Explorers Assess The Health Of The World’s Oceans

Sylvia Earle, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence
Enric Sala, marine ecologist and National Geographic Fellow

The world's ocean ecosystems are as diverse as forests and deserts on land. While resilient, these systems are under stress from pollution, overfishing and climate change — and some experts say it may be too late to repair the damage. In a special broadcast with National Geographic, two premier explorers explain the state of the world’s oceans and its habitats.

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NEAL CONAN, host:

This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan, live from the headquarters of the National Geographic in Washington, D.C.

Over the past several months, we've been focused on the Gulf of Mexico, an incredibly productive part of the ocean, but one already strained even before the oil spill - and not so different in that respect from the rest of the deep blue waters that girdle our planet and sustain life.

Underwater, there are forests as diverse as a rainforest. There are vast wastes nearly as barren as deserts.

Ninety percent of the large predators in the sea are gone. A third of world's fisheries collapsed in a half-century. We spew pollutants from agricultural industrial waste and sewage into the ocean, and scientists worry that climate change is altering the very chemistry of the water, and they wonder if it's too late to turn it around.

In this special broadcast, a special conversation with two oceanic explorers. Joining us on stage here at the Grosvenor Auditorium is marine biologist Sylvia Earle, an explorer-in-residence at National Geographic since 1998, the year Time magazine named her the first Hero for the Planet. She was previously chief scientist for the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration.

Also on stage is Enric Sala, a marine ecologist and a fellow at the Geographic who's explored some of the last pristine places in the ocean - and many despoiled places, too.

If you live or work on the ocean, call us and tell us what you see. What's changing? 800-989-8255 is our phone number. Email us: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. Go to npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Sylvia Earle, let me begin with you. I know you started diving six decades ago near your house on the Gulf Coast. How have those waters changed since? What did they look like then?

Dr. SYLVIA EARLE (Explorer-in-Residence, National Geographic): I went to high school in Clearwater when Clearwater had clear water.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Some time ago.

Dr. EARLE: That's just one sign of change. And since the middle of the 20th century, a lot has changed, and you enumerated some of those things: the decline of the big fish - but not just the big ones, the little ones, the medium-sized ones.

We, as predators in the sea, new predators on ancient ecosystems, have really been a powerful influence, not just on the number of what's there, but in dismembering the structure of ocean ecosystems that after all have been developing over all preceding history. And in just a few decades, we've managed to really disrupt the way the ocean works.

CONAN: Can you give us an example of what you would have seen when you were diving in high school that you wouldn't even pray to see today?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: Well, fish.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: And lobsters, and whatever you like to eat. In Chesapeake Bay, for example, since my dad was a boy - he was born in 1900. At that time, if that's a starting point, rather than the middle of the 20th century, the decline of oysters, clams, the filter-feeders, the menhaden, the sponges and so on is huge.

There may be two percent of the oysters remaining, and they're great filter-fish feeders. It's like turning off the filtration system in your swimming pool. What happens then? Well, what has happened to the Chesapeake, the Gulf of Mexico, many parts, the coastal waters of the world?

We have not only taken away much that naturally would process the food that's there and maintain healthy systems, but we've added to those systems enormous quantities of things that are new to the ocean, some of it chemical, some of hard trash, like the avalanche of plastics that now are clogging ocean systems everywhere.

CONAN: I was on Midway Island some years ago and saw the numbers of cigarette lighters and bags and zip-ties that ended up in the bellies of albatross, which are attracted to shiny things on the surface of the water. And they literally starved to death because their bellies were full of things they could not digest.

Dr. EARLE: Well, and they feed what they think is something nutritious to their offspring, and it's really heartbreaking to see thousands of young birds who never get to fly.

CONAN: Let me turn to Enric Sala, and recently, I know you've led some expeditions to some places that, well, maybe might have been comparable to Clearwater, Florida, 60 years ago.

Dr. ENRIC SALA (Marine Ecologist; Fellow, National Geographic): Yes. Last year, we went to an archipelago in the middle of the Pacific. It's between French Polynesia and Hawaii, in the middle of nowhere, a place where no scientific expedition had been ever conducted.

And these places are heaven on Earth. You jump in the water, you are surrounded by sharks, 10, 15 sharks that come very quickly to see who's that weird thing that is throwing bubbles and making so much noise. The corals are beautiful -so many fish.

And imagine the African plains with one lion per zebra or per wildebeest, the same amount of predators as prey. This is what the ocean was like before, with clear water and lots of large animals.

And right now, you go to most of the coral reefs in the world, or any other ecosystem, and most of the fish are smaller than your diving mask.

