylvia: We certainly can´t go back to how it was when we were kids, but we can take action now so that our kids and their kids, from their perches in the future, can look back and say, “Thanks for keeping the doors open, for keeping some options open for us.”

Even for our generation, without the actions of others over the last century, where would we be? If national parks such as Yellowstone had not been formed long ago, what chance would we have of saving those areas if we had to start only now? We need to make similar efforts for the sea in order to protect that ongoing legacy, with policies that set aside certain special ocean places. It won´t completely hold the line, but it´s one thing we know we can do that will have positive results.

Jean-Michel: We can do it, although it is a little more complicated because we can´t rope off a piece of the ocean.

Sylvia: Yes, but in a way we can´t rope off the land either, but we have to try. The birds fly in and out, just like the fish swim in and out. So there have to be over-arching policies. Even as we make the effort to protect certain physical environments, we also need the policies that extend beyond the fixed boundaries.

Jean-Michel: Unfortunately, it´s harder for people to understand the more abstract boundaries of the ocean. On land, it´s easy to understand: This is an important spot and we must be careful with it. On the sea people don´t relate the same way. This difference in attitude shows up in the management of our 12 marine sanctuaries, where people can still do virtually anything they want.

Sylvia: Yes, but maybe times and understanding can change. In the first 25 years of our national parks it was okay to go out and knock off the woodpeckers and shoot the bears and other “varmints.” I think we have come to that point with the ocean, when we need to have true sanctuary areas. That may be the only hope for some places that are now in jeopardy from all the destructive things we have been doing.

Al: Is this evolution of policy from the same point of reference that historically allowed logging, mining and free-range cattle grazing in the national parks?

Sylvia: No question about it. We need to understand that some of the same new ethics that have served us well in creating protective measures on land can also serve us well in the sea. People ask me, as I´m sure they do both of you, about what the biggest problem is that´s facing the future of the oceans. I certainly worry about pollution, about what we are putting into the sea. I also worry about what we are taking out of it. But the biggest problem, far and away, is the complacency that comes from not understanding the nature of the sea or how important it is, regardless of where one may live. Most people simply are not connected emotionally and intellectually to the ocean in the same ways they are to the land.

But this connection, this awareness, is beginning to grow. I think your father, Jean-Michel, had so much to do with getting humankind to begin to think about how we are absolutely dependent upon the sea. It´s not just a beautiful place to visit, it is absolutely vital to the human race; it´s the cornerstone of our life support system. Unfortunately, that knowledge has not yet become fundamental to the way we think, to the way we act. It is necessary to make that leap, to begin to understand and respect the ocean and what lives there, not just for their sake, but for our own. It´s so easy to be complacent, to not care or to continue to do things that are damaging to the sea, if we don´t feel how it matters to us. Once we do feel and understand that, then there´s a sense of urgency about doing everything that can be done to turn things around.

Jean-Michel: I think there needs to be a sense of urgency, and the coming century is essentially where we are going to have to find some very important answers. We will have to find a way to get people who are in the most need out of their miserable situations. Only by feeding them and providing reasonable health care and education, can we hope to have them become a part of resolving the world´s environmental issues. I was in Haiti, in 1985, when 10,000 trees had been planted to help the island´s disastrous soil erosion. Unfortunately, overnight, those trees were gone, because the people needed the wood to make fire and charcoal. That really struck me very hard and made me realize how much simpler it is for privileged societies to deal with environmental issues.

For us in the U.S., we need to really evaluate how we, in many ways, abuse these privileges and advantages we have. We have only five percent of the world´s population but account for 20 percent of the energy consumption. The average American produces three pounds of garbage for every one pound produced by a European. We really do need to re-evaluate how we look at ourselves and our place on the planet. It´s amazing to think that we live in a world where we flush away potable water every time we go to the bathroom, yet at the same time, go to the grocery store to buy water at a price three to five times the cost of gasoline. In many ways, I think we are nuts. We are all getting the signals, but we aren´t acting on them.

