Alex Blumberg: Welcome to How to Save a Planet. I'm Alex Blumberg, and this is the show where we talk about what we need to do to address climate change and how we make those things happen.
Alex: Hey, everyone. Today we are talking about our oceans and how important they are when it comes to climate change and climate solutions. We've done this in the past with "Kelp Farming" and "The Origin Story of the Blue New Deal", but the ocean is vast and contains more than just two episodes worth of solutions.
Alex: So this week we're sharing an episode from the TED Radio Hour on NPR. It's hosted by Manoush Zomorodi and is titled "An SOS from the Ocean." In it, she speaks with four different ocean experts—including my former co-host and friend Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. Manoush also dives into—see what I did there—the different ways we can save our oceans and fish. She also speaks to the first woman to walk on the seafloor beyond one thousand feet of depth, about how much the ocean has changed over the last century, and she has a riveting discussion on how beautiful whale poop is. Stay tuned, it is all coming up after the break.
Manoush Zomorodi: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And this week, we are diving back into the sea for part two of our ocean series. And I want to start with the biggest underwater creature there is—the whale, which, despite its size, can be really hard to spot.
Asha de Vos: They're huge, but they live in this gigantic space—70 percent of our planet, right? So you just stand and stare out at the horizon and you hope that an animal will turn up.
Manoush Zomorodi: This is marine biologist Asha de Vos. And before she ever had a chance to see a whale, Asha fell in love with how they sound, back in college.
Asha de Vos: I did a project on sperm whales and their acoustics. And I was listening to this cacophony. And I was just like, you know, this world sounds so remarkable.
Manoush Zomorodi: These are the clicking sounds that sperm whales make.
Asha de Vos: So sperm whales are the largest toothed whales. And so when we listen to them, they just have these beautiful patterns, series of clicks that they use for communicating with each other, for finding their food and stuff like that.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Humpback whale]
Manoush Zomorodi: And this is a humpback whale.
Asha de Vos: They have the most complex songs. They're super beautiful. They evolve. I mean, it's quite magical.
Manoush Zomorodi: But Asha says whale songs are more than beautiful. They help whales echolocate, to find food and navigate their environment.
Asha de Vos: Their eyesight isn't very good, and so their world really depends so heavily on their ability to hear.
Manoush Zomorodi: And of course, to communicate with each other. Like ...
Asha de Vos: Mothers probably reprimanding their babies. Partners looking for mates, right? Calling out, "Hey, beautiful!" There's a response, right? They have to talk to each other. How else are we going to have more whales in our future?
Manoush Zomorodi: Asha grew to love whales even more when she finally had the chance to observe them up close.
Asha de Vos: It all began with an encounter with six blue whales and a floating pile of whale poop off the southeast coast of Sri Lanka. And that's literally my eureka moment.
Manoush Zomorodi: Because, Asha says, whale poop—yes, whale poop—is pretty spectacular.
Asha de Vos: Oh my goodness. It is the most beautiful animal poop ever.
Manoush Zomorodi: [laughs] Wait. What is so beautiful about whale poop?
Asha de Vos: It's bright red. Literally, it's like brick red in color, and that's because these whales feed on shrimp. So one thing is it's really easy to find for researchers like myself who think whale poop is the bee's knees.
Manoush Zomorodi: [laughs]
Asha de Vos: But, you know, like, poop is a clue to the secret world, right? Like, it allows us to learn more about what they feed on. But it's also incredibly important for our environment.
Manoush Zomorodi: Here is Asha de Vos on the TED stage.
Asha de Vos: As whales dive to the depths to feed and come up to the surface to breathe, they actually release these enormous fecal plumes. This whale pump as it's called actually brings essential limiting nutrients from the depths to the surface waters where they stimulate the growth of phytoplankton that forms the base of all marine food chains. So really, having more whales in the oceans pooping is really beneficial to the entire ecosystem.
Asha de Vos: Whales are also known to undertake some of the longest migrations of all mammals. As they do so, they transport fertilizer in the form of their feces from places that have it to places that need it. But what's really cool is that they're also really important after they're dead. Whale carcasses provide a feast to some 400-odd species, including the eel-shaped, slime-producing hagfish. Whale carcasses are also known to transport about 190,000 tons of carbon, which is the equivalent of that produced by 80,000 cars per year, from the atmosphere to the deep oceans, and therefore help to delay global warming. So over the 200 years of whaling, when we were busy killing and removing these carcasses from the oceans, we likely altered the rate and geographical distribution of these whale falls, and as a result, probably led to a number of extinctions of species that were most specialized and dependent on these carcasses for their survival.
Manoush Zomorodi: You know, I don't think I ever realized how important whales are to all the life cycles that are taking place in the oceans. And it sort of sounds like 200 years ago, that was the ideal. Like, the ecosystems were thriving. Whales are pooping. They're dying in exactly the right places, and life in the ocean is flourishing. Then, of course, we humans come along, and we kind of screw everything up.
