Sunday, October 4, 2009

Our Changing Oceans

Summary of a Discussion


The Very Rev. Samuel T. Lloyd III

The Very Reverend Samuel T. Lloyd III of Washington's National Cathedral has been interviewing eminent authors recently in an effort to understand better "the intersection of faith and public life." It is to his credit and to our benefit that he is such an empathetic theologian and gifted interviewer dedicated to broadening public awareness of current issues with wide-ranging importance while educating his audience.

Here are a few of the highlights of his talk today with Dr. Sylvia Earle, one of America's foremost oceanographers.


Sylvia Earle, Ph.D.

Our Connections with Oceans Are Being Threatened

Dr. Earle is endeavoring to promote the immense importance of the oceans because of our dependence on them. We're all connected with the sea, she says. It's endlessly beautiful and fascinating to study.

We don't know enough about the mystery of the sea depths. Less than 5% of the ocean is known and has been mapped. Yet the earth's water is the single non-negotiable requirement of human life. An atlas of the sea floor has yet to be worked on. Acoustically and by satellite we can learn about the ocean floor.

Why do we need to know more?

We used to think of the oceans as big, vast and resilient. Now we have learned "there are limits". We think it's okay, that we can go anywhere and catch any sea life without knowing the consequences. But fish have been 90% depleted and policies haven't caught up with what we know are issues. Shark-fin soup, for example, has become more widespread, cheap and popular. But man is eating fish at a rate that is unsustainable in the long run.

Fish and plants are our life support systems, as are birds. Fish are wildlife. They are, with a few exceptions, carnivores; higher than lions and tigers on the food chain. Most of them eat other fish. They are full of mercury, fire retardants, pesticides, herbicides. Anything that goes into the ocean comes back to us in the fish we eat in concentrated doses and high levels of contaminants.

What to do?

Dr. Earle recommends:

1) seeing fish in a) aquariums, or b) in the oceans.

2) that Americans select catfish, tilapia and carp, sourced and farmed locally. These fish take about one year to grow and eat plant foods in controlled environments.

She says that tunas eats many other fish and take about six years to grow to maturity, swordfish can grow up to 30 years and orange roughy, found in depths below 1000 feet are being fished aggressively, and sold cheaply, and are over 200 years old. These fish require lots of food and are natural cleaners of the environment.

The methods of getting shrimp now are unethical, Earle says, -- "terrible" -- because trawlers scrape the ocean floor, like bulldozers over the forest floor and take everything in it and produce only a small resulting harvest. She cites the movie "Forrest Gump" with videos of trawling, and claims that this ploughing isn't right. It's destroying the ocean's capacity to give life. Trawlers such as those in "The Perfect Storm" with plastic wire and baited hooks use small fish and squid to bait bigger fish and further deplete the world's supply of fish.

We have to think of oceans as more than dumpsites, she says, because they are places to take food from. The ocean gives us life, oxygen, water, drives the carbon dioxide cycle, the nitrogen cycle and climate change and is the host of most life on earth. "We only see the surface" she says. Since we get our life from the ocean, we know now that we can and must "do better".

Principal Threats to the Oceans

At this point, Dean Lloyd asks Dr. Earle about principal threats to the world's oceans. What are they?

Man is disrupting the chemistry of the planet by inserting excess carbon dioxide into the ocean (only some of which is necessary). This carbon dioxide drives photosynthesis, but we don't yet know what it will do to these tiny ocean creatures if we change tiny photosynthetic life in the oceans, she says. She questions what we are doing to the ocean.

We are oblivious to the issues as far as climate change and global warning are concerned. We need to learn more about our oceans, and do something about it. Taking care of the ocean is taking care of us.

The oceans are being used as garbage dumps. Plastics have entered our culture and have become a "backbone" of our society. But what we do with it when we are done with it is shocking. There is trash even 1000 feet under water. Even in areas where no one lives, debris is in beaches from ships and dumps. Our population numbers, our use and abuse have all increased. We need to think more about how to dispose of plastics and appliances, cellphones and computers and so on, because our modern trash is not decomposing fast.

Are we having any impact yet?

