Sylvia Earle on the biodiversity crisis


‘We are on the brink – a million species may be lost’ – Sylvia Earle.

Veteran oceanographer calls for us to stop treating fish like crops and treat them with the respect they deserve, saying, ‘We are a species that is superb at killing.’

Sylvia Earle, a well-known oceanographer, has urged a global gathering of marine experts to rein in industrial overfishing, which is threatening the extinction of hundreds of species, and to reevaluate our relationship with the oceans, urging humanity to “do unto fish as you would have them do unto you.”

The American marine biologist and first female head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said in an interview with the Guardian at the Fifth International Marine Protected Areas Congress (Impac5) in Vancouver that intensive factory fishing treats marine species the same as farmed livestock, despite the fact that they are very different.

“So many people seem to think that fish are equivalent to cows and chickens and pigs. We even talk about ‘harvesting’ the sea,” she says. “It’s not a harvest – we’re just out there as hunters.”

The key difference, she argues, is that industrial fishing drives species to extinction. “We’re seeing species after species winked out. The trajectory is more than a million species will be lost. We don’t know enough about the ocean to say how many have already been lost … But we do know that we’re good at eliminating whole ecosystems,” she says. “We’re on the brink.”

Earle, 87, compared the hubris of the huge new krill fisheries in Antarctica to the decimation of cod in the 20th century, which led to moratoriums on cod fishing. “With krill in Antarctica, we have the illusion that there are billions of them. ‘We can never eliminate all the krill, we can never eliminate all the tuna’ … except the cod! Oh my goodness, think of the cod here in Canada, in the US and Europe: it just seemed the cod would never ever, ever [run out].”

Earle, who was born in New Jersey, became famous for the first time in 1970 when she set a record by living underwater for two weeks with a team of all women. Since then, she has lived below the waves for nearly a dozen times and holds the record for the deepest solo dive.

She explains that her time spent living on vessels and the underwater habitat of the Tektite gave her a fresh perspective on fish and helped her see them as individuals. She asserts, “They have personality.”

“Jane Goodall got into trouble with her learned colleagues for daring to suggest that chimpanzees have personality – that they have feelings, they have families, they care about one another, they feel pain, they feel pleasure, they laugh.

“I don’t know that fish laugh,” she says. “But I’m pretty sure they feel pain and pleasure.

“They are not our fellow primates, but they are our fellow vertebrates. We have eyes, they have eyes. We have a backbone, they have backbones. They have a heart, we have a heart. They have brains – some of us have brains,” she says.

A frequent misconception about fish is their age, she says. “Many of the fish on menus around the world are older than not just our parents, but our great-grandparents. Fish that can be more than 100 years old are on our plates.

“It’s not good for us to be so complacent about where food comes from. It doesn’t mean we’re going to stop eating fish. But maybe we should be more respectful … We don’t accord them with the kind of dignity that we do with most other forms of life. They’re measured by the ton. How many fish are in a ton of fish? How many people are in a ton of people?”

In addition to her research, Earle’s advocacy organisation, Mission Blue, has collaborated with conservation organisations to identify global “hope spots” for permanent protection, such as the glass sponge reefs on Canada’s west coast, which were made a marine protected area in 2017.

Despite such successes, she noted that only about 3% of the ocean is protected. “That means 97% is open for exploitation,” she says.

“Some of it is protected because it’s still relatively inaccessible. But we’re getting so good at going to the deepest parts of the ocean – going even under the ice, or places that even 50 years ago you couldn’t access. Now with sonar, there’s no place to hide.

“We capture [fish] with techniques that didn’t exist when I was a kid. We have the power to take the last tuna, just as we had the power to take the last whale, but we stopped in time. Can we do that again?”

She argues that because of her work for more than six decades, she has a point of view that can be helpful now that scientific advancements have revealed the ocean in new ways.

“Until fairly recently, the ocean was too big to fail. You didn’t have to protect it,” she says. “But I’ve been a witness. I’ve had the perspective that David Attenborough talked about in the BBC profile, where he referred to himself as a witness to this time of remarkable change.

“Attenborough and I had a parallel trajectory, when the world population was only 2 billion,” she says. “Now we have 8 billion people and the Earth is the same size. We have to be mindful of the mark we’re making on the systems that keep us alive.”

Earle asserts, paradoxically, that precisely her experience inspires optimism. During her four years on the International Whaling Commission, she made a significant contribution to the campaign to stop the killing of whales.

I have observed the downward trend. She adds,“I have watched the trajectory of decline. I’ve also seen the capacity to turn things around,” she says. “Whaling was a big deal for most of the 20th century and for several centuries before. And we came perilously close to losing a chance to save whales, their numbers got to such low levels. But we did, through international agreements,” she says, pointing out the irony that some nations only realised the true cost of killing whales when they saw the economic value of whales in terms of tourism and the climate crisis.

She asserts that a comparable reckoning with the actual cost of killing wild fish would enable us to reframe their value, undermining what she describes as the ocean’s greatest threat: the idea of “seafood.”

“We are so casual about taking wildlife from the ocean,” she says. “I sound like a fish hugger [but] they’re beautiful – as beautiful as any of the other amazing creatures that we have come to treat with greater respect.

“We need to use this thing we call a brain and our empathy for life – all forms of life have a place. And we have this attitude: ‘What good are they? Can I eat it? Can I sell it? If I can’t, it’s just something to crush.’ In your actions, you just ignore it. Unless you’re a three-year-old kid! A little kid is curious and has an empathy for life … We teach them to kill. We teach them it’s OK. In fact, we encourage it. We have become a species that is just superb at killing.

“If we can make one transformative movement in the 21st century, it’s to gain a greater respect for caring for life – for all of life, ourselves included.”



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