CONAN: Huh. There are also places that are seemingly pristine being destroyed before our eyes. Again, I happened to have the good luck to be in the Solomon Islands a few years ago, and you would see these beautiful reefs, and then an enormous brown stain where the water was running off the land that they were -had been stripped of trees, and the dirt was just spilling and killing the reef.

Dr. SALA: Yeah, this is one of the problems, that everything is connected. And everything we do even upstream on the mainland has an effect on the ocean, because the ocean is downstream of everything.

CONAN: In a video on the National Geographic website show, at Isla del Coco off Costa Rica, you said a happy coral reef is a frightened coral reef. What did you mean by that?

Dr. SALA: Yeah. It's like the landscape of fear. There are so many predators, so many sharks, so many big mouths that the little guys are scared and hiding. This is what happened to the deer in Yellowstone National Park after the wolves were introduced in 1995.

CONAN: We're talking with Enric Sala and Sylvia Earle, both with National Geographic. We want to hear from you, too. Those of you with experience on saltwater, what have you seen changing? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We're also going to be taking questions from the audience here at the Grosvenor Auditorium, but we'll start with Brad, and Brad's with us from Placerville in California.

BRAD (Caller): Oh, hi. Good morning. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Good afternoon where we are, but that's okay.

BRAD: I just wanted to relate sort of a longitudinal experience for me. I've been sport-fishing off the coast of Baja for nearly 30 years. And one incident on my last trip, which was just a few weeks ago, brought to light, you know, just an enormous problem.

I thought we were viewing, over moonlit night, a large array of jellyfish that we had cruised into. The captain turned the light on, and we were astounded to find out that these weren't jellyfish at all. They were diapers, and I'm talking hundreds of diapers, almost an island of diapers. And this was off of -near Ensenada. And I've seen this - I've seen more plastic in the ocean over the last 30 years, where it's almost inescapable now.

And, you know, my only theory is, you know, the rise of, you know, the consumerism and some more modern access to consumer products in Mexico and their inability to, you know, effectively dispose of them, you know, on a standard that maybe more industrialized nations have.

And it's very disconcerting because I heard you mention, you know, what the birds are doing and what other wildlife does mistakenly with these products. But just the aesthetic of is just very disturbing.

CONAN: I can understand. I'm not sure you wanted to throw your line in beneath the island of diapers. But...

BRAD: No, no, no. And, you know, we look forward to the fish tacos and what we can, you know, take home, and we try not to be too abusive of that, but just take a little bit back. And really, it made me have to stop and pause: Do I really want to be doing this anymore?

CONAN: That's a very good question. Sylvia Earle, I wonder if you could address it.

Dr. EARLE: You know, I'm asked sometimes: Where's the best place to go diving? And I say, well, it's almost anywhere 50 years ago.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: Because there wasn't plastic in the ocean 50 years ago. I come from the pre-Plasticozoic era.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: I know that it's possible to live without plastic, as much as I enjoy the benefits of some of the things that plastic products have given us. It's not the plastic that's the problem. It's - we're the problem. It's what we do with it, and thinking that the ocean is a place to put stuff that we don't want close to wherever it is that we are.

One thing that we need to understand is we're all sea creatures, in a way. It isn't just about the fish and the whales and the squids and the deep sea creatures. We're as dependent on the ocean as they are. Without the ocean, there is no us.

To the extent we take care of it, you know, we'll benefit. To the extent that we abuse the ocean, we compromise our own lives.

CONAN: Thanks very much. Appreciate the phone call, Brad. Here's a tweet that we have from Doe(ph) about what he sees in the ocean: We see less bioluminescence, more lionfish and sea urchins. I can no longer go surfing. It's far too dangerous and nasty.

What would an increase in sea urchins and lion fish suggest, Enric Sala?

Dr. SALA: So this is a symptom of what we are doing to the ocean. We are taking out everything that we like, the big fish that we like to eat, and we are throwing in what we don't want - pollution, sewage, garbage.

And we are transforming entire ecosystems. We are changing the species that are native to the places where we used to dive and introducing a species accidentally or voluntarily. And the example of the lionfish in the Caribbean is one of them.

But this takes us to a larger problem, which is: What do we think is natural? What Sylvia thought was natural when she started swimming in the Gulf of Mexico was probably better than what I saw when I was a kid.

And I remember my grandparents and my father telling me stories about these big groupers on the Mediterranean coast of Spain. When I was a kid, I never saw groupers. I only saw small fish.

And for today, you know, for today's kids, what's natural is lots of jellyfish in the summer. So the consequences are - of our actions have reached the point where we are not only damaging marine life, but these impacts are coming back to us.