Asha de Vos: Yeah. So we basically reduced populations of whales by, you know, down to maybe, like, 10 to 20 percent of pre-whaling numbers, right? Which is a huge blow, because these are gigantic animals that, as you can tell, have many roles to play in the oceans, right? And these things are so deeply interconnected that, you know, it's almost like a game of Jenga. You take a piece out and you take another piece out, and it starts to wobble. And then you take that third piece out, and it all collapses because everything's so deeply intertwined, right? So you think about that drastic impact that we had over those years of whaling and the long-lasting impacts. And we're still, still trying to recover from that.
Manoush Zomorodi: Over centuries, humans have treated the ocean as a place of endless resources. Now between overfishing, carbon emissions, pollution and more, our oceans are in trouble. But it's not too late. And so today on the show, saving our seas—an SOS from the ocean. From our small individual actions to big community efforts, what we can all do to stop the destruction of our underwater ecosystems, and why conservation isn't just about saving marine life but also saving our planet.
Manoush Zomorodi: This isn't the first time that we've tried to save the ocean and the whales. In the '70s, the Save the Whales movement became one of the most successful conservation campaigns ever.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Cheech and Chong: [singing] Save the whales. Oh, funky momma, save the whales.]
Manoush Zomorodi: Mainstream culture fell in love with whales. There were bumper stickers, t-shirts, fliers, petitions and even entire albums like Roger Payne's "Songs Of The Humpback Whale."
Asha de Vos: That concerted effort, those voices, really made a difference because as a result, there were—you know, it was a domino effect. The International Whaling Commission moved forward and put down this moratorium to stop whaling. And so it was a time of change. And the whales that are coming back today, that's all thanks to the work that was done, you know, a few decades ago by people coming together and saying, "This is not going to work. We have to protect our whales. Let's save the whales."
Manoush Zomorodi: So the Save the Whales movement really worked for stopping commercial whaling worldwide. But whales are still facing a lot of issues today. First? Ship strikes.
Asha de Vos: All across the world, we have these massive shipping highways transporting goods throughout the world. And these shipping lanes often overlap with really important areas for these whales, like their feeding grounds, for example. And so they can actually hit them, and it can be lethal. And these animals can die.
Manoush Zomorodi: Another problem? Fishing nets.
Asha de Vos: If they get entangled at depth, they can't come up to the surface to breathe, so they drown. And as mammals, they do have to come to the surface to breathe. And if they get entangled at the surface, they can't dive down to the depths to feed, so then they can starve.
Manoush Zomorodi: And finally, something we hardly ever think about in the ocean: sound pollution.
Asha de Vos: Now in areas where you have heavy ship traffic for example, what can happen, especially with species like blue whales, is that their sound and the vocalization that they create is at the same frequency as noise created by the ship. So it's like being at a cocktail party, for example. Everyone's talking at the same time, and you know someone said your name, but you don't know where that sound is coming from. You know, it's just a murmur of sound. And so for whales, if everything's at the same frequency, if I'm talking to you and someone's also talking across us at the same volume, at the same frequency, then I can't hear you. So how do I find my mate?
Manoush Zomorodi: But it also must be, like, pretty exhausting for these animals to have noise constantly bombarding them day in and day out.
Asha de Vos: Yeah. You know, I think it is incredibly stressful. And there's this, I think, a beautiful study that was actually done off the East Coast of the US, and they were looking at stress hormones in whale poop samples, right? And so when 9/11 happened, they looked at the samples, and very surprisingly, they found that the whales were less stressed soon after 9/11.
Manoush Zomorodi: Huh! Wow!
Asha de Vos: Exactly, right? So they stopped the shipping in the Bay of Fundy for a short period of time. Ship noise dropped. And that was reflected in the stress levels of these whales, right? So we don't think about that. And stress is—you know, it's a silent killer, right? Like, it can impact reproductive capabilities, it can affect mother-calf pairs, right? If there's too much noise, the mother and calf maybe can't communicate. What if they get separated, right? There's a lot of knock-on effects as a result as well.
Manoush Zomorodi: Okay. So someone listening is like, "All right, I get it. The ocean is interconnected. And whales, they affect so many other creatures, and clearly, humans have a big impact, too." But what if that person listening is like, "I don't even live near an ocean. What can I possibly do?"
Asha de Vos: Yeah. So, you know, I always tell people, we always say all roads lead to Rome. I always say all waterways lead to the ocean. If you live anywhere, there's typically some water source, whether it's a tiny spring or the water in your tap or a big lake or a river. Everything that goes in there washes out into the ocean, right? And so we are connected. I think we can all make a difference. I think we can all start to think about our individual lives, our individual capacities, our consumer habits, right? Like, what plastics are we using? Where are we dumping it? But also, just simple things like sharing these stories, right? You know, we talk so much about the conservation issues which create apathy, right?
