It’s easy to be pessimistic about the ocean’s future when you scroll through the headlines: Overfishing has decimated fish populations around the world; beaches are thick with plastic; carbon dioxide dumped into the ocean by the burning of fossil fuels is killing off coral reefs; water temperatures around the globe are rising; etc., etc., etc.
Maybe it’s because things have begun to look so dire that there is a renewed concern and interest in all things ocean lately, ranging from economic symposiums and new laws to entrepreneurial investments and a public-awareness boom.
I was nudged last week to think about a variety of good ocean news after reading a post by Peter Seligmann, cofounder, chairman and CEO of Conservation International. He had just attended a couple of big think tanks on ocean issues—at the World Economic Forum in Davos and The Economist’s World Oceans Summit in Singapore—and was moved by how ocean issues seem to have been pushed to the top of a variety of agendas.
““Ocean issues have grown from being a concern of environmental organizations to an urgent topic in corporate boardrooms and the offices of heads of state—an important shift in attitude…””
“In my 36 years of work in conservation, I have never before witnessed as much attention and concern being paid to the deteriorating health of our oceans,” Seligmann wrote. “Ocean issues have grown from being a concern of environmental organizations to an urgent topic in corporate boardrooms and the offices of heads of state—an important shift in attitude that gives me reason for hope.”
With Seligmann’s words as a jumpstart, here are 10 reasons for hope for the planet’s one ocean:
1) JAMES CAMERON’S DEEPSEA CHALLENGER
Filmmaker and undersea explorer James Cameron’s solo drive to the deepest void in the ocean in his chartreuse Deepsea Challenger garnered praise from his peers as well as billions of Internet eyeballs for both its success and innovation. Since 1960, 22 people have walked on the moon; only three people have gone that deep. Given that 90 percent of the ocean is still barely explored, there’s a lot of underwater territory to map out, and Cameron has made it seem exciting. His success will soon be hopefully emulated by Richard Branson’s Virgin Oceanic, which the entrepreneur activist intends to pilot to the deeps of the Atlantic Ocean before the end of 2012.
2) TARGETING SPECIFIC FIXES WITH THE OCEAN HEALTH INDEX
One thing that has made fixing what’s wrong with the ocean so tricky is that all that water has always seemed massive and uncontrollable, a giant waste dump that will take care of itself without our help. Clearly that’s not true. Conservation International’s soon-to-be-released Ocean Health Index should help governments and businessmen focus on specific fixes, region by region, which will help both ocean health and the economies of the people who live and depend on it. Its scientists have assessed the waters off 172 countries, measuring ten factors—from climate change and acidification to human well-being and conservation plans—in order to come up with numerical rankings to help decide what are the biggest needs and best fixes for that particular corner of the ocean.
3) NEW SPECIES FOUND!
Similarly, for 10 years 2,700 scientists from 80 countries have focused on life below sea level, producing in 2010 an unparalleled look at ocean life dubbed the Census of Marine Life. What did they find? 1,200 new species to add to the 250,000 already-named sea creatures. But perhaps the most exciting—and challenging—part of the research lies in the future: The CoML estimates there are another 750,000 species out there that are still unnamed, swimming around a place long-considered by many to be cold, dark and inhospitable to life.
4) A GLOBAL PARTNERSHIP FOR OCEANS
Just because you convene in big groups to talk about how dire the ocean’s future is does not mean anything will get done, especially if it involves raising and spending money. The recently formed Global Partnership for Oceans is an alliance of governments, environmental groups and the private sector (i.e. bankers) intent on putting money where it’s talking points are, focused on sustainable fisheries and ecosystems as well as jobs.
5) KEEPING THE OCEAN’S “HOPE SPOTS” HEALTHY
It’s hard not to be affected by the enthusiasm for the ocean whenever the Queen of the Deep (Sylvia Earle) speaks, which is often, since she remains the go-to person at virtually every ocean conference around the world. Near to her heart and public role are “Hope Spots” she and her team have identified around the planet. For now, these are 16 marine areas scattered around the globe that are critical to the health of the ocean, which Earle calls “Earth’s blue heart.” Some Hope Spots are already protected as marine preserves, while others are deserving of the same accreditation and protection.
