Can Oceans Survive The Human Appetite For Seafood?

Faced with declining fish stocks, many nations are looking for sustainable ways to have their fish — and eat it too. But how much fishing is too much? Oceanographer Sylvia Earle discusses this and other topics in her book The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean's Are One.

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IRA FLATOW, host:

You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

And for most of us, whatever lies behind - beyond the beach is pretty much a mystery. Maybe you've been snorkeling or you're scuba diving a few times a year or you watch "Shark Week" on the Discovery Channel, but do you really know the ocean? Someone who has been there, done that, walked the depths of the seas, literally, is Sylvia Earle.

She's lived in a coral reef, celebrated birthdays in a submarine. You name it, if it's underwater, she's done it. And she's here with me now, and she has a new book out, �The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean's are One.� She's also explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society in Washington.

And it's a pleasure to welcome you back here to New York.

Dr. SYLVIA EARLE (Author, "The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean's Are One"): Great to be here, Ira.

FLATOW: Tell us why you wrote this book.

Dr. EARLE: Well, the world is blue.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. EARLE: And most of humans on the planet really are not aware of how connected everyone is to the sea, no matter where on the planet they happen to live. With every breath you take, every drop of water you drink, you are touched by the ocean, even if you've never seen or touched the ocean yourself.

FLATOW: It's interesting, because in the book, you mentioned a dinner you had in 2006 with former President George W. Bush, and a conversation that encouraged even President Bush has set aside ocean waters for a protection. Tell us what happened in that conversation.

Dr. EARLE: Well, this was the culmination of about 10 years of effort. Many organizations and individuals have really invested in making a case for the Northwest Hawaiian Islands to be protected in the sense that national parks are protected, where even the fish might be safe.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: We do have a network of marine sanctuaries where there is some protection, but commercial and sport fishing, by and large, continues.

Jean-Michel Cousteau showed a film about his expeditions out to the Northwest Hawaiian Islands, and some of us were invited - there were about 50 of us - to see the premiere showing at the White House with Laura Bush and George Bush present.

Afterwards, there was a dinner. I was one of the lucky ones who had got to sit at one of the tables of six people with the president. It was open seating. It was just by chance. But in the course of the evening, I had a chance to say to the president that if there are to be fisherman, there have to be fish. And for there to be fish, you have to protect their breeding areas, their feeding areas, the places where the little ones grow up.

And in the ocean, a fraction of 1 percent of the sea is protected. That we have any fish left at all is something of a miracle considering how much effort -especially in the last 50 years - we have applied to extracting wildlife, wild fish, lobsters, clams, whatever it is, wild creatures from the ocean. We've done a pretty good job. We've taken on the order of 90 percent of the tunas, the swordfish, the sharks, groupers, snappers, a long list of things that are greatly depleted.

And our discussion with the president suggested that there have to be some places that the fish can recover and serve as a source of renewal to places that have been so drastically depleted.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. EARLE: And he seemed unaware of it, how little the ocean was protected, or the - even the areas that have a name sanctuary are not true sanctuaries. They're management areas.

FLATOW: So he thought that even though there's a sanctuary, that the fish must be protected in those sanctuaries. And he�

Dr. EARLE: That's what he replied.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: And you told them that he was wrong.

Dr. EARLE: Well, that - in fact, that they do a good job of educating people. And that they have a place, but there needs - there must be some places that are fully protected, just as on the land.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. EARLE: We really take for granted the national park system that started more than 100 years ago with the establishment of Yellowstone in 1872. It was not until 1972 that the United States began with legislation that made marine sanctuaries possible, but without the same level of protection that we afford places on the land.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. EARLE: About 10 percent of the land - or 12 percent, I guess it is - around the world on the land have some protection, and that's not enough�

FLATOW: Right. Right.

Dr. EARLE: �either to ensure that the natural systems that keep us alive, you know, that give us oxygen, that protect our waters, that give us life, we have to do a better job than we now are - land and sea.

FLATOW: So here you have the ear of the president. He's at dinner with you, and you tell him that that's not good enough.