We need to make better choices, not expect seafood in restaurants all over the world. We are eating the wildlife equivalent of "snow leopards and tigers" as necessities every day. But they soon won't be on restaurant menus. We will see the last of the ocean's fish "on our watch" Dr. Earle says, because we will have eaten them. In her speech here, Earle says that 90% of the world's fish has already been eaten. Oysters are down 98% in 100 years, and squads of fish that clean up the Chesapeake Bay, for example, are being depleted as well. While the planet is still supporting us, she wonders how long can we continue to draw down our natural assets.

As a recent winner of the TED (technology, entertainment, design) Project Prize, Earle had the opportunity to make her consistently stated long-time wish to change the world known again. Her wish is to mobilize the people of the world with our minds and hearts to identify, stabilize, communicate and protect critical areas of marine "hope spots" in the "vital blue heart of the planet".

She says that 4500 marine sanctuaries and national parks have so far been protected, but this is less than .1% of marine real estate of the world. We need to create areas where fish can live and prosper and create more fish. So far 300,000 square miles of ocean is fully protected, more than the state parks in the U.S., and it goes out 200 miles. But this is still far less than just .1% of possible ocean space. Martha's Vineyard is an example of a place that is looking at what they can do. We need to protect the places that protect us because the ocean keeps us alive.

What can we do?

Dr. Earle says we can:

1) Support those who make rules and laws that can change the ways we use the world's oceans.

2) Watch which fish we eat. Earle says that crabs are wildlife, and they should be eaten with respect, because we don't fully know how to cultivate them. She doesn't want to eat blue, dungeness or any kind of crabs.

3) We can take leadership roles in America. Australia and the Maldives (threatened with extinction from flooding) and others. Oceans are part of the hunger problem as well.

4) Learn about oceans, get involved in cleanups and not use plastic and styrofoam as much. Everything starts with individuals, she says.

5) Eco-tourism can hurt in excess, but mainly it helps educate. National Geographic in partnership with Lindblad Expeditions has wonderful trips.

There's a chance, Earle says, that with knowing comes caring. "A sea-change [in thinking] is what we really need."

How can Businesses Sustain Our Oceans?

Back to the question of plastics and styrofoam debris in the oceans, Earle says that the South Pacific garbage patch is hard to see from high in the sky, but really plastics have reached into all of the oceans. The currents gather together the plastic debris. There is also a lot of plastic in the surfs off Mexico. Earle says we're "trashing" our home, the oceans are our circulatory systems. She says that businesses like that of Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia, have made plastics into patagonian fleeces. But we need to focus on more than one-time uses of plastics, and find better uses because it doesn't go away. The plastics and styrofoam in bottles make "nurdles", mermaid's tears, tiny plastic pellets that oysters and birds eat and then die from. Earles says that hundreds of thousands of birds can't fly if they eat it.

Another way man is disrupting the sea is with sound. Jacques Cousteau may have said that the sea is silent, but Earle says it is really very noisy down there. Every mammal makes a sound. Groupers can break the glass in aquariums with their powerful noises. Fish communicate with sound, and we are likely disrupting that. It's something we won't know until far out into the future.

Earle does think that controlled closed-system aquaculture has real promise. What you can do with biological filtration is breed fish and raise tilapia, carp and catfish in aquariums. But many fish haven't been successfully bred in captivity yet.

Earle is sounding a loud alarm that the industrialized extraction of fish is depleting the ocean of its wildlife. The commercial market large-scale away from the ocean is a relatively short-term phenomenon that won't last. She says we should give some fishermen a soft landing, economic alternatives, perhaps paying them not to fish. They're taking away from the common treasury, the same asset base. This is an issue that can be solved only when we realize it's a problem. We have to take actions and hold back. We have to give ourselves and the fish a break.


Dr. Earle is Time Magazine's first "Hero for the Planet", winner of the prestigious Ted Award, and explorer-in-residence at National Geographic, as well as a huge number of other achievements detailed here in Wikipedia. Her most recent book is Ocean: An Illustrated Atlas and here is a book about her, Sylvia Earle, by Beth Baker.

My apologies for any inaccuracies in this summary, with my thanks to the National Cathedral, and to the Very Rev. Sam Lloyd especially. His service of worship has become available online to all of us unable to attend in person, for whatever reason. For that we should all be most grateful.

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