Protecting the oceans with Sylvia Earle

At the 2016 Swiss Energy and Climate Summit in Bern, oceanographer and National Geographic Society explorer Sylvia Earle enthralled the audience with her passion for the oceans and a sustainable future. In a private interview with Andrea Schaller, founder of the Global Environmental Society, she expanded on her viewpoints and recommendations.
Learn early about life cycles

Life cycles shape the chemistry of the planet. That’s why Sylvia Earle thinks it’s important that people learn about biogeochemical cycles, just like they learn to read and write. “You should learn who you are and where you are in the natural world. It seems like a daunting route, but not if you learn it when you’re five years old,” she says.

The good news is that civilization has the gift of information. So even if you didn’t learn about the carbon cycle in school, you see it in advertising, read about it in articles, and absorb it through the blitz of media. The key is that we have access to information, so it’s up to us to make the effort to learn and apply that knowledge, according to Earle.

Offshore wind farms both good and bad

When asked about the impact of the rising amount of offshore wind farms on ocean wildlife, Earle shared both positive and negative points. The obvious beneficial aspect: anything that can be done to lower our carbon footprint is a benefit to all life, not just to us. Secondly, the position of the structures creates a habitat for creatures that otherwise would perhaps not have a hard surface to attach to. However, if they’re coated with anti-corrosion or anti-fouling chemicals, they end up polluting the water.

Anything put into the ocean inevitably displaces other sea creatures. Mud and sand may look as if they were empty space, but they are home to many inhabitants. Earle points out that a famous study in an intertidal sandy area in Saudi Arabia showed half a million small creatures located within just one cubic meter of sand.

Furthermore, the blades of the wind turbines are lethal to birds, insects, and bats. As Earle explains, there is nothing in their survival mechanism to account for the new ways we have devised of killing them, just as marine animals have no way to prepare for avoiding trawling nets and other destructive fishing techniques. Nothing in their history has prepared them for this.

Effects of cruise ships

The amount of cruise ships keeps growing and their effect on marine life is mostly detrimental. 50 years ago we couldn’t imagine the noise, animal collisions, and water column disruption we know about today. Earle points out that the way ships cut into the water column, thereby stirring up different layers, is different than how waves from a storm stir up the water. Efficiency should be addressed by the companies, since there are now innovative propellers and sails that reduce the consumption of fuel.

However, the oceanographer sees a bright side as well. “Cruise companies should take it upon themselves to use the opportunity to instruct people and educate them about the ocean. Instead of just being a big shopping, gambling, and entertainment centre, there are creative ways of entertainment, where people can go away with more than just having spent a lot of money. They’ll go away personally enriched with knowledge that they should be telling other people about as they’re flying over underwater mountains and amazing formations.” Nourish the spirit of discovery by making it entertaining and meaningful, then people will get excited and will want to know what’s under the boat, she advises cruise companies. “Tell them about the movements of whales, migration routes of cod, and how exciting it is to live on an ocean planet.”

Insects and herbivores as food

Quite simply, our mindset about eating insects needs to change. People eat lobsters and shrimp because they grow up with the perception that they are a delicacy. Insects are a very efficient source of protein, not only because they are grazers. Most land-based animals we eat are plant eaters. But if you look at the fish we eat, not only are they often carnivores, many are even top predators that are sometimes decades old, says Earle.

Economically, that’s not a smart system. Fishers can make money only because they don’t need to pay the cost of the fish. If you would pay the real cost, raising cultivated ornamental fish for aquariums would make you more money per pound. Eating wild caught carnivorous fish is not a reasonable option with 7 billion people on the planet.

Moreover, carnivorous fish are probably the worst choice you can make for yourself and the planet, because the concentrations of toxins build up in higher predators. They also play a very important role in ecosystems, so they are best left alone. According to Earle, a wild-caught plant-eating fish is the best fish choice, next to abstaining from eating fish at all. “The most important thing that we extract from the oceans is our existence: the more we leave it alone, the better off we’ll be.”

“I challenge the grand chefs of the world to be creative about using plants,” so the 81-year-old. You can make a diet that is comprised of only plants which is better for the planet. If you do eat animals, consider eating those that eat plants, instead of carnivorous ones.

Eating plastic

It’s hard to find anything that hasn’t been touched by plastics. The plastic waste in the oceans doesn’t only have physical effects (such as strangling wildlife) but also the water chemistry is affected. In the early days of plastic manufacturing, no one knew the magnitude of the implications, so Earle doesn’t blame the manufacturers. But now we know. It seemed like such a good idea at the time. It served us well, but it also cost us dearly.

For generations we’ll be paying the cost, because every bit of plastic ever made is still here. It never goes away; it just gets smaller and smaller. So if you’re eating oysters, you’re likely eating plastic, because they ingest the microparticles.

Mission Blue

Silvia Earle’s Mission Blue initiative and documentary is primarily focused on communication. She emphasises the need to keep discovering and inspiring others to join in the quest for more marine protected areas. Earle reminds us that anyone can observe carefully and report honestly what they see, learn to evaluate the evidence, and never stop asking questions. Find out more about Mission Blue here.

Photo credit: SwissECS 2016

Andrea Schaller

Founder and editor Go4Ges

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