6) COMMITMENT TO CREATING MORE MARINE PROTECTED AREAS
While 12 percent of land is protected by international, national or local designation as reserves or park, far less than one percent of the ocean is similarly protected. Like the Hope Spots, there is a boom in creating new Marine Protected Areas, from California to the Chagos Islands, the Great Barrier Reef to the Baa Atoll in the Maldives. While protecting specific species is often a key reason for protection, so is keeping these areas as viable economies for locals who have depended on them for food and jobs for generations.
7) NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC SOCIETY’S OCEAN INITIATIVE
It’s impossible to miss the National Geographic Society’s fingerprints on many of these ongoing ocean projects, from its early and very public support of Cameron’s deep dive to the Ocean Health Index and Earle’s Hope Spots. Its own Ocean Initiative is driven by the passion of executive vice president Terry Garcia, former deputy administrator of NOAA, and extends to all of its media platforms, from its website to specials on its television channel.
MORE FUNDING FOR OCEAN EXPLORATION
It turns out Cameron isn’t the only mega-rich guy desiring credibility as an ocean explorer. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos funded the project that just discovered—using high-tech sonar technology—the giant F-1 rocket engines that powered the Apollo 11 moon shot and have been lost at sea since 1969. Google chief executive Eric Schmidt funds the eponymous Schmidt Ocean Institute, intent on mounting seaborne expeditions using state-of-the-art-technology to explore—and share—scientific information about the ocean.
9) THE OBAMA ADMINISTRATION’S NATIONAL OCEAN POLICY
Until the Obama Administration, no presidency had even proposed a National Ocean Policy. Aimed at coordinating regional efforts on fishing rules and regulations, marine protected areas, pollution, and America’s coastlines, the policy has not been adopted as law yet but an executive order signed by the president in July 2010 directs federal agencies to work together on policies that strengthen ocean governance.
10) BIG CHAIN SUPERMARKETS THAT SUPPORT SUSTAINABLE SHOPPING
At the consumer level, supermarkets—including a number of big chains —are very publicly onboard with trying to educate shoppers about which fish are most sustainable and which are not. On Earth Day (April 22) Whole Foods, for example, will announce that it will no longer carry wild-caught fish regarded as at-risk, including Albacore tuna, bluefin tuna, imported shrimp, as well as most mahi mahi, shark, red snapper and tilapia. Armed with research done by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch and the Blue Ocean Institute’s Seafood Guide, modern-day fishmongers and buyers are increasingly knowledgeable about which fish are abundant, and which are not.
There are few places on the planet as remote as the Maldives. Landfall is a thousand miles away from much of the long string of 1,200 islands, most of which are little more than thin, uninhabited strips of sand. Diving into the heart of a Maldivian lagoon it is easy to imagine you are alone in one of Planet Ocean’s most distant paradises.
Yet when I did just that a few days ago, in the heart of the Baa Atoll — 463 square miles of aquamarine Indian Ocean recently named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve — something didn’t feel, or look, quite like paradise.
The ocean, though jaw-droppingly beautiful, was a bathtub warm 86 degrees F. Diving to its shallow floor it was quickly clear that the realm below sea level here has been badly impacted in recent years by a combination of man and Mother Nature and resulting fast-warming temperatures.
The coral reefs of the Maldives were first badly damaged in 1998, when shifting ocean patterns associated with El Niño raised sea level temps above 90 degrees. The result then was that 70 to 90 percent of the reefs surrounding the Maldives 26 atolls were badly “bleached,” the warm temperatures killing off the symbiotic algae that lives within the coral and gives it color. While since then many of the reefs have been recovering, according to a report by the Maldives-based Marine Research Center, another warming last year (2010) estimated that “10-15 percent of shallow reef coral is now completely white, while 50-70 percent has begun to pale.”