Dr. EARLE: Well, he really listened. And he had been listening to the many voices of individuals who had weighed in on this topic. But, in fact, there were three sizes that were being proposed: small, medium and large. And as he left the room, he called back to Jim Connaughton, who's the head of CEQ, Jim, I want you to make it happen. I want the biggest area and no take, no fishing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: And people were really stunned.

FLATOW: I remember hearing this.

Dr. EARLE: Yeah. But actually, that's what happened. And�

FLATOW: And that was because of your�

Dr. EARLE: Well, no. I think�

FLATOW: �dinner beside the president. You're selling yourself short here, Sylvia.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: Well, it may have been a little push over the edge, but he was right on the edge, anyway. I mean, I hope that was the case. And if we did make a difference, so much the better. People can, when opportunities fall in your lap�

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. EARLE: �take - seize that moment and do what you can.

FLATOW: Right. Now, I started talking about this piece at the beginning of the program, about the old - there was the old song, The Marvelettes, from 1964, you may remember: too many fish in the sea, small ones, tiny ones.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: But it was about people, but no one would have a song like that today. Would�

Dr. EARLE: No. We're - the fish in the oceans are in serious trouble. That means the oceans are in trouble. That means we're in trouble. It all ties together.

The connections between what happens in the ocean and people all over the world needs to be better understood, the connection between the changing climate�

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. EARLE: �and whether - where does oxygen come from? Seventy percent, at least 70 percent is generated by little living things in the ocean. And we give credit to trees, and we should, and moss and shrubs and such for generating oxygen and maintaining the integrity of the atmosphere. But the ocean does the heavy lifting, also in terms of grabbing carbon.

If we disrupt the ocean - and, of course, we have disrupted the ocean - that means we're disrupting our future. We're putting ourselves in jeopardy.

FLATOW: Now, of course, Jane Lubchenco�

Dr. EARLE: Hmm, good friend.

FLATOW: �is now on the inside at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and I have - we - she's been on the program for many years. She was an adviser to SCIENCE FRIDAY years ago. And I interviewed her when she got the new job. And I have to tell you, I was shocked. I mean, it's almost like she had been defanged, you know?

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Because I expected her to be as a big a public defender of the oceans as she was when she was outside the Beltway. But now, it sort of like she's toned herself down. Is that disappointing to you, too? Or do you not see it that way?

Dr. EARLE: I see Jane as a cause for great hope for the ocean�

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. EARLE: �for the planet, for us. She's a person of complete integrity. So - yeah.

FLATOW: Oh, I'm not questioning her integrity at all.

Dr. EARLE: Oh, no.

FLATOW: I know she's a great supporter, but it's as if like, you know, you - once you're brought inside, you can't really speak as loudly as you would like.

Dr. EARLE: I discovered that when I was the chief scientist at NOAA. They started calling me the sturgeon general�

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Oh, really?

Dr. EARLE: �because I made such a fuss about the fish. But I learned as well that when you are an official speaking for the administration, there is a certain constraint. It doesn't mean that you don't speak the truth. It just means that sometimes you don't speak�

FLATOW: Yeah.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: �period.

FLATOW: Oh, was that evil that happens when good people do nothing�

Dr. EARLE: Mm-hmm.

FLATOW: �that sort of thing. 1-800-989-8255. Talking with Sylvia Earle, author of "The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean's are One." Also, well, you can tweet us @scifri - @s-c-i-f-r-i.

And let's see if we can take a phone call or two right at the beginning here. Michael in Mokelumne - is Mokelumne Hill, California?

MICHAEL (Caller): Yes, it's Mokelumne Hill, but nobody can pronounce it the right way.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: You have to be born there.

MICHAEL: Yeah. My question is about the California smelt. They seemed to be doing badly, even though they reduced the pumping of the water out of the Sacramento-Joaquin Delta area to L.A. And they're doesn't seem to be any hope for the smelt. Do you have any new info? Because, apparently, it's - these drought-related - and if I'm incorrect, doesn't the smelt come from the ocean and go into the freshwater delta?

