“Beneath the surface, it all becomes clear that what we put into the ocean doesn’t just go away,” Dr. Sylvia Earle says in an early-morning interview.
Called “Her Deepness” by the New Yorker and The New York Times and “Living Legend” by the Library of Congress, Earle is a world-renowned oceanographer and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, among many other accolades.
A former chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA), Earle earned her Ph.D. from Duke and holds 15 honorary degrees.
She has also logged more than 6,000 hours underwater, led the first team of women aquanauts in 1970 and set a record for solo diving to a depth of 3,300 feet. But we don’t list these honors to tout her aqueous accomplishments, but rather to set the tone that Earle knows her stuff.
“We thought of the ocean as the ultimate garbage disposal, but now it’s coming back to haunt us, especially in the fish that are high in the food chain,” she continues. “All of the top predators that are in our menus, they are loaded with the things we put in the sea – mercury, fire retardants, pesticides, herbicides.”
“And in the past 20 years at least, I’ve not done any dive anywhere that I haven’t seen trash that humans have put there.”
Q&A with Sylvia Earle
Among her many accomplishments, Earle was also the scientific advisor and a part of the “cheering squad” for Disneynature’s newest film, OCEANS. Called “a magnificent piece of work” and “a tribute to the ocean,” Earth911 had the opportunity to talk with Earle not only about the film, but about how our everyday decisions are affecting one of our most precious natural resources. Below are a few of the highlights from our conversation.
EARTH911: What is the No. 1 problem that you see affecting our oceans at this moment?
SYLVIA EARLE: I think there are some major issues. What we’re putting into the ocean, the trash, debris, the garbage, and what we’re taking out – too much of the wildlife. By the middle of the 21st century, there really won’t be the large fish that we are accustomed to – the tuna, the grouper, the sharks.
But the biggest problem is getting people to know, to understand, to make the connection back to us. We’ve learned more about the ocean in the past 50 years than in all of history put together. Whole mountain ranges, hydrothermal vents, the fact that there are many thousands more volcanoes underwater than above – these are discoveries that have come about since I was a kid.
But the big discovery is that there are limits to what we can put in and take out, but that we can also make a difference and do something about it. When areas are protected, it’s incredible – they have a chance to recover because the ingredients [the underwater flora and fauna that make up a particular ecosystem] are all still there.
There are only 10 percent of the sharks left in the ocean from when I was a kid. Knowing these things should inspire people to take action. It’s now considered a real gift when you go out in the ocean and see a whale or a turtle or a tuna. Instead of saying ‘I better eat it before it’s gone,’ we should be protecting it before it’s gone.
EARTH911: What can the average person do to make a difference regarding our oceans, even if they’re in a land-locked state?
EARLE: Well, one thing that Pierce Brosnan [narrator of the film] makes clear is that with every breath we take, every drop of water we use, you are connected and dependent on the ocean. The ocean has, over the years, been our life-support system. Now it’s becoming clear that we have to take conscious action to take care of it.
Part of the proceeds of the film will be dedicated to establishing protected areas by the Nature Conservancy. It’s one of the things people can do locally, statewide, nationally, internationally – bring about marine protected areas; that we just choose to embrace them as we do national parks – as a life insurance policy for ourselves.
A fraction – about 1 percent of the ocean worldwide – is in a marine protected area. Much more needs to be done. [...] This I think will be a revelation to many. A lot is going on underwater that we should know about, think about and care about, and really protect these creatures and not think of them as commodities to be consumed.
EARTH911: As the host of the nation’s largest recycling database, we’re obviously interested in reducing waste output. How integral do you think recycling efforts are to protecting the ocean?
EARLE: Absolutely critical. There are a few scenes [in the film] that show what we’re doing to the ocean, the trash, the debris. A shopping cart underwater that looks so out of place. [...] It’s not just the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, but it’s true throughout the ocean. We can’t just be deep sixing things [the practice of throwing garbage into the sea].
Where we go from here
A major focus in national media, areas such as garbage patches and waste in the ocean have garnered a great deal of attention lately. But despite this, it’s our own attention to the litter we produce that can have a true impact on the sea.
“Marine debris is a problem that starts with litter,” according Keith Christman, managing director of plastics markets for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), “and we must work together to prevent litter and increase proper waste management such as recycling.”
Indeed, preventing waste from reaching the ocean is a task that belongs to everyone.
“All of us share a responsibility to help reduce litter and prevent our coastlines and oceans from becoming repositories for waste,” according to an ACC press release. “Working together, we can contribute to cleaner oceans, beautiful coastlines, and a better environment for future generations.”
To help with litter prevention, be sure to carry out all trash that you bring when you visit coastlines or waterways, and take advantage of recycling that may be readily available there. Also, learn more about the local and retailer-based recycling opportunities in your area to ensure you recycle as many materials as possible.
Additionally, Earle encourages the establishment and support of underwater preserves and protected areas, as scientists estimate that coral reefs, such as those of the Caribbean, could be gone in 50 years without a network of well-managed marine protected areas.
The Nature Conservancy is an organization that establishes marine protected areas, and worked directly with OCEANS to establish these regions through its “See ‘OCEANS,’ Save Oceans” campaign. More than 35,000 acres of coral reef in The Bahamas will now be protected on behalf of the moviegoers who came out to see the movie during its opening week.
At 55 square miles, this protected area of coral reefs will be almost two-and-a-half times the size of Manhattan – the equivalent of more than 412 Disneylands. But as Earle mentioned earlier, less than 1 percent of our oceans fall under “protected” status.
Perhaps after making a stronger connection between our everyday choices (where our food comes from or where our trash goes, for example) we will all feel a bit more empowered to responsibly manage our waste.