On this day I was diving with Fabien Cousteau, grandson of Jacques and executive director of Plant A Fish, and Mark Lynas, author and climate change adviser to Maldives President Mohammed Nasheed. During our first dive along a shallow reef in the middle of Baa Atoll we repeatedly signaled “thumbs down” to each other, as it became clear that this reef was troubled. Blanched the color of cement, the coral tips were mostly broken off leaving just behind bare rock.
Maldives-based marine biologist Kate Wilson dove with us and explained recovery was slowed this past April when another bleaching event occurred, with high sea temperatures again sweeping the area.
Photo by Fabien Cousteau
Mark would later describe the scene as “eerie;” Fabien’s photographs illustrated a murky, fish-less seafloor.
Kate assures us there are nearby reefs less impacted by local fishing and closer to colder currents, which may help them recover faster.
I hesitate to paint an overly bleak picture of the Maldives because there are some very good things going on here too. Last year the island nation (home to 320,00) became just one of two countries to completely ban shark fishing in its 35,000 square mile exclusive economic zone (Palau is the other). Maldivians no longer eat shark, they were only being hunted here for shark fin soup for export to China. It’s estimated the value of a single shark to diving tourists versus fishermen was $3,300 to $32.
Photo by Fabien Cousteau
Tuna in the Maldives is limited to being caught by pole, one of the most sustainable forms of fishing. And the naming last year of Baa Atoll as an UNESCO Biosphere Reserve is significant, placing it along such sites as the Galapagos, Ayer’s Rock in Australia, the Pantanal wetlands of Brazil and Amboseli National Park in Kenya. The challenge now is to help educate the local populace about the reserve-status, help impacted fishermen find alternative employment and fund enforcement.
And the next day we would visit a reef in the center of the Baa atoll which showed signs of a strong recovery.
It is dramatically different.
Just below the brightly sunlit surface hundreds of shiny reef fish dart and feed. In the deep, dark blue swim the Maldivian big guys: Jackfish, tuna and red snapper. An occasional spotted eagle ray elegantly flaps past, as do a pair of green turtles.
During a mile-long swim we spy an incredibly beautiful and vast variety of wrasses, clown, surgeon and parrotfish. A dusky moray eel peeks out of its coral hideaway. And a square-headed porcupine fish attempts to hide itself deep inside a rock crevice. The shallow, sandy floor running to a sandbar is heavy with gray-beige coral, colorful clams and even a few handsome sea cucumbers.
On the way back to shore, we quiz Kate about the future of the reefs and the Biosphere.
Where will the funding come to protect the new park? “The government and a half-dozen resorts that operate within the atoll. Starting in January 2012 tourists are going to pay too, buying permits for things like sport fishing and swimming with the manta rays, which will all go into the management of the biosphere.”
Are some zones in the atoll already off-limits to fishing? “Nine core areas are strict no-take zones,” she says.
What about pelagic, open-ocean fishes like bluefin tuna, are they protected? “Since they are migratory species it is quite hard to manage them. Once they are out of Maldivian waters and into open ocean international fishing fleets target them. So even though the Maldives fisheries is one of the most protected, by sustainable fishing, stocks are still declining.”
Can the coral truly recover if water temperatures keep rising as they have been? “It’s a good test here to see just how fast corals can adapt. It’s not just about the temperature but also about acidification as well, so all of the corals are really at a critical point. No on really knows how quickly they’ll adapt, if at all. If we are not careful globally what you’re seeing could become the new norm.”
If there is a ground zero for observing the impacts of a changing global climate the Maldives are definitely a front-runner.
Photo by Jon Bowermaster
It is a place many have heard of but few could easily pick out on a map. Comprised of twelve hundred islands and atolls, most pancake flat, the highest reaches no more than five feet above sea level … making the Maldives the lowest country on earth. Only two hundred of the islands are inhabited, by roughly 320,000 people. It is an always hot, exceedingly beautiful, Muslim country stretching about 600 miles from north to south in the heart of the Indian Ocean off the tip of Sri Lanka.
I have been visiting the islands since 2005, when I first went to assess the damages wreaked by the massive tsunami that rolled from Indonesia to Somalia. The Maldives were largely spared; its coral reefs absorbed the brunt of the wave. In the years since, as rising sea levels and warming sea surface temperatures have gained more and more headlines, so has this tiny island nation.
