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Being Nourished by the Ocean

By Jean-Michel Cousteau and Holly Lohuis

Jean-Michel Cousteau and Holly Lohuis are lost in an underwater snowstorm of spawning market squid off the Channel Islands in Southern California when filming for Ocean Futures Society’s IMAX film, Jean-Michel Cousteau ‘Secret Ocean 3D’. Photo: Richard Murphy, PhD/Ocean Futures Society

The newest findings are clear: our relationship with the natural world needs to be re-evaluated and then fixed. Not only are we navigating challenging times as we suffer through the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, but we are witnessing the destruction of nature on an unprecedented scale. This is the fundamental cause of the spread of zoonotic diseases and this will only happen more often if we continue to stay course to the rapid pace of causing a less diverse world. 

A new report, ‘Living Planet’, just released last month by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), states: “In the past 50 years we have lost two-thirds of the wildlife around the world.” This loss of biodiversity not only effects our own health and well-being today, but also will have long-lasting impact well into the future if we do not change our ways and work with nature when designing our future. A wildlife-rich world is vital for our ocean, our planet, and for ourselves. 

Forty percent of the global population depends directly on the ocean for food, energy, tourism, and trade. And 100 percent of us need healthy oceans for our long-term survival. But we have all witnessed the fragmentation of ocean ecosystems long gone, from our favourite coral reef dive sites in the Caribbean now turned to mostly algae-covered graveyards, to kelp forests suffering from an overpopulation of sea urchins because of lack the of keystone predators like sea otters. None of us have seen the sea the way it should be. To have witnessed the great abundance and diversity of the ocean, we would be over 200 years old. Even 200 years ago, we were already making an irreversible impact, causing the extinction of prized animals, including: Atlantic gray whales, extinct in the early 18th century; Steller’s sea cow, extinct in 1768; and Caribbean monk seal, extinct by 1952; just to name a few species lost forever.

Your own backyard

Yet amongst this tragic loss of diversity, I also see promises of hope, evidence that when we put our collective will to work, we can slow down or even turn back some of the environmental destruction that is happening on a global scale. This all starts with protecting what you enjoy most in your own ‘backyard’. It is why, during times like this pandemic, we must continue to be nourished by the ocean and appreciate what open spaces and coastal areas we have within a short distance from home. For me, my ‘backyards’ are miles of beaches to explore with the view of the Santa Barbara Channel and the Channel Islands National Park. And when I am in France, at my doorstep is the Mediterranean Sea. Both marine environments have seen significant changes over time with the depletion of species due to overfishing, land-based pollution, and irresponsible coastal development. They have also made significant strides in successful ocean conservation measures recently put in place to better protect the local marine environments. 

Along the coast of California, the populations of migrating Pacific gray whales and breeding northern elephant seals are back to their pre-hunting numbers—that is, before the 1800s when we hunted them to the brink of extinction. Today they are watched by tens of thousands of people, both from the shore and on whale watching boats, connecting us to successful conservation stories. It is when we protect individual species and ensure their critical habitats are also protected that we can appreciate our connection to a rich and diverse world. But there is still much more we need to do in protecting ocean wilderness areas. 

Northern elephant seals numbered less than one hundred individuals in the late 1890s. Today, fully protected across North America, the northern elephant seal population is healthy, numbering over 150,000 animals. Photo: Holly Lohuis/Ocean Futures Society

Protected waters

Last year France announced plans to establish more than twenty new Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) by 2022. It is the goal of the French government to meet the objective for MPAs to cover 30 percent of France’s exclusive economic zone. We know from other places in the world, such a network of MPAs will preserve biodiversity as well as sustain the livelihood of millions of people who depend on extracting wildlife from areas still open to fishing.

Here in California, 16 percent of the coastal waters are protected in 124 MPAs and 21 percent of the waters around the Channel Islands National Park and National Marine Sanctuary are also protected in 13 different MPAs. MPAs are one of the principal tools used to preserve and maintain biodiversity and ecosystem services, and to mitigate negative effects of human activities. Much of what we have learned over decades of managing fish stocks is by counting and collecting data on what has been collected and killed. Unfortunately, this does not give us the entire picture of the inner workings of complex marine ecosystems and intricate relationships between many of the ocean’s animals.  

As divers, we love to explore. We enjoy seeing something new on every dive, whether it is a new species we have yet to discover or a new behaviour from an animal we love to watch and photograph. As divers we need to be a collective voice in sharing our common passion and love for exploring beneath the surface of the sea. We get to see so much more than the average fisher folk, who are targeting one specific species and removing it from the sea.

Nearly half of the Earth’s surface is covered by the ‘high seas’—an unregulated area beyond the 200 nautical mile (370km) offshore limit of national jurisdiction, where there is no law to comprehensively protect the ocean environment. This lack of governance has resulted in pollution, overexploitation of fish stocks, and damage to habitats that has impacted two-thirds of the ocean, according to a recent assessment by the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services.

Global ocean

The United Nations is in the middle of negotiating a new Global Ocean Treaty. If we get this right, it will enable us to scale up ocean sanctuaries for the first time. We must go from the less than 6 percent of the world’s oceans currently protected to 30 percent by 2030. This is what marine ecologists and biologists believe is necessary if we want to continue harvesting marine wildlife from the sea. We need to protect the capitol (nature) and live off the interest produced by that capitol if we want to ensure a sustainable future.

The ocean needs us all to help in its recovery. Healthy oceans can help us with many other global threats—including extreme weather events, droughts, food shortages and global pandemics. One of the long-term methods to ensure healthy oceans and the continued sustainable harvesting of wildlife is setting more networks of MPAs.  

This year I am celebrating seventy-five years of diving. I am not the oldest diver, but during the lengthy time I have been diving I have witnessed much change in the oceans, some changes for the better, but many for the worse. The good news is, time and again nature demonstrates how resilient she is when we give her a chance to recover. We have seen this with individual species as well as entire marine ecosystems. It is why I aspire to help instill a sense of hope through the marine conservation work I do with Ocean Futures Society. It is my hope we continue to be ocean ambassadors, using science to guide us on how best to implement the establishment of networks of MPAs throughout the world’s oceans, from the polar oceans to tropical seas, from coastal waters to the vast expanses of the open ocean. We need to support and protect the full spectrum of marine life so it can thrive. It is what we all want: vibrant and healthy oceans now and for the future. Protect the Ocean and You Protect Yourself. 

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