At the same time, we need to find new ways to help people to understand these issues. Thirty years ago, when my dad began putting out the message about the marine environment with his films and books, people were shocked, and they couldn´t help but notice that something was being said that was different than they had heard before. In this day and age, however, there are hundreds of films on television about the ocean, some of them carrying a good message, some of them not. Unfortunately, this makes the good messages less notable, as they become lost in the crowd.

I think it boils down to how do we find the ways to get people to understand and to become concerned? How do we get that education out there, so people can begin to really comprehend how dependent and connected we are to the seas? I remember being in Aspen, Colorado, at an environmental conference by John Denver. Somebody surprised me by asking, “Well, you are Cousteau. Your issues are with the ocean. What are you doing here?”

I was taken aback, but I recovered enough to say that it was because the ocean was on top of their mountains. That´s how connected we are. We have to find a way to be more forceful in this and to show people that they are in a relationship with the ocean, whether they live in Topeka, Kansas, or Santa Monica, California.

Al: Do you think the worldwide dive community has a meaningful part to play in this effort?

Sylvia: Oh, absolutely. It comes back to opening people´s minds to what is there. There´s nothing like jumping into the sea and seeing for yourself to make you understand what´s going on. It´s this direct exposure that has created millions of new ambassadors for the sea. That´s what divers inherently can be.

Jean-Michel: And that´s what they should be.

Sylvia: Should be and must be. They know from personal experience what others can only imagine. And if they can share what they know by talking about it and through all the other means of communication they have, and bring others into diving and get them involved, too, they can magnify the effort directly.

Jean-Michel: I really think there´s a mission here, a mission for everybody. There are a lot of us today I would call eco-divers, and there is no one else who can bring that message home. Divers as a whole must take the responsibility of being the ambassadors, as Sylvia said, to bring the message to their friends, families and workplace. If they have an audience, they should go for it. Because, if that doesn´t happen on a broad basis, our decision-makers, the heads of governments and industry, will likely never put their own heads underwater and will not be able to take care of the problems. They have no idea of the realities; the ocean is abstract, it´s foreign, it´s a vast empty space to them.

We have a great example we are very proud of; we took the Minister of Tourism of the Cayman Islands, the Honorable Thomas Jefferson, a man with a tremendous potential impact on the ocean surrounding his country, and taught him to dive. Since then, he has become an outspoken advocate for responsible management of the marine environment, not only in his own islands, but through presentations to other governments struggling to balance the issues of use and conservation of their own ocean resources.

I think our most important job, our responsibility as divers and as a community, is to go out and get more people into diving. Let´s especially try to get young people into the water and have them totally dazzled by the incredible happenings there. We can create an army of aware, committed ambassadors to carry the message and bring about change, bit by bit.

Sylvia: We all need to bring our personal talents and resources to bear, whatever they may be. You, Al, as editor of Skin Diver have tremendous power to reach people, and you´re using that power in a very constructive, positive way. You´re spreading the word; you´re getting people tuned in to what the problems are. I think everyone should similarly look in the mirror and ask what he or she can do—every person has something special he or she can do to make a positive difference.

Al: What are your hopes for the future, what´s the “what if?” you each think about?

Sylvia: Well, I am personally driven, haunted by the view I touched on earlier, that those who come after us will look back and say, “Why didn´t you do something? You were there when there were Blue Whales, when there were coral reefs, when there was still a chance to allow cod and tuna and Swordfish to rebound, and you just didn´t do anything.” Or, maybe they might say, instead, “Thanks for doing whatever it was you did that turned things around or kept the options open or made it possible to be able build on the actions you took.”

There are some positive things we´ve done on the land and the sea. We´ve stopped, for the most part, the commercial killing of the great whales. And even though only five percent of the original pristine forest growth remains in the U.S., we´ve at least begun to understand the need to retain what´s left, and the wildlife that is associated with it. Similarly in the ocean, as we collectively become aware that the sea is not by any means infinite, but extremely vulnerable to what we do and don´t do, I think we will be inspired to do the right thing, to maintain those systems that are fundamental to the way the world works, to our life support.

