Where there's hope

13 January 2011 | Article

We have a 10-year window of opportunity to reverse the fate of our oceans, says world-renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle in an interview with World Conservation.

Deep sea explorer Dr Sylvia Earle has led more than 50 expeditions and clocked up some 6,000 hours under water. A dedicated champion of the ocean, she won last year’s prestigious TED prize which celebrates Technology, Entertainment and Design and was granted ‘one wish to change the world’—a wish that is proving a major stimulus in efforts to save our blue planet.

“Mine has been a lifetime wish—to protect the blue heart of our planet,” says Sylvia. Her mission is to establish more ‘Hope Spots’ or marine protected areas, large enough to protect and restore the oceans. Work on establishing some Hope Spots has already begun, with advanced management plans being put in place, while others are still in the early stages.

“The good news is there are more than 5,800 marine protected areas, the bad news is you have to look really hard to see them. All together they make up just under 1.2% of the ocean—that’s just not enough,” says Sylvia.

Last October Chile announced the establishment of a large marine reserve around Sala y Gómez island in the Pacific. But plans for increasing the number of marine protected areas fall far short of what’s needed, according to a new report from IUCN, The Nature Conservancy and the United Nations Environment Programme. Countries are far from the 10% coverage promised for 2010. In comparison, protected areas cover 12% of the earth’s terrestrial surface. Greater political will and a change in the way we manage our marine capital are needed now to preserve the Earth’s oceans for generations to come, the report says.

“Given the critical range of pressures on the seas, there has never been a time like this when we have needed to act in such decisive ways and connect ocean issues to the broader public. By taking new actions as individuals, world leaders can achieve both those goals in one go and also leave a personal legacy from which we will all benefit in future years,” says Sylvia.

In her long and illustrious career that has included serving as chief scientist at the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Sylvia, explorer-in-residence with National Geographic, has recently launched Mission Blue, a global coalition focused on restoring the health of the oceans through fishing reform and increased protection. Mission Blue and its partners have all witnessed graphic signs of ocean degradation including the loss of half of the world’s coral reefs.

“It is astonishing how fast this is happened. We’ve also lost 90% of big fish species; certain species have gone into freefall decline in my lifetime. And in the Pacific Ocean there are broad areas where low oxygen levels are causing massive die-off of organisms. This should be headline news.”

“If we carry on with what we’re doing, coral reefs will be gone and there won’t be any commercial fishing because there won’t be any fish. What has happened in my lifetime has driven me to do everything I can to let the world know that we have a problem but that it’s not too late to do something about it.”

“Changes to the oceans are occurring so fast you can’t miss the human impact. But what’s encouraging is that decision makers are beginning to see the links between life and the environment—our ability to survive.” Sylvia is a skilled communicator and urges the use of every means at our disposal to spread the word. “People cannot act if they do not know,” she says.

Last year, Sylvia was among a select group of marine scientists, ocean explorers, musicians, artists and activists who journeyed to the Galapagos Islands for a Mission Blue conference aboard the National Geographic ship Endeavour. Streaming live from the ship and translated into many languages, speakers brought global attention to Sylvia’s wish and discussed innovative approaches towards working together on ocean issues. Eight separate initiatives were kick-started, helped by US$ 15 million in commitments from the people on board. These included US$ 1 million to help protect the waters around the Galapagos and US$ 1.1 million to launch a plan to protect the Sargasso Sea.

Sylvia is an enthusiastic supporter of IUCN and sees the organization as a key player in ocean conservation. “I really applaud IUCN. It is one of the best hopes for bringing together governments and NGOs to work together to understand what the problems are and to take action. There is no organization like it for providing that crucial network that pulls people together on a global scale.”

And that concrete action has to happen now. “We maybe have 10 years to make a difference, to take action that will reverse the trends that are not good for our health, our economy, our security, the existence of life on earth. The window of opportunity is closing but I am optimistic.”

Alongside Sylvia’s foundation, Sylvia Earle Alliance (SEAlliance), IUCN’s Global Marine and Polar Programme and its World Commission on Protected Areas are working with Mission Blue and its key partners to implement her wish.

IUCN is a partner in “I am the Ocean,” a campaign which is part of the Mission Blue multi-year strategic partnership of government, private, scientific and conservation institutions including the TEDPrize, Google, The National Geographic Society, the Waitt Foundation, and the SEAlliance. It is a global call to action to restore the health and productivity of the oceans.

From cleaning up coastlines to buying only sustainably-sourced seafood, “I am the ocean” provides practical tips for joining forces with conservationists to help increase Marine Protected Area coverage and protect threatened species. This growing effort will promote the expansion of proven solutions, as well as new, cutting-edge ideas from fisheries policy makers, the seafood industry, and local fishing and coastal communities.