Now we have health problems because of all this pollution and the rise of slime, the rise of microbes in places like Chesapeake Bay or jellyfish blooms in many, many beaches around the world.

So we have reached the moment where the urgency is so strong that we cannot ignore what happens beneath the waves anymore.

CONAN: And I think all of us, after hearing this broadcast, are going to check to make sure they're jellyfish from now on.

Sylvia Earle and Enric Sala are with us. We're at the National Geographic Society in Washington, D.C. We want to hear from you, too. You're our reporters this hour. What are you seeing on the oceans in saltwater? What's changing? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org.

Stay with us. I'm Neal Conan. This is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan, at the headquarters of National Geographic in Washington, D.C.

We're talking about the world's oceans. We tend to think of them as vast, inexhaustible resources, but with continued pollution, overfishing and climate change, some experts now wonder if it's too late to undo the damage.

For more information on National Geographic's Ocean Initiative, visit iamtheocean.org and check out National Geographic Magazine's ocean issue, now on newsstands.

If you live or work on saltwater, call and tell us what you see. Our phone number is 800-989-8255. Email: talk@npr.org. You can also join the conversation on our website. That's at npr.org. Click on TALK OF THE NATION.

Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, founder of Mission Blue, is with us. She served as chief scientist for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration from 1990 to 1992. Also with us is Enric Sala, marine ecologist and National Geographic fellow, a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at La Jolla previously, and he held the first marine conservation ecology post at the Spanish National Council for Scientific Research.

Let's get a question from here in the audience.

Unidentified Woman: Yeah, thank you. I'm a sailor, and I've sailed a lot from Florida to the Bahamas, and the difference in the water clarity and color is amazing.

When you're in the Florida Keys, until you get probably to the Dry Tortugas, you can't see the bottom. It's murky. It's dark brown. And then when we go over to the Bahamas, it's beautiful turquoise.

Now, I figure some of that is the bottom, but I'm wondering how much of that is manmade.

CONAN: Sylvia Earle, you were shaking your head.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: Because I remember when Tampa Bay looked like the Bahamas, when the Florida Keys looked like the Bahamas, when the Bahamas looked like the Bahamas. I mean, they, too, have changed somewhat.

But still, if you want a glimpse of what the coastal waters of Florida look like, parts of the Caribbean, a few areas there, and certainly parts of the islands in the Bahamas still retain that sense of what was and what can be again.

In terms of change, one of the things that's changing is, you know, we now are looking at the ocean as if we can change it. The middle of the 20th century, the attitude was it's so big, it's so vast. There's nothing we can do that can possibly harm it. Our job is to take from it or put into it.

CONAN: It's so robust, there's nothing we can do to harm it. Yeah.

Dr. EARLE: But that's changed, and that's the good news. And the other good news is we still have 10 percent of the sharks left, you know. And Enric Sala's been looking at some parts of the planet that are still in great shape.

It's not too late to turn things around, but we can't be complacent anymore. What has really destroyed the ocean is the feeling that it is infinite in its capacity to take whatever we want to put in it or to allow us to remove whatever we want.

CONAN: Well, I wanted to go back to what you were just talking about with Enric, this idea of hope spots that can be instrumental to recovery.

Dr. EARLE: Vital to recovery. We need to have places that can serve as sources of restoration, models that we can look to to say that's the way the ocean really is. That's what works. And we see such a degraded scene around, especially the coastal areas, that we think that's normal. And, of course, it is not. It's - even when I was a child, things had been depleted.

The year I began diving, 1952, was the last year there was a monk seal seen in the Gulf of Mexico. People say: Seals in the Gulf of Mexico? In the Caribbean? Well, yeah. They used to go as far north as Galveston.

There aren't any anymore. There is no hope for monk seals. That species is gone on my watch, during my lifetime. There's a lot of other creatures out there that are on the brink of extermination, but they don't have to be a part of history. They can be a part of the future. But it's our choice.

CONAN: Enric, is it really possible that if you preserve a spot - I mean, the oceans are so vast that if you preserve a spot, it can really be, as Sylvia said, critical to redeveloping the life outside of that one little area?

Dr. SALA: Absolutely, and I like to use an analogy. The ocean is like a bank account, like a debit account where everybody withdraws money, but nobody makes any deposit. At one point, there is no money left in the account.

But with our savings account, we need to set aside some principal that we don't touch that can produce interest that we can enjoy sustainably.

CONAN: Well, I hear the analogy. I hear the allegory. But give us an example of...