Dr. EARLE: Well, that's right. I don't have any new information, just that we have greatly altered the coastal waters all around the country. And certainly nowhere is that more evident than in the coastal parts of California. But some good news is that through efforts - recent efforts, it looks as though about 20 percent of the coastline of California, that's out three miles may be embraced by protected areas. That gives cause for hope for everything, including the smelt(ph). But it doesn't stop with just having protected areas. There must be overarching policies. And people need to know. The biggest problem is that we don't know and don't understand. So we make personal decisions that sometimes are just amazingly wrongheaded.

FLATOW: When you said people need to know, what don't they know that they need to know?

Dr. EARLE: Well, they need to know where the fish that they consume come from.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. EARLE: They need to see that most of what feeds people comes from a handful of grains of corn, rice and wheat, or the animals that we grow that are low on the food chain - cows, chickens, pigs and such. Go to the ocean. We eat carnivores that are way high on the food chain. Tuna's eat fish that eat other fish that eat other fish, and so on down a long and twisting trail that starts with microscopic plants in the ocean. So instead of going through a simple sunlight plant protein chain, as you get with chicken or with a few fish like catfish and tilapia - in China they've been raising carp, several species, for centuries, very successfully in little ponds.

So if the goal is to feed a lot of people most effectively, cost effectively, environmentally and economically sound, then go low on the food chain. But we're extracting wildlife out of the sea, and not only our(ph) top of the food chain, carnivores of the sort that we'd never think to grow, but also they're not a year old, the way chickens and cows and other animals that we grow, taken to market when they're very young. Many of the fish that we consume, including salmon, are about six years old, three years upstream and another three years at sea, or thereabouts. Tunas can be 20, 25, or 30 years old if they're allowed to mature to their full potential.

Some of the fish in California, the rock fish, may be a 100 years old, and orange roughy, some have been dated at 200 years old.

FLATOW: Oh, wow.

Dr. EARLE: And you can do them in 20 minutes with lemon slices and butter. So we need to know - and the further up the food chain, the higher of the concentration of the contaminants like mercury�

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. EARLE: �and fire retardants, and all the stuff we put into the ocean - the pesticides - they come back to us.

FLATOW: So are you asking people to stop eating fish or find a better way to raise the fish we eat?

Dr. EARLE: Make better choices. I personally have stopped eating ocean wildlife because I think they're more important alive than dead. And I think now is the time to make a serious issue of this, like the Chesapeake Bay. One of the most important things we could do to recover Chesapeake Bay, and New York Harbor, for that matter, is to leave the oysters and the clams and the crabs and the other creatures that make up the filtration system, the natural filtration system, give them a break. We seem so insistent on eating them that we forget that they have a job to do out there in the ocean. We could probably get away with taking a few, but we've already taken like 98 percent. So maybe we ought to back off for a while.

FLATOW: Let them recover for a while.

Dr. EARLE: Yeah.

FLATOW: Talking with Sylvia Earle, author of �The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean's Are One,� on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. You know, we're all tempted to want to eat farm-raised fish, but as you say, the chemicals in some of these fish, the pollutants are so high that you're afraid to eat them.

Dr. EARLE: And you should be.

FLATOW: Yeah, I mean - why can't we have cleaner fish that are farm raised?

Dr. EARLE: Well, it certainly is possible. I think that raising low on the food chain creatures, such as catfish and tilapia and carp, good protein, and you can control what goes in, and as the aqua-culturalists says, more crop per drop. When you have a controlled system - and this means that it is one body of water that you - it's like an aquarium, a big aquarium that - those have real potential for delivering high-quality protein that you can trust. You can trust what you feed them and - but again, some of the farm practices now in place are not very sound. Some of the salmon farms, whether they're in Chile or in the coast of this country, have proven to be disasters environmentally. And again, they're not - they're not low on the food chain. They're carnivores. They take a lot of wild fish to make a few farmed fish. That is not a recipe that makes sense.