Asha de Vos: But I want people to talk about the conservation wins. I want people to talk about that magic, about how beautiful blue whale poop is, right? How amazing their sounds are, and the fact that that's how they see their world. I want people to remember that there's a lot of amazing things that happen out there, and that ocean does truly, truly keep us alive.
Manoush Zomorodi: That's marine biologist Asha de Vos. You can find her full talk at Ted.com. On the show today, an SOS from the ocean. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
Manoush Zomorodi: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And today on the show, ways that we can help save our oceans and the fish that swim in them.
Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: We need to change our relationship with the ocean. Our expectation that we will have heaps of fresh fish in the supermarket of whatever species we desire every day of the year is completely out of sync with what nature can provide.
Manoush Zomorodi: This is Dr. Ayana Elizabeth Johnson. She's a marine biologist and also a policy analyst, a researcher, an inventor, a podcaster, all in an effort to teach us how we can save the oceans. And Ayana says globally, we have caught about 90 percent of large fish. Tuna, salmon, shark, swordfish—they're all in trouble. But what does that mean then for us when we go to the supermarket?
Manoush Zomorodi: What else have we got here? They've got sockeye salmon. Does not specify ...
Manoush Zomorodi: Because knowing what's okay to buy can be confusing, even when you're trying your best.
Clerk: Some of the signs that you will see, they will tell you, like, the snapper's rated yellow.
Manoush Zomorodi: Oh, okay. So the snapper's rated yellow.
Clerk: But rated yellow doesn't really mean it's bad. It means that there may be some concerns or harm.
Manoush Zomorodi: Some stores have a green, yellow and red color-coded system.
Manoush Zomorodi: And when you say some concerns or harm, what do you mean?
Manoush Zomorodi: But can we be really sure that green is sustainable?
Manoush Zomorodi: Wait a minute. They say they're rated, but then it doesn't say what they are.
Manoush Zomorodi: There are also terms like "all natural," or "responsibly farmed."
Manoush Zomorodi: There's Branzini, farm raised. And it says it's "responsibly farmed."
Manoush Zomorodi: And then there is "sustainably caught."
Manoush Zomorodi: I think that's good.
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: "Sustainable" does not have a legal definition.
Manoush Zomorodi: Gotcha.
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: "Responsibly" and "sustainably," like, these are not words that have clear standards or verification processes or oversight. It's something like 20 percent of seafood is mislabeled in grocery stores.
Manoush Zomorodi: And so when you say "mislabeled," do you mean, like, exaggerating the sustainability?
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: I mean it's not even the species that they say it is.
Manoush Zomorodi: Oh!
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: You mislabel seafood for profit. So you label it as whatever will get you the highest price or whatever you have a quota for. And it varies depending on the species up to, like, 40 or even 50 percent for things like snapper and sea bass. And, like, if it's not even the right species, like, are the other labels correct? So if the consumer does, you know, do your darndest to do your research and pick things that are sustainable, there's still a big chance that you would get it wrong through really no fault of your own.
Manoush Zomorodi: But, like, why is that? Why make it so hard for the consumer?
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: The supply chain is so opaque, and there are so many steps in it. And we really often don't know where our seafood is coming from. And about 80 percent of the seafood that we eat in the U.S. is imported.
Manoush Zomorodi: 80 percent!
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: It's coming from all over the world. And also, about one in four of the fish that we eat here were actually caught in the US, and probably sent overseas to Asia or other places to be processed and then reimported. It's not really what we think about when we think about sort of commodities trading or import and export, but it really is.
Manoush Zomorodi: And Ayana says to keep up this complicated supply chain, industrial fishing vessels have to hunt fish by the thousands.
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: There are these massive fishing vessels that have, like, full processing factories onboard. Often they're staying at sea for months, if not years. Often the labor conditions are abysmal, and often fishing with nets the size of multiple football fields or lines with hundreds if not thousands of hooks on them. So we're talking about, like, a massive industry not, like, a cute fishing trip.
Manoush Zomorodi: And that means using pretty sophisticated tools to track down the dwindling fish populations.
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: You have sonar, you have helicopters and spotter planes because we've overfished to such an extent that we have to use the most advanced technology we have available to us in order to find the fish.
Manoush Zomorodi: And the shrimp industry uses some of the most harmful methods.
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Shrimp is the most popular seafood in the United States, and it's one of the least sustainable. Often, like, 10 percent or less of what they catch is shrimp, and the rest is thrown back dead.
Manoush Zomorodi: And it's not just wild-caught shrimp.