Dr. SALA: The example is my life in the ocean when I was a kid in the Mediterranean coast of Spain. Most of the fish were smaller than my diving mask. And I was watching all these Jacques Cousteau documentaries and seeing all these gorgeous sharks and manta rays and groupers, so much life. And I thought that was something that belonged to tropical seas, somewhere exotic, and that the Mediterranean was just like that.

When I was 18, I dove for the first time in a marine reserve off the coast of Spain, the Medes Islands Marine Reserve. And I still remember the first dive. I jumped in the water, and I thought oh, my God. This is what Cousteau showed us. This is what the ocean was supposed to be like.

That moment, I realized everything we had lost, and also that there is hope for the future. So if you dive in the places that are not protected, you won't see many big fish. If you dive in the reserves, you see all this life around yourself - groups and snappers, manta rays, sharks, healthy corals.

It's really, if we protect these places, the ocean comes back. And we don't need to wait so long to see results. Sometimes in three, five, seven years, we see a dramatic increase, a dramatic recovery of this marine life.

CONAN: Let's get another caller in on the conversation. Let's go to Amanda, Amanda with us from Lynchburg in Virginia.

AMANDA (Caller): Oh, yes. Thank you. I'd like for you to address the issue of the smell of the ocean in the air, how it's subsided. I've noticed it in Emerald Isle, North Carolina, over the last 20, 30 years. Also, littering in our oceans has to stop first with our government. Thank you so much.

CONAN: Excuse me, Amanda, when you say that the smell of the ocean has changed? I think she's gone away. Perhaps she doesn't go at low tide.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: I've not noticed the ocean smell changing.

Dr. EARLE: Well, the smell of a healthy ocean is just wonderful.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. EARLE: I love the smell of a healthy marsh. But there's also the smell of death that surrounds some of the coastal areas, owing to...

CONAN: Maybe that's what she's talking about.

Dr. EARLE: Yeah, could be, because that's not good at all.

CONAN: Let's go to a question here in the audience.

Ms. KAREN CARLSON (Audience Member): Yes, my name is Karen Carlson, and I've been an ocean rower in California for over 30 years. And whenever we go out, we pick up floating trash caught in the kelp beds and on the water.

And I've noticed an increase in the number of floating balloons, the kind of balloons where people let go their wishes and their dreams, and yet they end up landing on the ocean and being so bad for our sea life. What can we do about that?

CONAN: Sylvia?

Dr. EARLE: Well, perhaps the biggest problem concerning the ocean and the natural world as a whole is not knowing that it matters, ignorance if you will, not seeing the cause and effect.

When people know, they can care. They might not care even if they do know, but they can't care if they don't know. So the connection between that fancy balloon that is released into the sky with a wish, if people understood the consequences, that this could kill a turtle, it could entangle a dolphin or a whale, they might think differently. But in ignorance, in a thousand ways, we're destroying the world that keeps us alive, the natural systems.

CONAN: Enric?

Dr. SALA: Karen, the view (unintelligible) surprise you, but this is just a very small problem compared to everything we're doing to the sea, and these are things that we can see, that you can see. But there are so many impacts that go unseen.

For example, do you know that every year, all of the oil that spills from the cars in the United States - that spills on the streets, on the roads and runs off to the ocean - every eight months equals the amount of oil spilled by the Exxon Valdez?

So that we are doing so many things that are, yeah, unseen, behind the scenes that can be more dramatic than the plastics or the balloons. So we need to change our perspective and not only think about those things that are very conspicuous and evident, but also think about how our everyday actions impact not only the ocean, but the rest of the planet.

CONAN: Here's an email sort of following up on your point, and thank you very much for that. This is from Mark in Burnsville, Minnesota: I spearfish in the Sea of Cortez. I'd like to hope that I am not part of the problem. Could you recommend an information source for sustainable fishing: groupers, snappers, yellowtail tuna? Is all fishing bad? It's a main food source for me for months at a time.

And this gets back, I don't think, Mark, spearfishing is a factory that's sucking all the herring out of the ocean, but cumulatively, is that part of the problem?

Dr. EARLE: Actually, spearfishers typically target big fish, and the big fish are the very ones we ought to target for keeping alive. They're the survivors, the ones that have shown the test of time. They're the big reproducers.

And, you know, taking something home for dinner once in a while, the ocean can probably yield that. The big problem that now faces the seas, the large scale industrial sort of factory trolling - trying to feed lots of people with wildlife. Doesn't work with songbirds, doesn't work with fish. And we've seen the decline in just half a century. The collapse, it's not just the decline. And the projections, going forward, to the middle of the 21sth century don't look good at all if we continue at the level that we're now trying to impose on the ocean.

