Sylvia Earle: Stop Strip-Mining the Ocean, or We'll Pay the Price

The legendary oceanographer pushes for the creation of a global network of marine protected areas.

Sylvia Earle. (Photo: Paul Morigi/Getty Images)

Oct 7, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Todd Woody is TakePart's editorial director, environment.

AUSTIN, Texas—Much of the debate over saving the ocean and its myriad creatures revolves around finding the right balance between exploitation and environmental protection as climate change and overfishing threaten to empty the seas.

Dr. Sylvia Earle, the world-renowned oceanographer and deep-sea explorer, wants to change the conversation entirely.

“The ocean has a value in its own right,” Earle said Tuesday at the SXSW Eco conference. “Not just as a place to grow things, not just as a place to extract things, not just as a waterway for shipping.”

Earle, 79, is known as "Her Deepness" for her advocacy of ocean issues.

“We are at a pivotal point in history, human history, and maybe life on Earth,” she said. “We have technologies to wage war among ourselves, and now we’re using those technologies to wage war on the ocean.”

Giant industrial trawlers in search of certain fish species bulldoze the ocean floor, scooping up tons of unwanted fish and marine mammals that are discarded as so-called bycatch. As many as 273 million sharks are killed each year by fishermen and poachers, who cut off their fins so restaurants in Asia can make soup.

“We think of the ocean as free real estate,” Earle said. “It shouldn’t be regarded as free. It comes out of the global commons. Right now we’re not properly accounting for the cost of the wild fish.”

In other words, fish swimming in the ocean are free. Anyone—from the dockside fisherman to the captain of an industrial trawler, can take them and not pay a penny. Only when fish are on the hook or in the net do they gain economic value. Last year, a single endangered bluefin tuna, for instance, sold for $1.8 million in Japan.

“Living fish have a value beyond pounds of meat,” said Earle. “We have to stop thinking of them as commodities.”

That way of thinking—and failure to think deeply about the sea—has led to the near extirpation of most of the ocean’s large fish.

“How many pounds of plants did it take to make that little piece of sushi on your plate?” Earle asked. “It takes thousands of pounds of plants to make tuna.”

“Orange roughy takes 30 years to mature and 10 minutes to eat them on your plate,” she added, and noted that it takes six years for a wild salmon to grow from an egg to “plate-size.”

“How many six-year-old chickens have you had lately?” Earle asked.

One solution, she said, is to start putting parts of the ocean off-limits to fishing. Earle is founder of Mission Blue, an alliance of more than 90 conservation groups that seeks to protect what it calls “Hope Spots”—marine areas crucial to the ocean’s health, such as the seas surrounding the Great Barrier Reef.

To do that, people will have to change their mind-set about the ocean and marine life, she said.

“We think of them as free,” Earle said. “In the end, we’re going to pay.”