FLATOW: So we should be looking not for the carnivore fish, but for the fish lower on the food chain.

Dr. EARLE: Right. And people ought to know what they've been eating.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Dr. EARLE: When you got a restaurant and you order a hamburger, it's likely to be beef.

FLATOW: Right.

Dr. EARLE: You get don't mammal burger. It might be a mammal burger, you don't know for sure what it is. And the same thing with chicken. It's not a, you know, you don't get a bird sandwich or Kentucky Fried Bird, you get chicken. When you get fish, you have no idea what kind of fish that is.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm.

Dr. EARLE: And you ought to want to know.

FLATOW: And you should inform yourself about what fish should be eaten.

Dr. EARLE: Right. I mean, there are better choices, but I think for a while we should seriously think about alternatives, low on the food chain, and leave the tunas alone. Give them a chance. When I was chief scientist at (unintelligible) I learned - that was 1990 - that in the North Atlantic the population, according to the fishermen's own records were down by 90 percent. And that was in 1990. So with 10 percent remaining, shouldn't we give them a break? But now it's even more precarious than that.

FLATOW: Talking with Sylvia Earle, author of �The World is Blue,� and the word world is in that title, which would mean that even if we, in this country, would adopt these things, we'd have to make sure the rest of the world�

Dr. EARLE: But we should be leaders and not use as an excuse, well, if we don't take them, somebody else will. That's just not good enough. We need to take the position, based on what we know. There's a certain responsibility that comes with knowing. And also without knowing, it's easy not to care. The real missing piece here is that people don't really appreciate, don't understand how our lives are linked to the blue part of the planet. This planet is unique as far as we know, in all of the universe, as a place that is just right for us. It's taken a long time to get to this point. It's taken a short time for us to really carve up the underpinnings of what makes us - makes life possible for us.

FLATOW: So you've taken Carl Sagan's meaning of that small blue dot.

Dr. EARLE: Yeah, literally.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Literally. And which is what we are, living on that small blue dot. There was a survey that was taken a while back, I saw a survey that said about 70 percent of the population has no idea how big the oceans - could not get close to how big, you know, the oceans are covering the Earth. They have just no idea, like you say. Let me take a break.

Dr. EARLE: Okay.

FLATOW: We'll come back so we can talk a lot - lots more with Sylvia Earle, author of �The World is Blue: How Our Fate and Ocean's Are One.� 1-800-989-8255 is our number, also you can tweet us at scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I, and you can join our group at Second Life and ask your question through there. We'll be right back after this short break.

(Soundbite of music)

FLATOW: You are listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow talking with Sylvia Earle author of �The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean's Are One.� Sylvia, I know you have to rush off, but I want - I don't want to - I know that you're sounding sad about the situation, but I know that you're hopeful about the future, right?

Dr. EARLE: Absolutely. A part of it stems from the explorations that we have accomplished in the last - during my lifetime, last 50 years or so. We've learned more about the ocean than during all preceding history. And the fact that we do have that urge to explore and to know and then to apply what we know gives me great cause for hope. One thing we know is that we are totally connected to the ocean and that if we don't take care of the ocean, that we are jeopardizing our own future.

FLATOW: Hmm.

Dr. EARLE: And a lot of efforts - there are now about 4,500 protected areas in the oceans. Every one of them I regard as a hope spot, a place where if we can embrace these places and expand them, then there is cause, not just hope for the whales and fish and coral reefs and things, but clearly for our future as well. The bad news about all those places that have been established in the last 25 years or so is that they're really small for the most part. So - and altogether they account for less than one percent of the ocean, and we must do better than that.

FLATOW: Well, with spokesmen like yourself - you certainly are articulate, dedicated - the oceans could not have better representation than you.

Dr. EARLE: Oh, I can't wait to go diving with you, Ira.

FLATOW: I would love to, but not today.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Thank you, Dr. Earle, for taking time to be with us today. Sylvia Earle is author of �The World is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean's Are One.� She's also explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society in Washington. Thanks again.

Dr. EARLE: Thank you.

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