This story originally appeared in Volume 03: Flourish Collapse of Atmos, a nonprofit biannual magazine and digital platform curated by a global ecosystem of artists, activists, and writers devoted to ecological and social justice, creative storytelling, and re-enchantment with the natural world.
Marine biologist and ocean explorer Sylvia Earle has earned many titles throughout her career: she has been dubbed Her Deepness by the New York Times and the New Yorker, Hero of the Planet by Time, and a “living legend” by the Library of Congress.
She has spent over 7,000 hours underwater and has earned over 100 honors and accolades for her work. She was the first woman scientist to be appointed chief of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association and the first to lead an expedition of women aquanauts as part of the Tektite Project in 1970, when the field was otherwise dominated by men. Few are able to fathom the challenges our ocean faces quite like Earle, who has watched it change right in front of her eyes over the course of her decades-long diving career. But as she tells her good friend Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Oceans, she still finds hope below the surface.
Sylvia Earle: Let’s dive right in.
Cyrill Gutsch: Why is it important to keep the oceans alive? Why do we need to fight to protect the sea and the life in the sea?
Sylvia: We have to fight to keep the ocean alive because the ocean keeps us alive. It seems so obvious when you look over the shoulders of astronauts — anyone can now see that the world is dominated by the ocean and we are part of the network of life that is mostly out there in the sea. The air we breathe, the regulation of temperature, everything that provides a hospitable planet goes back to the existence of the ocean. In just my lifetime as a witness, I’ve seen the impact of humans on the ocean. What we’re taking out — with 90 percent of many of the big fish from sharks to tuna to swordfish, and a lot of small ones too — has an impact not just on ocean wildlife, but on the chemistry of the ocean. Just as trees have an impact on the chemistry of the planet because they capture carbon and generate oxygen, when you change the chemistry of the ocean, that influences the basic customs that keep us alive. What we’re putting into the ocean is also not helping, the avalanche of plastic debris that now is clogging the ocean.
Cyrill: The ocean looks like this vast, huge universe, unbreakable. But in reality, it’s a sensitive ecosystem, right? How important is biodiversity and how fragile is that system in your eyes?
Sylvia: The good news is that nature is resilient, but we can only go so far by altering the composition of the species and ecosystems. The more we discover about life on earth, the more interconnected we find that everything is. The advance of life on earth has really taken place less by competition and more by true cooperation through these associations that you see everywhere in the ocean. Corals have these zooxanthellae that live within their tissues, each benefiting from the other. On the land, trees rely on the fungi in their roots. They’re partners, good for the fungi that move in the soil and translate chemicals to the trees, but also they get nutrients back from the trees. So, these are small examples, but everywhere you look, you find everything is connected to everything else.
We have already broken so many of these sensitive interlocking links. On the land, you see the pollinators are in serious trouble. We use so many pesticides around the world that these pollinators are really in trouble. That means our connections to food are in serious trouble. In the ocean, the close relationship that fish have with invertebrates and with one another. As we explore the ocean, we become increasingly knowledgeable about how far we have gone in terms of cutting great swaths through these tightly linked systems. And we are not yet as well informed as we need to be to see, first of all, how much damage has been done but also what we can do to restore the damage. One key is to identify critical areas around the world that are still in good condition, like the coral reef that you can still see in good shape around the Maldives or the Great Barrier Reef or in Palau. Those places where you still have plenty of fish, corals have resisted the bleaching that you see induced by the warming of the planet and the loss of fish. These are signals that we have a chance. The operations, they’re still in good shape. We need to embrace them as if our lives depend on them.
Cyrill: With around 10 million fishing vessels being out there, vacuum cleaning and catching everything they can, it’s a highly destructive way of taking lives out there and trying to supply food to humans.
Sylvia: So much of this is legal because the laws that govern fishing operations both nationally and on the High Seas were put into place when, as you said, we used to think that the world was so big, the ocean so resilient, so vast, that we couldn’t harm the ocean, and even if we did, we didn’t understand why that would matter to those who had never seen the ocean or touched the ocean. But now, there’s no excuse anymore for fishing. It is so wasteful. It is subsidized, that’s the other big issue, that the large-scale industrial fishing, both nationally and in the High Seas, is supported by taxpayer funding. If we could somehow reverse the subsidies, it would not be in any sense reasonable for industries to go to sea — they couldn’t afford it.
Cyrill: But then there is this idea among the broad public that eating fish is so healthy, that we need the protein, and so on. Do we need to eat fish to live? Do we need to kill all this life out there to exist and to be healthy?