The trick is a combination of having large, not just small - although small areas count - but large areas where we agree to let the natural systems be themselves and not take the fish, havens for the fish, if you will, and that coupled with small areas and policies that really are more realistic.

We have - are still living by policies - were formed when we thought that the ocean was infinite and its capacity to yield whatever we wanted to take, and our job was to build bigger nets, bigger ships to travel further and deeper. And we've done that and look at what the consequences are. We need to think otherwise about the value of fish as something more important in many ways alive than they are dead, just as we came to that understanding with whales. We used to think of whales as commodities - for years, centuries even.

CONAN: In some places, they still do.

Dr. EARLE: And in some places, they still do. But mostly, there's been a transition. And that transition is happening with the fish too. It isn't that we have to stop eating fish, but we certainly ought to think about the other values and put them on the balance sheet while there's still time.

CONAN: Enric.

Dr. SALA: Yeah. I think there is nothing wrong with using the ocean. We just can't use it up. And there's nothing wrong with eating fish, but not at the rates we are eating fish now. We are taking fish out of the ocean faster that they can reproduce.

And to answer the question of the listener, the sport fishermen always - tends to believe that, well, I'm just catching a few fish. There is no problem. But if we multiply this times tens of thousands or hundred of thousands, then we have a problem. The good news is that, if everybody is part of the problem, that everybody can be part of the solution. So small actions, multiplied six billion times, can add up to big solutions.

CONAN: That's Enric Sala, marine ecologist and a fellow here at the National Geographic. He was a professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla and held the first marine conservation ecology post at the Spanish National Council for Scientific Research. Also with us, Slyvia Earle, a National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, founder of Mission Blue and previously chief scientist for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration back in the early 1990s.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION coming to you from NPR News.

And let's see if we can go next to - this is Rick(ph) in - I'm not sure where -Rick's calling from the Virgin Islands.

NICK (Caller): Hi, this is Nick(ph). Yeah, I'm calling from the Virgin Islands.

CONAN: Oh, go ahead, Nick. I'm sorry. I got the letters wrong on your name. I apologize.

NICK: That's okay. So, of course, we've been witnessing coral bleaching events here. We had a major event a couple of years ago where, in the Virgin Islands, we lost approximately 60 percent of all of our live corals. And this summer, we're seeing some early indications of some bleaching again. And in addition to that, here's an interesting change that I've been noticing, and I wonder if Sylvia or the other panelist has seen or heard of this happening anywhere else. On the island of St. John, we're noticing corals establishing themselves on the roots of mangroves. So this is not a normal association, a normal place where you would find corals existing. But maybe there's some relationship between the slightly cooler areas of the water amongst the mangrove roots.

CONAN: That's an interesting question. Of course, when you talk about bleaching, bleaching is very bad for corals. It means the life has been taken away and it's merely the dead bones of the animals. There's no more life left. I know, Enric, you've traveled around a lot of coral recently.

Dr. SALA: Yes. And what we've seen is that, you know, if we protect the place, you know, we cannot protect the place from getting warm. So global warming is overarching. It reaches the entire ocean. However, in the places where the ecosystem is intact - when you have find all the species from the corals to the top predators to the sharks - when we have the machinery, the entire machinery with all the piece of working, the system is more resilient; which means that it can recover from these impacts.

So in this pristine places in the middle of the ocean where there is no direct human impact, where there is no fishing up ocean, where the ecosystem is well protected; or in marine reserves where the ecosystem has recovered, the corals bleach, but they recover, because the system has evolved to function well to recover from disturbances like this. So one way to buffer the short-term effects of global warming is to create these marine reserves to bring back all of these parts of the machine, so the ecological machine, the ecosystem can work as it's supposed to be.

CONAN: Here's an email. This is from Michelle(ph). How about positive marine story amidst the doom and gloom? I recently visited someone with their own personal little oyster farm in a small cove off the Chesapeake Bay. The oysters were colonizing the cove and cleaning the water, and I could see the bottom for the first time ever. There's been success in reintroducing large oyster beds in the Great Wicomico River. If everyone contributed like this and was conscious of curving polluted runoff, it could make a huge difference. And indeed, that effort has found a way in many places in the Chesapeake, but most places in the Chesapeake, you cannot see the bottom.

Dr. EARLE: That is a fact. It's a combination of having destroyed the filtration systems - well, we've eaten it - at the same time that we've added so much that is not natural to the Chesapeake. But it's wonderful thinking about what it was like when John Smith came to the Chesapeake, like 400 years ago, thinking about it over the centuries and the decades and imagining a future that can be again. The ingredients are largely still there. It's our behavior that will make all the difference.

