Interview with Dr. Sylvia Earle

Today I spent 15 minutes, 31 seconds (but who’s counting?) on the phone with Dr. Sylvia Earle. Wow. What a huge honor. And for me, a dream come true. As you know from my previous post — she’s a hero to me and more importantly, to the ocean. Without further waxing poetic… here’s what we talked about. Read it — then go see disneynature oceans posterOCEANS as soon as possible — and spread the word!

MarineBio (MB): How would you describe the changes in the oceans since you first began your career as a scientist and explorer?

Sylvia Earle (SE): I first began diving in the pre-plastic era; now we are engulfed by plastic and other things. Not that plastic is bad — it’s what we do with it that causes problems. Some of that is shown in the OCEANS film. The OCEANS film is largely a celebration of life, and all of that but there are few things that indicate that the ocean is in trouble. And that has become clear to me in my lifetime. Since I was a child, when I first heard about Rachel Carson and read her books, half the coral reefs in the world have disappeared or are in a state of terrible decline. Great loss of mangroves, sea grass and kelp forests around the world have declined and 90% of the fish we like to consume have disappeared. We have taken too much out of the sea and we put too much into the sea not really respecting that there are limits to what we can extract and put into the ocean.

MB: Yes. I said in a blog post last night that when I first read your book, sitting on the beach on the Gulf Coast of Florida, it scared me. It inspired me, but it also scared me. Then I became involved [in marine conservation], and now I’m terrified.

SE: I hope that you all have a positive feeling that there are things we can do. The biggest thing is for people to be aware, to know, that the Ocean matters. And that’s one thing that this Disney film about the oceans actually achieves. People, I think, will be listening with a sense of amazement and wonder and joy when they actually see the creatures as they haven’t seen them before. To cruise along with the dolphins underwater actually in the midst of a school of small fish with birds falling out of the sky and diving into lunch. A whale comes by. It’s just extraordinary. These are scenes that we can dream about — most people just dream about — but through this film we can share them.

MB: That’s exactly what we try to do on MarineBio. We try to juxtapose the beauty and wonder of the ocean with the problems and instill hope. It’s not a futile situation, but we need action now.

SE: Yes. One of the solutions Disney is actually helping to make happen is that a portion of the proceeds from the film is being dedicated to establishing protected areas through the Nature Conservancy. Ocean protected areas. It’s really a move in the right direction. I think all of us should be supporting similar moves. It’s like having parks. Marine Protected Areas are to the sea what national parks are to the land. They’re sources of restoration, sources of hope.

MB: We’re huge advocates for that. Erich Hoyt is one of our board members, so we also want to promote your Mission Blue effort. Congratulations on winning the TED Prize! It’s [MPAs] extremely important and I think one of the most urgent solutions that need to be implemented. That’s my next question for you. What are some of the solutions that need to be implemented quickly to stop some of the devastation?

SE: The destructive fishing practices… the trawling, the dredging that destroys — it not only takes too many fish out of the ocean, it also destroys the habitat, the ecosystems where they live. One of these approaches taking wildlife from sea is the equivalent of using bulldozers to take squirrels and song-birds. They destroy ecosystems, then throw most of what they catch away, we call that by-catch. If people could see what was actually happening they might think hard about the choices they make about what they take from the sea to eat. That’s one of the moves we can make to take the pressure off these wild populations. Realize that it is wildlife and make better choices. It doesn’t mean that we need to stop eating fish and wildlife but we should be conscious of the real cost and make better choices.

MB: Yes, that’s something we also promote. I recently posted [in the blog] some pictures of shark fins, and they were ugly pictures, but they sparked an instant response and people were shocked.

SE: We need to do everything we can to protect every shark. There are so few remaining. It’s good news when you see one and bad news when one dies. Whether it’s taken for sharkfin soup or anything else — we respect wildlife from the land — we need to think hard about what the ocean would be like without sharks and groupers and snappers, tunas and swordfish. We’re right on the edge. Continued business as usual with the large scale extraction of ocean wildlife — there basically won’t be commercial fishing by the middle of this century. The trends are so obvious when you pull back and look at it.

MB: That’s the message that I share with my readers. Another question I have for you is an online web outlet that reaches hundreds of thousands every month, what message should we convey? Should we try to influence public opinion so that they can influence policy makers? Should we target the fisheries?

SE: The first step is knowing. Be aware, be informed. Know where the fish that you see in the markets come from. I personally have stopped consuming ocean wildlife. I think every fish alive is more valuable than swimming in butter and lemon on a plate! Give them a break. Give them a chance. It’s true of lobsters and all other forms of ocean wildlife that suffer. We’re seeing nations taking whales and it’s ironic with the love that most people have and the respect that people have for our fellow mammals in the sea — to realize that some don’t share that view and are continuing to kill them…. [OCEANS] is an important step — to give people who never get to see a live grouper or a live tuna or to know what a swordfish looks like when it’s swimming in the ocean a chance to see them — if they don’t, they’re not as likely to care.

MB: No, but when you do see one it’s almost a spiritual experience. We try to share those stories of our adventures when we go on expeditions. So that leads me to another question for you. What are some of the most memorable encounters you’ve had with marine wildlife? That’s probably a tough one as long as you’ve been doing this!

SE: Diving with whales ranks pretty high. Getting to know individual whales, humpbacks in particular, in Hawaii and Alaska and elsewhere where they range. But also, collectively, getting to know creatures in the sea on their own terms. I have explored the ocean using some of the techniques that scientists have used for hundreds of years, and that is to use dragnets, etc. and other technologies to remotely gather what’s out there in the sea and bringing them to the surface. But it’s nothing like actually being there. The thousands of hours I’ve spent getting acquainted with life in the sea directly has made all the difference. And I think people can do that with the Disney OCEANS film. They can actually see the faces of the fish. Look at their behavior. When you see some of the antics of the fish in this film you’ll see that there’s something that I can, with a straight face call, personality. They have behaviors and no two fish are exactly alike just like cats and dogs and horses and kids! Every dolphin, every whale, every crab, every lionfish — they’re all distinctly different as individuals.

MB: Absolutely! And I’m sure you, like me, have laughed out loud underwater…

SE: Oh I lose my mouthpiece all the time!

MB: Exactly. Well I want to respect your schedule today, so I appreciate your time and it’s been a real honor to speak with you. We will encourage everyone to go see OCEANS!

SE: Yes, they can all dive right in!

Without the blue, there is no green. ~Sylvia Earle

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