Not that we can make more whales or build more coral reefs, but we can certainly take pressure off the natural systems and allow the natural forces the opportunity to rebuild and replenish. We can either let business continue as usual, until we finally consume the last edible fish in the ocean, or we can say, “No, that´s not the best and highest use for life in the ocean.” Maybe, instead, our interests are best served by allowing the distillation of the four and one-half billion years of preceding time to continue providing for this blue planet the things we have historically taken for granted: the air we breathe, the benevolent window of climate, weather and all the rest that sets our world apart from any other place.

We have the capability to undermine the way the world works, and we are exercising that capability. We are tugging away at the natural systems that keep us alive, and if we continue, our future—and the future of every other creature here—is in jeopardy. But, if we pull back and take stock, and do everything we can to not let this deterioration continue and begin to rebuild what we can, then we will do the best with the opportunity that is now before us. I think, without question, that this is a turning point. We know more; we´ve learned more about the oceans in the last one-half—perhaps even the last one-quarter—century than during all preceding human history. It´s time, right now, to use the knowledge we´ve learned in our lifetime, and to turn it into positive goals to try to ensure an enduring place for ourselves within these natural systems, systems largely dominated by the sea. So there!

Jean-Michel: Sylvia, with more of you, perhaps we can turn it around. We do have some advantages now that can make a difference, especially our extraordinary tools in communication. The fact that within minutes we now know what´s happening on the other side of the earth; we can´t hide anything from anyone for very long. I also think we have enough creativity, we´ve seen it before in times of crisis—we seem to always, somehow, find an answer. That we always seem to wait until the crisis hits before we start certainly makes it more complicated and expensive, however.

There are positive signs, though, with the creation of organizations like Ocean Futures and others that are becoming more efficient and effective. Technology is beginning to be put to work, like the Sea Keepers´ water quality measurement program, in which a piece of equipment—that only costs $40,000—is being put on ships all over the world and will analyze water as the ships move about, relaying the data to a center for ongoing analysis. There´s the use of NASA photographs and other measurement data that is just beginning. We´ve been taking pictures and measurements from space for 30 years, but we´ve never really utilized them to look at the oceans as a whole. For example, in the European Science Department there are 200,000 pictures just sitting there, that have really never been studied. Using all of this, we can now look at planet Earth globally and see the environmental changes, as well as changes in water quality and availability.

And I’m afraid this issue of water will be the conflict of the 21st century, just as oil has been in the last 25 years. The vying for its control will undoubtedly result in tensions, legal actions and maybe even water wars between countries in the years to come.

With all this, I´m still hopeful. I´ll go back to what we were saying about young people. I am a firm believer that they, especially those not yet teenagers, and their grandparents, can become very important to this effort. We need to help create an information bridge between them. The kids are like sponges, always ready to soak up knowledge. The grandparents have time and wisdom, as well as perhaps the number one treasure: an enormous amount of love for their grandchildren. Can we create programs to help grandparents teach their grandchildren about the environment? Perhaps we can.

Finally, I´d like to close with a question. When, in a billion years from now, the earth goes to dust and the Supreme Being writes the history book about the five and one-half billion years of planet Earth, do you think we´ll be mentioned?

Sylvia: Hmm…Good question. You mean our little blip of time?

Jean-Michel: That´s right.

Sylvia: A few millennia squeezed between a few ice ages, here and there?

Al: Well, maybe that´s some of what we are talking about. Perhaps what we do—and don´t do—in this next century will be the most significant determinant of whether we end up being here until our species´ natural end, or whether we disappear ignominiously somewhere along the way. I guess I´d like to hope that the book would note that we made it honorably all the way through.

Sylvia: That´s right. And if we make the right choices now, perhaps we will. Perhaps we will.