Today erosion is a big problem on many of the islands and most of its coral is badly bleached.
In the past few days an invested crowd of thinkers and doers, including the Maldives’ President Mohammed Nasheed and several members of his cabinet, gathered on the small island of Kunfunadhoo, for the third annual S.L.O.W.L.I.F.E Symposium.
Daryl Hannah and Richard Branson, photo Six Senses
Organized by the owners of the resort company Six Senses, Eva and Sonu Shivdasani, the barefoot conference brought together environmentalists from the United Kingdom including Jonathan Porritt, Tim Smits and Jeremy Leggett, National Geographic Emerging Explorer Mark Lynas (author of “Six Degrees” and the new “God Species”), renewable energy and island nation leaders from as far away as Reunion and Bali, ocean mariners including Fabien Cousteau and some incredibly dedicated headline-makers (Richard Branson and the actors Edward Norton and Daryl Hannah).
The subject of three days of talks was, What can be done fast to slow climate change, before it’s too late.
Topics ranged from how small island nations can become energy independent, how to engage local communities in ambitious carbon reduction plans and the challenge of adapting transportation in a low-carbon economy.
It’s clear there are no easy answers. Soon after arriving by float plane President Nasheed delivered a harsh message. “Carbon dioxide emissions are going to kill us,” he said. “Here in the Maldives our goal of becoming carbon neutral is not to scare the world, but simply to make a step in the right direction.”
Sonu Shivdasani, SLOWLIFE Symposium, photo Six Senses
While Nasheed leads an effort to make the Maldives the first carbon neutral country on the planet, by 2020, there are some good things to brag about here on the Laccadive Sea. Last year the country banned all shark fishing and any tuna in the Maldives are caught only by pole. Recently the Baa Atoll was declared a UNESCO Biosphere.
While the Maldives, with few natural resources but a growing population and energy demands, is on the forefront of nations attempting to take themselves off the grid it’s clear the problems are not a lack of knowledge and information. But the Maldivian government officials reiterated what stands in their way is not lack of knowledge but of money. It’s one thing to have great ideas and access to information; paying for progress is something else, especially in a country with a fledgling democracy and a history of high debt and bad credit.
But it is trying. By 2020 the Maldives hopes to generate 60 percent of its electricity from solar, without raising the cost of power to its consumers. It has introduced a new import regime by the Transport Ministry to ensure that in the future electric cars will be a third of the price of conventional gasoline cars. And it has pledged to spend two percent of its national income on renewable energy deployment in the country. If that figure were matched worldwide, we would be collectively be spending $1.25 trillion a year rather than the $260 billion we spend today on renewable energy sources.
Worrying to all island nations of course is that CO2 in the world’s atmosphere is not declining but growing, as development and growth continue to mount globally. The goal of reducing the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million — what scientists regard as the safe limit for humans — may fast becoming an unreachable goal, since it has already risen to above 392 ppm.
One industry that prospers in the Maldives of course is tourism. Nearly 1 million visitors a year, including increasing numbers from China and India, fly into the capital city of Male each year and jump out to various island resorts by float plane or small boat. Taxes on resort development — and potentially new tariffs on visitors to support renewable energy projects — are the lifeblood of the Maldivian economy.
Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse ….
A new report to be released via the U.N. this week strongly suggests that the ocean is in far worse shape than we even imagined (“a shocking decline”) and that marine life is entering a phase of extinction “unprecedented in human history.”
Earth has already experienced five “mass extinction events,” going back some 500 million years, thanks to catastrophes like asteroid impacts and various big bangs. But it has long been considered fate that the next extinction, the sixth, would be thanks to man’s heavy footprint, as we continue to alter the planet’s physical landscape, overexploit a host of species, introduce alien species and pollute.
According to the panel comprised of 27 of the world’s top ocean experts – coral reef ecologists, toxicologists and fisheries scientists, assembled by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) — if trends are accurate this particular extinction will happen more quickly than previous ones.
