by Larry Smith
“Thousands have lived without love, not one without water.” — W H Auden
When Dr Sylvia Earle began her career as a deep-diving scientist in 1953 no-one imagined that we could do anything to harm the ocean by what we put into it or took out of it. Back then, the ocean was as vast and as mysterious as outer space.
“But now we know that unless we take care of the ocean nothing else matters,” Earle told a capacity crowd at the Bahamas Natural History Conference here last week. “It is because the ocean is alive that we are alive. And we have no other option than to make peace with nature.”
The conference was organised by the Bahamas National Trust and the College of the Bahamas to spotlight the range of scientific research being conducted in the archipelago. Sixty six scientists presented their work over a three-day period at the COB library auditorium. And Sylvia Earle was one of the biggest celebrity speakers.
Raised on a small farm in New Jersey until she was 12, Earle's interest in the sea was kindled when her family moved to Clearwater Florida. "My back yard became the Gulf of Mexico,” she once said, "So instead of going out to climb trees and watch the squirrels, I had the pleasure of getting acquainted with salt marshes and sea grass beds."
At 78, she is now the world’s most celebrated oceanographer, having spent over 7,000 hours underwater during 100 scientific expeditions, including time in the Perry Hydrolab, an underwater habitat off Grand Bahama, in the early 1970s. She also famously discovered undersea dunes while diving in a research submersible off the Exumas in the 1980s.
Burt these days, Earle spends most of her time trekking around the world to high-profile meetings, desperately trying to put ocean conservation at the top of the global policy agenda.
“Our ability to hold the world in our hands is unprecedented. We now know what we could not imagine a century ago, or throughout human history.” she said at the COB conference. "Two years ago I was at the world economic forum in Davos, Switzerland - and they are beginning to understand that unless we take care of the ocean nothing else matters."
The water on our planet is home to 97 per cent of all life, Earle said. But over the last 50 to 100 years we have aggressively drawn down the assets - air, water and wildlife - that make our own lives possible. The air and the ocean are warming due to the burning of fossil fuels and there are major consequences to this, she said.
“Every creature out there has a place in the great living machinery that keeps us alive. And we are truly at a tipping point. Since I started diving back in the 1950s, 90 per cent of the big fish have gone, and coral reefs are disappearing worldwide. Will we have groupers (or conch) when the kids of today are as old as I am? "
At the second world ocean summit in California organised by the Economist Magazine last month, Earle joined US Secretary of State John Kerry, Britain’s Prince Charles and other global leaders to talk about what it is worth to have a planet that works in our favour.
"Our oceans are in trouble,” Secretary Kerry pointed out in his opening remarks. "The good news is we know exactly what is happening and we have a good understanding of what we need to do, though we don't have the political will to do it."
Kerry called for protection of 10 per cent of the ocean as marine wilderness reserves. Presently less than 3 per cent is protected, compared to about 12 per cent of the land around the world. Our government has committed to protecting 20 per cent of Bahamian marine and coastal environments by 2020, and the Bahamas National Trust is a key player in this conservation initiative.
There are currently 25 protected land - and sometimes sea - areas in the Bahamian national park system, and more are in the works, including a land and sea park at San Salvador. Studies have shown that the lobster, grouper and conch resources within the no-take Exuma Cays Land and Sea Park help to support fisheries outside the park.
Sylvia Earle has called for the creation of hope spots to massively scale up the level of marine protection that experts consider necessary for a sustainable future. A hope spot is an area of ocean that merits special protection because of its wildlife and significant underwater habitats. Experts say these areas can give the ocean a breathing space from human activities so that it may recover and flourish.
Networks of marine protected areas maintain healthy biodiversity, preserve critical habitat and allow low-impact activities like ecotourism to thrive. A forthcoming guide to Bahamian MPA’s, produced by the American Museum of Natural History, says that protecting the health of the ocean is important for the wellbeing and prosperity of the Bahamian people.
“Marine protected areas started in the Exuma Land and Sea Park and other places around world,” Earle told the audience at COB last week, "but only a tiny fraction of the ocean is protected today. Hope spots are areas to focus our attention on - like the polar regions or places in the eastern Pacific that really count. Some of these places are already formally protected while others are not. Some are pristine and some are not. They are good for the ocean, which means they are good for us.”
In her award-winning 2009 TED lecture (short for technology, entertainment and design), Earle warned that in 50 years there may be no coral reefs and no commercial fishing at all. "Imagine the ocean without fish, and what that will mean to our life support system. Protected areas do rebound but it takes a long time. The next 10 years may be as important as the next 10,000. Our fate and the ocean are one.”
In the Bahamas, for example, both scientists and policymakers fear we are in imminent danger of losing two of our most popular seafood species - conch and grouper.
"It was interesting listening to Sylvia Earle talk about how so many living things have collapsed in the ocean due to human action“ Eric Carey told me after the COB conference. “We have an obligation to protect our conch and grouper. I don’t want to feel guilty about eating them.”
And, in fact, the BNT is already heavily involved in efforts to protect these important cultural catches. A ban on Nassau grouper fishing during the winter months was implemented a few years ago based on the need to protect spawning aggregations.
But the way groupers reproduce makes them even more vulnerable. Every year these normally solitary fish migrate from their home reefs as far as 100 miles to a few specific areas where they mate in large groups around the time of the winter full moons. Historically, such spawning aggregations have included more than 100,000 individuals.
And that makes them easy targets for fishermen. In many instances, entire stocks have been wiped out as a result. And once an aggregation has disappeared, it does not re-form. Scientists estimate there may be as few as 10,000 Nassau groupers remaining worldwide, and their numbers are declining. They are already commercially extinct elsewhere in the region.
A national programme was launched last year to research Bahamian conch stocks and develop urgent proposals to improve management of this important fishery. Conch catches have collapsed almost everywhere else in the region due to over-exploitation, and according to recent research the signs of stock decline here are unmistakeable.
The drop-dead number to remember is 50. That is the minimum density of adult conch per hectare required for successful reproduction. And the most recent research concluded that “based on the collection of data over five years in 10 conch fishing grounds, there is a clear trend for local conch populations to be overfished to densities incapable of reproduction.”
Speaking to Prime Minister Perry Christie at the VIP opening reception of the natural history conference at the Atlantis Resort last week, Sylvia Earle said The Bahamas could show the way to save the oceans, and by extension, our way of life. "You can do this,” she said. "You can be the beacon for the world. You have a chance as leaders in terms of valuing natural history, to put in place policies that will have an impact.”
And in an emotive conclusion to her keynote address at the COB conference, Earle recounted the story of meeting an albatross named Wisdom on Midway Island in the Pacific recently. Banded in the 1950s, she is the worlds oldest known living bird, and it is cause for hope that after 62 years Wisdom continues to return to Midway to build her nest.
“Wisdom and her mate have seen the same kind of unprecedented change that we have,” Earle said. "But we are the only ones with the power to act. There is still time, but not a lot. Is there hope for Wisdom’s latest chick? Let us hold up a mirror and ask ourselves.”