CHAUTAUQUA - Growing up in the world today, people have a skewed baseline for what a "clean" ocean looks like.
Dr. Enric Sala, a marine ecologist and explorer-in-residence for National Geographic came to Chautauqua Institution on Tuesday morning to talk about this perception, and how people can collectively work to change it.
"Think about the first time you experienced the ocean," said Sala. "This is your baseline for the ocean, your benchmark."
According to Sala, 90 percent of the marine research that has ever been conducted has taken place in already tainted water. The benchmark that scientists have today is vastly different than the benchmark of past generations and just as far removed from what future generations will experience. There are two key things that humans do that create this quickly changing benchmark. First, people remove everything that they like from the oceans. This means large, predatory fish such as sharks which are prized for food, as well as many other marine animals. Second, people put everything that they don't want back into the oceans, including pollution and waste products. On top of all of these facts, global warming is creating a hotter, more acidic environment in the world's waters.
While many people worry about "peak oil," or a time when there is no longer a capacity for unlimited oil production, what Sala says they should also consider is "peak fish." The world has already reached the peak of its capacity for fishing, and many species' numbers are steadily declining and on paths to extinction due to excessive overfishing.
Sala likened our current understanding of marine ecosystems to what would happen if an alien were to land in a junkyard and see a car for the first time. They would only be able to understand what was still in working condition on the vehicle. What Sala is working to do is, along with National Geographic, locate pristine waters, areas that have remained untouched by humans. These areas, although few and far between, still exist on the planet. They can offer scientists a glimpse into what the aquatic ecosystems of the world looked like thousands of years ago before they were tainted by pollution and overfishing.
"I wanted to reset my baseline and know what the ocean was like 1,000 years ago," said Sala. "Most importantly, these places are the blueprint for the ocean."
The first stop for Sala and the rest of his team was the Line Islands archipelago. No scientific studies had ever been done on marine life near the island chain. Four out of the seven islands, which are located more than 4,000 miles from the west coast of the United States, remain completely uninhabited by humans to this day. Due to this fact, Sala expected to see a much richer environment than those that had been studied before, but even his expectations were eclipsed during his first dive.
"The reef was so vibrant," said Sala. "There was no algae, no seaweed to be seen. Surgeonfish were working to clean the reef in order to create the right conditions for the coral to replenish itself. The lagoon was also a perfect nursery for blacktip reef sharks.. This was the epitome of a virgin coral reef. This was what we were looking for.
"We've been studying 'car wrecks.' We had no idea how marine systems actually worked," Sala continued. "After visiting these islands, we found that we could throw away or rewrite entire chapters of some of the most important marine biology text books."
In a typical degraded coral reef, the ecosystem is typically made up of a large amount of herbivores and plankton eaters, with fewer carnivores and very low numbers of top-level predators like sharks. In these pristine reefs however, scientists found the opposite to be true. The greatest amount of biomass present in untouched marine areas actually came from top-level predators, including reef sharks, groupers and snappers. While conducting research in the Line Islands, Sala also invited a team of microbiologists to the site. What they found in this naturally balanced ecosystem was the cleanest water that had ever been measured in a tropical ocean. According to Sala, this was because of the large population of giant clams, which act as a natural filter for the water, but are heavily overfished in populated regions.
HOW MANY IS TOO MANY?
The team then went forth to determine what the minimum level of human contact was needed to destroy these delicate ecosystems. They first visited Easter Island, famous for the giant statues lining its shores. What they found there was beautiful coral reefs completely devoid of large predators and even many of the smaller fish. This dramatic reduction of the marine population was caused by only 5,000 people. The team continued on to the Pitcairn Islands, which boasts a population of only 60 and requires a five-day trip to be reached. Even in this remote region, the small population still had a large enough impact to leave the area devoid of top-level predators.
STEPS TOWARD CONSERVATION
According to Sala, less than 5 percent of the world's oceans are pristine. Only 1 percent of the oceans are "protected" by law and only half of 1 percent are fully protected areas.
He asked the audience, "What are we going to do with that other 95 percent? Are we going to give up on it, or are we going to try to do something to change it?"
Sala offered "no-take" marine reserves as a way to save marine ecosystems around the globe. These areas severely restrict the amount of human contact allowed and completely prohibit fishing within their boundaries.
"In these "no-take" zones, marine life comes back relatively quickly," said Sala. "We just need to let the ocean replenish itself. In 10 years, the marine life population in a reserve has been shown to increase by 21 percent. The size of the fish and other animals in the protected zones increased by almost a third in the same amount of time. The abundance of fish goes up by 170 percent, and the actual biomass of the fish in the area increases by more than 400 percent."
Scientists recommend that at least 20 percent of the world's oceans should be protected. While many people may believe that this effort would be far to costly to be realistic, the money is already available to undertake the protection of the world's water. The cost of protecting 20 percent of the oceans has been estimated to be $16 billion per year. In the process, the protection of the oceans would also create nearly 1 million jobs. In contrast, the world's governments currently pay close to $35 billion in subsidies to some of the most damaging fishing fleets in the world.
Several areas have already shown the viability of a "no-take" zone. These zones, by allowing sea life to naturally repopulate, have an unintended spillover effect. Fish will eventually move beyond the boundaries of the "no-take" zone, allowing them to be caught by commercial fishermen. The fish that are caught will be larger and in greater abundance than they are currently, while still allowing the world's waters to be protected. The "no-take" marine zone around Medes Island off of the coast of Spain produces a 10 million euro profit every year, as well as creating 200 full-time jobs. The same phenomenon has been seen in several other "no-take" zones that have been created around the world.
"Conservation doesn't just make good sense scientifically, it makes good sense economically as well," said Sala. "Steps towards protecting the oceans can be a win-win situation. We have an amazing capacity for destruction, but we also have amazing ingenuity and an ability to bring things back, which I hope we put to good use in the future."