Q&A: Sylvia Earle on the planet’s blue engine

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Sylvia Earle: "Focusing on the green and not the blue is a serious mistake" Copyright: Flickr/ NOOA

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SciDev.Net talks to Sylvia Earle, scientist, oceanographer, explorer, about her hopes for oceans at the Rio+20 conference in Brazil in 2012.

The oceans are a life-support system and they are under severe threat, says Sylvia Earle. That’s why she wants to ensure that they are on the agenda of next year’s international conference on sustainable development in Rio de Janeiro.

Earle is an oceanographer and explorer, president and CEO of Deep Ocean Technology and Deep Ocean Engineering in California, US; founder of Mission Blue, which aims to establish protected marine areas around the world; and former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. She has been called "Her Deepness" and "The Sturgeon General". After speaking at the Eye on Earth Summit in Abu Dhabi (12-15 December 2011) she told SciDev.Net about her oceanic hopes and fears.

What do you hope to achieve from the Eye on Earth Summit?

The Eye on Earth Summit has achieved a gathering of people to look at the data gap for informed decisions on the way forward. We need to learn more about our place in the universe, what we are losing, how to value our natural systems.

Are any global agreements being sought on the oceans at Rio+20, the UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Brazil in June 2012?

I am not familiar with any of the Zero Draft representations [for a document to be approved by Rio+20] but what we want to do is to put the oceans on the balance sheet. We have only an estimation of what carbon storage is conducted by the oceans, and it is just an estimate.

Focusing on the green and not the blue is a serious mistake. With REDD (the United Nations Collaborative Programme on Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation in Developing Countries] we need Blue. The world functions as it does because of the ocean system. It controls the chemical system, the oxygen system, the water cycle, the climate system and represents 97 per cent of our biosphere.

Clues can be found in that 20 per cent oxygen comes from a single kind of microscopic organism, prochlorococcus. Although not visible to the eye it is the single most abundant species in the oceans.  

Valuing natural systems for carbon and REDD are complemented by the Blue movement; I am confident this will be on the agenda.

Are you concerned that governments do not seem to be taking Rio+20 seriously?

Economic collapse, poverty, water, food, a place to live, are all totally anchored in the environment. As a good friend of mine said, “The economy is a subsidiary of the environment”.

For the first time we have the power of knowledge on a large scale. At the 1982 world environment summit [in Nairobi], we did not have knowledge on the scale we have today. At the time, a nuclear holocaust was thought to be the biggest threat to mankind. At the 1992 Rio Summit [on environment and development], the next three [threats] were thought to be population, poverty and environmental degradation – our fundamental life support systems.

Poverty is linked to a degraded environment with more people than the system can sustain. Population is a problem – it is common sense. The earth will only hold so many of us, as we are dependent on the natural world. That understanding is not embedded in education. We are drawing down the assets: the capacity of the earth to support us has a limit. We have to take care of nature.

Rio is a rare opportunity. Is it enough to assemble the world leaders once every ten years? We need to deliberate on our relationship with the natural world.

How critical are the oceans to sustainable development?

Fundamentally, no ocean, no life. It is the blue engine of the planet. Rio can be the turning point: what we decide in the next ten years will determine the next 1,000 years.

What are the critical points we are likely to see if no actions are taken to protect the oceans?

Loss of fishing by 2050. Carbon dioxide at the point of no return by 2050.

We need to protect what works and shift our baseline to 1,000 years ago.

We need to stop eating tuna: we have choices and have the gift that we are versatile. It is a myth that we are dependent on the sea for food: it is our appetite for luxury foods – snapper, lobster, oyster, tuna, shark. There is no place on earth where fish are safe.

We need to look at the ocean as a life-support system. Preceding history set the stage for now: the industrial scale is not working. Imagine feeding people on songbirds, owls and small mammals – how long would that last? With seven billion people how long would birds last if people ate them? People gave that up thousands of years ago for agriculture, except in a few places in Africa and the Amazon. We cannot feed Chicago, London, Abu Dhabi, with wildlife. Wildlife is more valuable to us alive than dead. We become increasingly vulnerable as we degrade these systems. Every fish counts.

On land we are maintaining the wildlife – by the mid-century we will see extinction of fish and seafood. Although Abu Dhabi has banned trawling, this is not the case throughout the world.

I can forgive ignorance but not now, with our eyes wide open.

What are the critical areas for data-gathering?

Only 5 per cent of the oceans have been explored, the rest is less mapped. Although we have generated maps from satellites, they do not reflect what is below. Mapping and exploration of the ocean is essential. We could start by looking at the deep ocean hydrothermal vents. Look at what is in the Arctic. There are fishing vessels ready to hoover up the Arctic, and we haven’t even explored it.

When speaking to politicians, I’m speaking as a scientist, focusing on more than the next election or the next quarter. How do we find equilibrium? Those in power today will put in motion the future of the world. My job is to inform all those in power where we are and what we are at risk of losing.

What can we do on our watch? Policies subsidising fishing and logging are undermining our future.