Its conclusion does not mince words: “The findings are shocking,” says Alex Rogers, the group’s scientific director and professor of conservation biology at Oxford University. “As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the oceans, the implications became far worse than we had individually realized.”
When it comes to scary reports, this one even outdoes the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark 2007 report, surpassing even its worst, worst-case scenarios.
The new panel took a big, collective step backwards and looked at the whole ocean scene at once. What it saw was not pretty. It was not one particular abuse or man-influenced evolution that was most worrying but the cumulative impacts of the combination of melting sea ice, sea level rise, the release of methane trapped in the sea bed, the amount of plastic in the ocean, toxic algal blooms (dead zones) caused by nutrient-rich farm runoff, ocean acidification, warming of the seas, a myriad local pollutions and overfishing.
Rather than criticize-only, the report makes some specific – if broad – recommendations necessary if ocean life as we know it is to be preserved:
1. Stop overfishing … now!;
2. Map and then reduce pollutants, particularly plastic, fertilizers and human waste;
3. Make sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
“We now face losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, within a single generation,” said Daniel Laffoley, head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and co-author of the new report.
“And we are also probably the last generation that has enough time to deal with the problems.”
As political unrest swept through the Muslim nations of North Africa, even the remote island nation of the Maldives was caught up in its own Arab Spring in the form of political protest and street clashes.
One major difference: Efforts in the Maldives were focused on pushing out a young, democratically elected president and replacing him with an aging despot.
Photo: AFP/Getty Images
President Mohamed Nasheed, 44, has gained accolades around the globe for his commitment to preparing the Maldives for the coming impacts of climate change and simultaneously attempting to turn the country carbon neutral. Since the first of May, intermittent protests have wracked the streets of the tiny island capital of Male – just two square miles and home to 100,000 – with some calling for Nasheed’s resignation; the irony, of course, is that he is the country’s very first democratically elected leader.
As many as 5,000 protestors have been shouting not about green issues, but about homegrown concerns, including a sour economy and increases in crime and inflation. They have also complained about Nasheed’s alleged “westernization” of the traditional Islamic culture. One report has his popularity rating at just 18 percent. The military has dispersed youthful crowds with high-pressure hoses and batons.
Waiting in the wings? None other than Maumoon Abdul Gayoom, 74, whose 30-year dictatorship ended in 2008 with Nasheed’s election. Nasheed has no love lost for the former president, who still lives in the Maldives. A former journalist, activist and political prisoner, Nasheed was tortured while in prison during Gayoom’s presidency.
Many attribute today’s economic mess to the 30-year-long Gayoom administration. It’s no big surprise that it’s the previous president and his representatives who are working behind the scenes to fan the current protests.
Nasheed spokesman Mohamed Zuhair suggested to the BBC that the former president is encouraging violence in the streets. “In the Middle East, you have democrats on the streets bringing down dictatorships. Ironically, in the Maldives, the remnants of the former dictatorship are trying to bring down a democratically elected government.”
It doesn’t help that oil prices are going through the roof, since almost everything in the Maldives is imported and one quarter of its GDP is spent on oil. Tourism, which accounts for 70 percent of the Maldives economy, has been negatively impacted by the unrest.
On May 25 the government proposed an agreement with representatives of the International Monetary Fund that would raise import duties, lower capital spending, freeze public sector wages, raise the tourism tax and introduce a general goods and services tax as a way to help fix some of its economic woes.
Nasheed is well known internationally for his outspokenness regarding the fate of all island nations as sea levels rise. Among his first announcements after he was elected in 2008 was that he would set aside money from tourism to help buy land to move Maldivians as sea levels rose (to India or Pakistan, maybe Australia). To draw attention to the very real impact of climate change on a nation that is barely more than six feet above sea level, he held the first underwater cabinet meeting, which garnered more than a billion global media impressions.
(For the rest of my dispatches, go to takepart.com)
Bora Bora, Society Islands, French Polynesia—I dove yesterday in the beautiful lagoon that surrounds the tall island of Bora Bora to have a firsthand look at how the coral reef is doing around this South Pacific resort island. The report is not good. Descending to 90 feet, it comes clear that the reef has been hammered in the past few years. I’ve dived here every year for the past decade and have seen incredible decay.