CONAN: Sylvia Earle. Also with us, Enric Sala. We're here at the National Geographic Institution's headquarters in Washington, D.C. We're going to continue this conversation after a short break. We'll ask you to stay with us. But we also want those of you who work or play or visit the oceans to give us a call and tell us what you are seeing. What is changing? 800-989-8255. Email us: talk@npr.org. We'll hear questions from the audience here in Washington, D.C., as well. Stay with us.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: Today, we're talking with two explorers about the conditions of the world's oceans. Is it too late to undo the damage? Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic explorer-in-residence, founder of Mission Blue. And also with us, Enric Sala, marine ecologist and National Geographic fellow. If you'd like to join the conversation, we want to hear from those of you who work or play on the oceans, who've been watching and can call and tell us about changes: 800-989-8225. Email: talk@npr.org. And we'll get questions from the audience here at the Grosvenor Auditorium as well. We'll go to one now.

Ms. LILY SHAFROTH (Student, Woodrow Wilson High School): Hello. My name is Lily Shafroth, and I'm a student from Woodrow Wilson High School in D.C. And I am also a lover of the ocean. And I can't help but feel depressed by this conversation. And I want to know what we can do. My generation is going to inherit the world next, and I would love to take action as soon as we can.

CONAN: What can - well, not just people her age, but people our age too...

Ms. SHAFROTH: Oh, right.

CONAN: ...do to help? Sylvia Earle.

Dr. EARLE: In some ways, we're the luckiest people ever to live on the planet. As depressing as some of this news is, this is the first time in all of human history that we have the capacity to understand how important the natural world is to every breath we take, every drop of water we drink, everything we care about. Now, we understand, or have a capacity to understand, that it matters what we do to forests, to rivers, to the ocean, to wildlife. There was a time, not long ago, in like, the middle of the 20th century, when the attitude largely was that it doesn't matter, that our job is to use the natural systems right up to the end and it wouldn't make any difference. But now, we have the capacity, through - well, through satellites up in the sky, through submersibles that dive deep into the sea, through the computer technologies that enable us to, for the first time, link things together.

When I was a child, we didn't know about the mountains that formed backbones down the Atlantic, Pacific and Indian Oceans. We didn't know that we have the capacity to eliminate 90 percent of the fish, the big fish in the sea; did not understand that our actions could change the nature. That burning of fossil fuels could net us such an avalanche of problems from global warming...

CONAN: Mm-hmm.

Dr. EARLE: ...to climate change, to sea level rise, to the acidification of the ocean, could threaten us and our future. Now we know, and that truly makes us the luckiest people ever, because we also know that there's still half the coral reefs out there. We've lost 40 percent of the plankton and - since 1950, but not all the plankton is gone. Good thing, too, since that's where most of the oxygen that we breathe comes from. And now that we know, we can do something about it. Ignorance is the big problem.

CONAN: And Enric, there's an email question that goes, I know, to one of your concerns, this from Andrew in Cupertino, California. Has anybody thought of areas of water preserved like state or national parks? Is this even possible?

Dr. SALA: Exactly. This is what we're talking about. These hot spots, this marine reserves, they are like national parks in the sea. These are areas at work. And this - really, this one of the signs of hope. These are good news. When we protect these areas, the fish don't die much fast, they take a longer time to die, they grow larger, they reproduce. And after a few years, there are so many fish that they spill over the boundaries of these reserves, so fishermen can catch more outside.

And we were in the Mediterranean this June on an expedition, and we asked some fishermen if they were happy with the marine reserve there. And they said, oh, we're so happy, without the reserve - you know, we couldn't be fishing. And this is our savings account. And there are so many things that you can do, individually, or you can do as an organization

And I just like to say that on Monday and Tuesday, here in Washington, there was a meeting of conservation organizations, philanthropists, the government people, scientists. And we got together to create - well, an alliance that already existed - but to create a network, a very strong network of ocean lovers, ocean stakeholders called Mission Blue, with the goal of restoring the health and productivity of the ocean. Sylvia and I were here with other colleagues. And it was really, really hopefully. It was really fantastic to see all these people who have dedicate their lives to save the ocean realize that alone we cannot make it happen.

CONAN: I just want to go back to a point you mention before, that the fishermen who almost always resist the creation of such areas because they say these are waters of families and our businesses have fished for years. But that after a few years, they actually support these reserves?

Dr. SALA: Absolutely. As you say, Neal, the fishermen are the first to complain when you talk about creating a reserve. But after a few years, they realize that without these reserves, there is no future for them. And fishermen are part of the solution.