Sylvia: Eating wildlife is not a smart thing to do whether from the land or from the sea, in part because with close to eight billion people — can you imagine feeding eight billion people with songbirds, with little furry animals from the land? We did that when our numbers were small and nature was intact and we did not have agriculture mastered to the point that it is. Now, we have excess food, we have poor food distribution, and we have terrible waste in terms of the food that we do grow. There’s much we can do to feed people more efficiently, with better quality, and better nutrition by focusing on agriculture that does not require taking wild forests or other places but doing a better job with what we already have. There’s no excuse for doing this anymore.
Cyrill: And even if you don’t love the animals and don’t care to see these majestic creatures alive out there, there are also very big dangers that come from eating all that life up for our own species.
Sylvia: You’ve got that right. The toxins we put in the ocean, the plastics that are now degrading to become microplastics and even nanoplastics that are universally found in fish — it’s scary when you think about it, but most people don’t think about it. And those oils that we treasure, and the protein that comes in fish, and doctors will tell you it’s good for you. Well, not when it’s laced with toxins. And we can get the same oils and better quality protein if we get it from sources that we know where they have come from. From terrestrial — from animals and plants that we grow. Most people don’t have any idea where the fish that they eat have come from. They don’t even know the names. We know that when you eat beef, it’s probably cow. When you eat chicken, it’s probably some kind of chicken. But when you eat fish, it could be any of thousands of variations on the theme of fish. They kind of get lumped together as fish and chips or fish chowder. We should know what we’re eating, and the only way you can be secure about that is to know where your food comes from. You can do it on the land, but it’s really hard when you’re taking wildlife, which is shipped all over the world, complete with microplastics, nanoplastics, and toxins of all sorts. They come right back to you in a concentrated form when you consume these animals.
Cyrill: There are so many threats, but one that everybody now talks about is climate change and how the oceans are a victim of change in temperature. We see coral reefs dying in large amounts, but on the other hand, the oceans can also be the solution for climate change because they’re one of the biggest sinks or the biggest places to sequester carbon emissions.
Sylvia: That’s right! Well, they have them, but we’re also releasing carbon dioxide when we kill the millions of tons of ocean wildlife that we extract. It’s like clear-cutting a forest. Those dead animals, when they are taken from their home, release carbon dioxide, and they are then no longer a part of the system that captures carbon. So, we’re disrupting the mechanisms — just as when we clear cut forests — we’re disrupting the systems in the sea. So, we have counted on the ocean as a buffer of absorbing much of the heat, but there’s a point beyond which it’s had enough. It has reached capacity, and now that carbon dioxide is turning into carbonic acid and ocean acidification is another problem we have to face with respect to the ocean.
But we know what to do, Cyrill: we need to go out and explore the ocean. We need little submarines where people can go see for themselves what the ocean is, what’s happening there, and also the good news when we protect what is being lost. I see plenty of reasons for optimism. We didn’t know that we’d really be a problem, but we know now, so what are we waiting for?
Cyrill: We just need to do it. I think there’s often this problem of life in the oceans being so abstract, and the meaning of that life for our own existence not being clear, but there is a link missing between us and these animals and these plants, and that is that we don’t know them in person.
Sylvia: So, let’s go get acquainted! Divers have done a lot, but most of the ocean exists below where divers can go, so we have a chance now, like never before, to access the sea and take people. I want to see children, I want to see fishermen, I want to see presidents of countries and CEOs of corporations. I want teachers to go below the surface and see for themselves and be motivated to embrace the ocean with care. We have a chance. Climate scientists say we have 10 years, and that’s not long to mobilize what it takes right now, but we can do it. It’s such optimism when I talk to children who have grown up knowing what I could not know as a child. They are seeing the world that is changing around them, and they see the future. And I think if I were 10 years old, I would want the future to be better than what I see now and I would want to do everything I could to turn climate change from the scary place we’re in right now to something where there’s hope, not just hope but real action. So, let’s get out there and spread the word and get people to explore the ocean, see it for themselves.
Cyrill: And see what awaits them down there in the deep. The ocean, our blue universe here on Earth — it’s very little explored, right? In comparison to how much we know about space?
Sylvia: In 1969, when the first footprints were being put on the moon, there was a submarine that was taking Jacques Piccard to the bottom of the Gulf Stream. On the moon, it was a barren, empty, lifeless place, except for the astronauts themselves. But when Jacques Piccard looked out from the submersible, gliding along more than 2,000 kilometers under the Gulf Stream, he saw just a panorama of life. Everybody was looking up. We need to match our fascination with the skies above with the amazing planet and the life that it holds right here on Earth, in the ocean.