I spent most of the morning observing the still-growing reef system just 10 to 30 feet below the surface. Although the waters are warm and magnificently clear, invasive predators and natural disaster have taken big tolls. Populations of acanthaster—more popularly known as the Crown of Thorns starfish—mysteriously arrived in Polynesia in 2006. Here in the shallows surrounding Bora Bora—as they have done to reefs on nearby Moorea, Raiatea-Tahaa, Huahine and Maupiti—the predatory starfish have eaten, thus killed, hundreds of acres of coral.
In February 2010, natural disaster in the form of Cyclone Oli compounded the destruction done by the starfish. Seas were whipped into a froth of 18 to 21 feet, pouring over the protective reef and across the lagoon. Corals as deep as 100 feet below the surface were devastated.
At 20 feet below, the coral was ripped off at its base and forever destroyed. Today, much of the shallow lagoon floor is covered by a fine pale yellow algae mat. The deeper you dive, the less destruction you see, but the powerful storm—the first cyclone to hit here in 14 years—still broke, mangled and killed deep coral. The one slight upside is that Cyclone Oli was also hard on the starfish population.
My dive corresponded with having just read a new report from the D.C.-based World Resource Institute—“Reefs at Risk Revisited”—that suggests 75 percent of the world’s coral reefs are threatened by local and global pressures. The report blames climate change, specifically warming seas and ocean acidification, but points fingers primarily at human pressures—overfishing, coastal development and pollution. Hurricanes and invasive starfish are not mentioned.
Around the globe, more than 275 million people live within 18 miles of coral reefs. In more than 100 countries and territories, reefs protect 93,000 miles of shoreline, defending coastal communities and infrastructure against storms and erosion.
The reef encircling Bora Bora protects the island from typical weather and seas. Human pressure on the reef and lagoon come from development: Thirteen big hotels have been built on the mainland and its several big motus. In the past decade, the human population has swelled to 9,000, thanks to tourism. But the twin pressures of more building and more people are directly impacting the very thing—the amazing natural beauty—that attracts visitors in the first place.
My morning dive ended in a late afternoon conversation with French-German marine biologist Denis Schneider. Despite his mainland birth, Schneider has been an island-rat most of his adult life. He guesses he spends 30 hours a week—five hours a day, six days a week—in the ocean. His company—Espace Bleu—works to rebuild reefs in Indonesia, the Maldives and Bora Bora.
“The three biggest problems for the reef here—before the starfish arrived—were people,” says Schneider, “especially fishermen and their motors, the red tide which warms the water and kills the coral, and hurricanes.” He and his team have taken on the task to clear out the venomous starfish. “Touch a sea urchin, and the sting will last for a few minutes,” he says. “Brush your skin against a Crown of Thorns, and it will sting for months.” The solution to ridding the lagoon of the starfish is injecting them one by one, using giant hypodermic needles, with a chemical solution that kills them. (Schneider changes the subject when I ask what impact the chemicals may have on the lagoon ….)
To try and resuscitate reefs, especially near the hotels, Schneider and compatriots from the Maryland-based Global Coral Reef Alliance build unique domes out of rebar which they flip over and sink to the lagoon floor. The metal rusts very quickly, and a covering of chicken-wire mesh is soon grown over by calcium-rich marine life. A low voltage current courses through the metal structure, usually created from solar, wind or tidal sources, to encourage fast-growing coral. Within a year, the faux reef is nearly completely covered with colorful, living coral. The patented “electrified” system is dubbed Biorock.
“What we are building are really ‘boosters’ for the reefs, growing three to five times faster than normal coral,” says Schneider. “In some cases 20 times faster.”
The Biorock system is just one of a variety of man-made attempts around the world to encourage new coral growth, including concrete forms and dumped buses, tanks and aging military boats.
“The reality in Bora Bora is that the island, like all in Polynesia, is sinking. Slowly, very slowly,” explains Schneider. “But in 70,000 years, the island will be gone. All that will remain will be the reef surrounding the lagoon. I wish we could come back then and see how the coral has done.”
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)