20 Years Since Exxon Valdez, New Ocean Threats? Two decades since the catastrophic oil spill in Prince William Sound, today's threats to the ocean — from acidification to dead zones — are harder to see. Philippe Cousteau, of EarthEcho International, and Peter Seligmann, chairman of Conservation International, discuss the ocean environment.
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20 Years Since Exxon Valdez, New Ocean Threats?

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20 Years Since Exxon Valdez, New Ocean Threats?

20 Years Since Exxon Valdez, New Ocean Threats?

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You're listening to SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow. When the Exxon Valdez oil tanker ran aground 20 years ago this week, the disastrous effects were obvious.

Now, two decades later, the threats to the ocean from acidification to anaerobic dead zones to overfishing are not as easy to see. Given the complexity of the problems facing the oceans, how do we go about solving them?

We'll throw that question to a new NOAA administrator, Jane Lubchenco, a little later in the hour, but first we're going to talk to two conservationists about their top priorities for ocean management.

Our number is 1-800-989-8255, 1-800-989-TALK. And as always, you can go to our Web site at sciencefriday.com, or join us in Second Life at SCIENCE FRIDAY Island and you can Twitter us at SciFri.

Let me introduce my guests. Peter Seligmann is the chairman and chief executive of Conservation International. He joins us from Seattle. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. PETER SELIGMANN (Chairman, Chief Executive, Conservation International): Thank you, Ira.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Philippe Cousteau is the CEO of EarthEcho International and is upholding his family's legacy as the grandson of Jacques Cousteau. He joins us by phone from San Diego. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY.

Mr. PHILIPPE COUSTEAU (CEO, EarthEcho International): A pleasure, Ira, thank you.

FLATOW: I remember having conversations with your grandfather.

Mr. COUSTEAU: Oh, is that so?

FLATOW: I've been doing this a while.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Let me thank you both for joining us today. Philippe, what do you think are the biggest threats to the ocean today?

Mr. COUSTEAU: I think there's no question that the biggest threat to the ocean is our output of carbon into the atmosphere, and I say carbon, not climate change because carbon is both contributing to climate change, which is a tremendous threat, but also carbon is contributing to ocean acidification, which is not related to rising temperatures merely by the rising amount of carbon in the atmosphere, which is being absorbed by the oceans, changing the pH balance of the oceans and changing critical ecosystems.

FLATOW: And second, what would you move down to number two and number three? What other threats do we face?

Mr. COUSTEAU: Other threats, I mean, pretty much all manmade. I think the destruction of fisheries and critical ecosystems from coral reefs through land-based development.

FLATOW: Do you hold out much future for the reefs? It seems like there's no way to turn this around for them.

Mr. COUSTEAU: Well, we've lost about 25 percent of our coral reefs globally already and another 25 percent possibly by the middle of this century. They're the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world, even more so than rainforests, and provide the basis for the health of so many oceanic food chains that in many cases people rely upon for their food, for their sustenance, for their economic benefit, not to mention, buffer zones for storms, et cetera, that attack the coast.

I think there is hope, though. I think, you know, we know what the solutions are. We know at least on a local level how to protect coral reefs and hopefully make them more resilient to the global threats like climate change and ocean acidification. We just need to stand up with the leadership and the will to make it happen.

FLATOW: We're having NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco on right after you. If you were in her shoes, what would be your top priorities for ocean management?

Mr. COUSTEAU: Well, I think one of the top priorities is to continue from a leadership perspective in this country, in the United States, to invest in the science that's required. We've had not enough science investment in conservation and ocean exploration over the past few decades.

We've only ever explored maybe 10 percent of our oceans. Even our own ocean exclusive economic zone that extends to about 200 miles off the coast of the United States is woefully unexplored. And I think one of the big issues that we need to understand is what exists out there and then create a comprehensive management plan on a federal level to responsibly exploit those resources and not just, as we've done in the past, fish wherever we want to fish or drill wherever we want to drill.

