Podcast: Deep dive with Dr. Sylvia Earle

Our first guest of the year has quite a few titles. She was LA Times’ Woman of the Year in 1970, ordained a knight in 1981, set a world diving record in 86’, was the first female chief scientist at NOAA, named Time Magazine’s first “Hero for the Planet,” addressed the United Nations in 2010, and started a nonprofit to create a global network of marine protected areas in 2014. One of these things is considered a lifetime achievement for most. But Dr. Sylvia Earle is not most. Listen to her interview now, or enjoy reading a few highlights below.

Q: What’s your take on the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico?

A: Well, it’s unfortunately not unique. Presently, there are an estimated 500 or so “dead zones” in coastal areas around the world. They all link back to upstream activities that we humans are imposing on the ocean. The addition of nitrates and phosphates favor certain kinds of phytoplankton that grow so fast and luxuriantly that they take up oxygen from the water so that creatures that would otherwise prosper can’t survive.

Q: We are starting to see some advances in accounting, tracking, and innovating how we set up fisheries management and natural resources management that we didn’t have a while ago. Given our point in history, where we are beginning to understand limits, how do we convert these advances into something that brings us hope going forward?

A: We need to think of the earth as an ecosystem. We know enough about the ocean to know that the ocean drives climate and weather, regulates temperature, and that it is home for most of life on earth. It’s not just rocks and water, it’s a living system. Life in the ocean is most important to us because it is what makes our existence possible. It generates oxygen, captures carbon, and it’s constantly processing the chemistry that holds the planet steady. You ask, now that we know what we know, how can we do a better job of managing fisheries and things of that sort. I think it goes back to that business of choice. Are we managing the ocean ourselves with respect to the ocean to maximize choice, or food production? If we are just trying to feed people, if that’s our priority, than taking wildlife on a large scale certainly isn’t working. Even with our attempts to manage it, like Bluefin tuna. Their numbers are down to about 4% of what they were in the Pacific. That’s not feeding people, that’s feeding a choice, a luxury choice.

Q: One of the things that people have talked about as a panacea for at least solving some of our water woes is desalination. What’s your take?

A: It would be so much more reasonable to conserve water in the first place. We squander water. We have developed habits of water use. Think about our plumbing system. It seemed like such a good idea at the time, and on a certain scale it is a good idea to have all of our plumbing systems require large quantities of freshwater. Every time you flush the toilet, boom! There goes a lot of water that could be used for other purposes, but it’s then unfit for those purposes. Then it has to go through sewage treatment, and then out into the ocean typically, which is part of the reason we have these dead zones. So, this is a moment in time when we are armed with knowledge. We can see and understand what we simply could not see or understand even 10 years ago, let alone 50 or 100 at a time when policies, habits, and lifestyles were established and it seemed that nature was infinite. Now we can see what we are doing. That’s great news, because having the ability to identify the problem is the first step to solving that problem.

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