And just one short story. There was this fisherman, Drew Lanka(ph) from Alaska who came to our meeting on Monday and Tuesday. And the Copper River fishermen -fishing community, they have decided that they are going to do direct marketing. They are going to sell the salmon directly to the consumer. So they are going to make more money. And the consumers are going to pay less, because they wouldn't use - they eliminate the middle man, which means that the consumers are going to be happy and the fishermen don't need to catch as many fish to make more money. So everybody is part of the solution.

CONAN: Let's get a question from here in the audience.

LISA MENSLY: Hi. My name is Lisa Mensly(ph). Id just like to say it's a pleasure to be in a room with such an amazing woman. My question is, how resilient is - and man...

(Soundbite of laughter)

LISA MENSLY: ...and Neal Conan.

CONAN: Hey. Cutting it rather fine, arent we?

(Soundbite of laughter)

LISA MENSLY: I just want to say, how resilient is the ocean overall, given an ideal timeframe if people stopped eating fish people threw aside their balloons and went for flowers or something, how fast - what kind of timeframe would the ocean bounce back, or would it?

Dr. EARLE: The sooner the better. But realistically, the next 10 years may be the most important in the next 10,000 years, or forever for that matter. And it's not about will the world survive. The world was here long time before humans. There were sharks 300 million years ago and we weren't here. There may be sharks 300 millions years from now, whether we're here or not.

The question is, how can we shape our actions to ensure our survival within the natural systems that sustain us, that keeps us alive? And all of us have - that should be our highest priority: knowing where we came from, where we are, where are we going, how are we going to get there given what we now know?

So - I mean, I, personally, have simply stopped eating fish, because I think they're more important alive than on my plate. But everybody can make their own decisions about that. I don't eat songbirds either. Or I don't eat snow leopards ether. It's all wildlife.

But for those who do like to eat fish, just think about where they came from. Think about what the real cost is. Think about what happens to your trash when you generate it, because everybody does. Just examine the possibilities. When people ask, what I can do? I say, hold up the mirror, because you know better than anybody else what your talents are, what your capacity is to make a difference. And then do it.

CONAN: Enric is the amazing man on the broadcast.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SALA: Thank you, darling.

CONAN: He...

Dr. SALA: So - again, there are many ways that you can help. And I think you can go to this ocean website, iamtheocean.org. And this is a place where these group of organizations that form - Mission Blue will start telling everyone how can we help.

CONAN: Do you - when youve identified some of these idyllic spots, do you worry that youre identifying idyllic spots and people say, hey, let's all go there?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. SALA: We have thought a lot about this. And this is something that would have worked in the past. You know, these remote places, let's not talk about them because nobody is going to go. The problem is that now we have exploited most of the ocean. There is virtually no place left to fish. And the fishing fleets from Asian countries, European countries, they are reaching every single corner of the ocean. So we could - we don't have the luxury of remoteness anymore. There are no remote islands anymore. So we think that it's better to tell the world that these places exist, that they are so important and get them protected as soon as possible.

CONAN: Sylvia?

Dr. EARLE: There's one thing that is often missing from the ballot sheet here and that is the need to explore. Because as much as we have exploited the ocean, weve still seen only about five percent of what's there. And it's that ignorance of the deep sea, the open sea, and how it relates back to us.

We need new technologies. It's frustrating to see China moving ahead with deep diving submersibles and this country doesn't have a whole fleet of subs that can go down at least 5,000 feet to see what happened down at the wellhead that was exploding at the - in the depths of the Gulf of Mexico. There are some underwater robots but it'd be nice to be able to have Enric go down and check it out for himself or any of you or any - we have thousands of airplanes and thousands of ships, but what about being able to go beyond where divers can go? The average depths of the ocean, after all, is two and a half miles. Wouldn't you like to see what's down there? I mean, I do.

CONAN: Let's get a question from here in the audience.

Ms. GABRIELLE REISNER (Teacher, Woodrow Wilson High School): Hi. My name is Gabrielle Reisner(ph) and I'm a urban ecology teacher here in the district, at Woodrow Wilson High School. And I just spent the past year in Honduras and spent out a lot of time out on the Bay Islands, on the Belizean Reef. And it was the most amazing thing I had ever seen. Like, I'm not a diver but I've been snorkeling in the Florida Keys. And it's just nothing compared to what you see there. And I, like, swimming there, like, I got teary-eyed at the beauty of it all. And I thought, I want to show this to everybody I know.

And maybe we can't and maybe we don't want to get everybody we know there, but how do we show people? Because, as you said, ignorance - people just don't know what's out there. And seeing that, like, I know that I have to do everything I can to protect it and to keep that beauty there. And so how do we show people what's there?