We need to have a comprehensive plan that takes into consideration the environment first and foremost and protection of that environment before we exploit the oceans. And also, we need a lot of work on our fisheries policies.

Still in 2009, science is not the primary deciding factor in many cases regarding fisheries policy. It's more wishful think, and that needs to end, as well. We need to really, in this country, take a leadership role in making science the foremost deciding factor of how we exploit the environment.

FLATOW: I'm sure, Peter Seligmann, you would agree.

Mr. SELIGMANN: Agreed. I think that Philippe has described it well. We have - what we have to do is be able to go from science to action. So what we don't - what is not really understood by most people is that when you talk about environment, it's not a luxury.

We have to remember that humanity depends entirely upon nature for all the securities we have, whether it's our food, the protein that we get from the fisheries or whether it's the fresh water that comes from healthy ecosystems or even if it's climate stability.

So we need to understand that. We need to understand what it takes to sustain that over time, over a long period of time. And then we have to be able to design the policies and the markets so that the important aspects of nature are maintained for future.

Mr. COUSTEAU: The great example, I was in New Orleans last week, and Peter said it perfectly. You know, the fact is that the environment is not a luxury item. When we see the impacts that remain from Katrina, from so many years ago, they're tremendous. And probably the cumulative cost to the United States taxpayer, to each and every one of us, whether we live on the ocean or not, from the damage from Katrina, is over $100 billion.

And in this current economic crisis, I'm sure most people can think of better things that that money could've been spent on if it hadn't needed to be spent on restoring after Katrina. And largely, the impacts from Katrina are because we destroyed the coastal ecosystems along Louisiana and Mississippi that protect the land from the storm surge created by those storms.

It wasn't the wind and the rain that caused the flooding in New Orleans. It was storm surge that overwhelmed the dykes and levees, and healthy marsh, healthy wetlands absorbed that. And those critical ecosystem-based services were destroyed over the last 50 years for oil-rig servicing platforms, for coastal development, for canals, et cetera -and we're paying the price.

Mr. SELIGMANN: Ira, if you think about it, you know, we are responding with amazing aggressiveness, globally, to the economic crisis we're dealing with. We need to have the same type of response to the environmental crisis we're facing. I mean, we're actually losing between 2 and $5 trillion every year from the destruction of ecosystems. And that's what we're losing in terms of the benefits that forests, grasslands, coral reefs, health fisheries provide to us.

So there is a real need to think about, how do we take care of our marine systems, just in terms of the issue that you want to focus on this time. How do we take care of marine systems? What's the information needed so we understand, how many fish do we have? Where are they?

I mean, fisheries globally have been depleted by some 80 percent, the fish that we eat. If you go - that's an enormous loss due to overfishing. And the impact will be in skyrocketing costs of food. So there's a lot of challenges, and we're all really enthusiastic about Jane Lubchenco taking over NOAA.

Mr. COUSTEAU: Here, here, yes.

Mr. SELIGMANN: This is a great opportunity to take science into action, into policy, where you can find out where the species are and where the important fisheries are, where you can establish significant marine-protected areas, not that you want to stop the use of resources, but that the oceans can actually replenish themselves.

And what we're seeing, actually, is when you create marine-protected areas, you actually increase the size of the fish that are caught by fishermen, as well as the number of fish. So there are important strategies that need to be implemented immediately by the United States in our exclusive economic zone.

But we also need to be taking these lessons and exporting them to parts of the world that have been hit so heavily by overfishing and where U.S. foreign assistance in the terms of the protection of marine systems would be so, so valuable for the wellbeing of people that are living there.

FLATOW: Gentlemen, we've run out of time. I want to thank you both for taking time to be with us and for being informative about the oceans. Thank you, and good luck to you.

Mr. SELIGMANN: Always a pleasure.

Mr. COUSTEAU: Thank you.

FLATOW: You're welcome. Peter Seligmann is the chairman and chief executive of Conservation International, and Philippe Cousteau is the CEO of EarthEcho International joining us both by telephone today.

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