CONAN: And that's another of the points, that these areas off the coast of Belize, for example, are much more productive in terms of an economy for tourism than necessarily being exploited for their creatures.

Dr. EARLE: Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah.

Dr. EARLE: One of the reasons Enric and I are associated with National Geographic is that it's a way to reach people effectively through magazine, books, television, online and any other form of communication we can muster. Another reason for hope, though, because going back to the middle of the 20th century, for better or for worse, we didn't have iPhones and we didn't have, you know, laptops and iPads and all the other things that now are in everybody's hands all over the world. We can communicate in ways that didn't exist before.

So you can snap pictures when you go to Belize and share it with your buddies, put it up there on Facebook and say, look, look at this. This is fantastic. We need to take care of this. Or if you see something horrible like piles of trash on the beach, you can take a picture of it and send it around and say, this is terrible. Let's stop this.

CONAN: Sylvia Earle, a explorer-in-residence here at National Geographic. Also with us, Enric Sala, a marine ecologist and a National Geographic fellow. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's go next to Pat(ph), Pat with us from Manchester in Michigan.

PAT (Caller): Hey, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

PAT: I was lucky enough to grow up in the great state of Maine. And in the great state of Maine, the lobstermen out there - I was a lobsterman the summer before I left home - use a measure to measure if a lobster's too big or too small to keep. If it's not, you throw it back. Our neighbors to the north in Canada can sell baby lobster tails the size of shrimp I've seen before. And if you go to Boston to have dinner, you can get a lobster as big as your plate if you pay for it.

CONAN: And you're suggesting that different regulations in different countries are making this kind of a - what needs to be perhaps a more regional or global effort difficult?

PAT: Yes. And why can - even the lobstermen in the United States, in Massachusetts, they can take a giant breeder lobster and market that because of the commodity of it. In Maine, it's put back because that is the breeder.

CONAN: It's interesting, we're talking about the Chesapeake Bay earlier, and they do the same sort of thing with rockfish, as they call them there, striped bass as they're called everywhere else in the world, that if it's too big, you have to put it back, so - also too small. And obviously, that's not necessarily an approach for salmon, which are caught in different ways, but these kinds of approaches, is this the kind of thing that needs to be done?

Dr. EARLE: That does represent a change of attitude. Going back, again, a few decades, the only good fish to catch was a big one.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Right.

Dr. EARLE: Unless you were catching a lot of little ones. But now there is this new understanding that the big ones are the best ones to keep alive. They should be protected. I mean, so should the little ones. So should all of them, actually.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Thanks very much for the call, Pat. Let's go next to - this is Forrest(ph), And Forrest with us from Golden, Colorado.

FORREST (Caller): Yes, sir. Thank you very much. One of the most avoided, evaded and simply ignored issues and if not suppressed in this whole discussion is the fact that the human race adds 80 million people every single year, about a billion every 13 years now. And I've traveled all over the world. I've been scuba diving since I was 14, back in 1963. And I've been in all the oceans. I've watched the progression of destruction.

And I would hope that all those solutions really come down to - we need to discuss stabilizing the human race as to its sheer numbers, because no matter how much we try to avoid what's - what we're seeing, if we don't change course on human population growth and move toward human stabilization of their numbers, our numbers, then all of our discussions are simply going to be a waste of time.

So I would hope that NPR would, at some point, begin a population discussion. And I would love to be a part of it, because I've seen the ramifications and the consequences of it all over the planet for the last 45 years.

CONAN: Oh, well, thank you for that. It's an issue that we continue to report on and discuss. As you know, demographers have brought down the size of the increase of the global population because of changing economics largely, in many parts of the world, including China and other places where this is changing. But this is a vital subject, and we pledge to report on it and keep reporting on it. And thank you very much for the suggestion. We'd also like to thank you. You got the last word.

Our guests here at the National Geographic Society, Sylvia Earle, National Geographic explorer-in-residence, and Enric Sala, marine ecologist and National Geographic fellow. Can we get a round of applause for them, please?

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: We'd also like to thank the staff here at the National Geographic for all their hard work and hospitality today, and to the audience who joined us here at the Grosvenor Auditorium.

Before we leave, we also need to thank Drew Reynolds, who's leaving NPR after many years, after the end of next week. He spent the last few as technical director on this program. No one ever took more care to think through the strange ideas and unlikely locations we wanted to try on this program. Drew regularly went above and beyond to make us sound as good as possible and did it all with unfailing good humor and rock-solid professionalism. We wish him well and tell him we're going to miss him.

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