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Farmed shrimp often destroys mangroves and other coastal habitats—usually in Southeast Asia—which makes those areas more prone to storms. They use a lot of pesticides and antibiotics. Worker exploitation is a huge problem. So I would say if you're looking for just, like, a few things to cut out, give up shrimp unless you know that it's, like, trap-caught pink shrimp from Oregon because those fisheries are sustainable and, like, really deliberate.
Manoush Zomorodi: Okay. So for most shrimp, farmed and wild are both bad. So maybe just don't eat it. But for other fish, is farmed better than wild?
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: I mean, the answer is, unfortunately, it depends. We need to think about the farmed fish. What are they eating? We're catching wild fish—small ones—to feed to farmed fish, that would be bigger ones.
Manoush Zomorodi: Hmm.
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Eating farmed carnivorous fish doesn't really make sense, right? Like, if we think about agriculture on land, would we farm lions? Would we think that that is sustainable? Like, that is essentially what we're doing when we think about farming tuna or salmon. These are magnificent fish, which are quite high up the food chain.
Manoush Zomorodi: Okay, so then, Ayana, what would be your ideal shopping trip? Like, you'd avoid the shrimp, wild or farmed. You would avoid the bigger fish. But then what would you eat?
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: I think the first thing I should say is, as opposed to choosing fish from anywhere in the world where you have no idea, eating US-caught or locally-caught seafood is a really good start. I personally support Iliamna Fish Company, this Indigenous Alaskan family that fishes for salmon in Bristol Bay, which is sustainable. Eating lower on the food chain is another really important thing, right? Instead of eating these top predators like tunas, we could be eating sardines and anchovies. That will be more sustainable.
Manoush Zomorodi: Mm-hmm.
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson: Eating farmed shellfish, eating farmed seaweed, that is something you can feel comfortable eating as much as you want. So, you know, enjoy!
Manoush Zomorodi: I think it would be best for me to buy the small stuff, right? Like anchovies. I love anchovies. And sardines. They're a little too stinky for me, but if I want to stop eating, like, tuna steak, I gotta find something else that's delicious.
Manoush Zomorodi: Ayana Elizabeth Johnson is a marine biologist. You can find all her talks at Ted.com. And please check out her podcast, How To Save A Planet.
Manoush Zomorodi: On the show today: an SOS from the ocean. And Ayana's recommendations are mainly for people living in developed, wealthier countries, not for island and coastal nations that depend on the ocean for their food and their livelihoods. Like Madagascar.
Alasdair Harris: Madagascar's the epicenter of global biodiversity. It's one of the hottest of the hot global biodiversity hotspots. It's vast. There are very few roads.
Manoush Zomorodi: This is Alasdair Harris. He's a marine biologist who spent most of his career on the southern coast of the country.
Alasdair Harris: And when there are no roads, of course, people are really, really dependent on natural resources for food, for income, for identity. The Vezo people of southern Madagascar believe that they came from the union of a mermaid called Ampelamananisa and a fisherman. And that accounts for their knowledge of the tides and the seas and why they're such staggeringly good fishermen.
Alasdair Harris: Malagasy seafarers will sail vessels with no lights, no sounders, no engines, no GPS. They'll navigate the most complex barrier and fringing reef systems with Austral swells and incredibly dangerous tides blindfolded almost—except for the stars at nighttime. So when we talk about helping fishermen and -women, often, it's not a question of finding something else to do. Fishing is what they do. Fishing is how they define themselves. It's their identity.
Manoush Zomorodi: Over the years, threats like industrial fishing and climate change jeopardized that identity. Reefs once teeming with marine life were on the verge of collapsing. So in 1998, Alasdair Harris arrived, an eager, young marine biologist with a big idea to save both the reefs and traditional fishing practices. Alasdair continues his story from the TED stage.
Alasdair Harris: I first landed on the island of Madagascar two decades ago on a mission to document its marine natural history. I was mesmerized by the coral reefs I explored, and certain I knew how to protect them because science provided all the answers: close areas of the reef permanently. Coastal fishers simply needed to fish less. I approached elders in the village of Andavadoaka and recommended that they close off the healthiest and most diverse coral reefs to all forms of fishing to form a refuge to help stocks recover because, as the science tells us, after five or so years, fish populations inside those refuges would be much bigger, replenishing the fished areas outside, making everybody better off. That conversation didn't go so well.
Alasdair Harris: We were laughed out of the room.
Manoush Zomorodi: Were you literally laughed out of the room?
Alasdair Harris: It was considered—yeah. Of course, it was utterly naive, and it bore no account of the economic reality that they faced, which is fishing from one day to the next or what those people would do while we're waiting for those stocks to recover.
Manoush Zomorodi: Okay, so here you come, Englishman going to the elders of these fishing communities with your grand plans. And just to be clear, like, what exactly were you suggesting?
Alasdair Harris: Well, we know that when we safeguard and set aside certain areas of ocean, perhaps 10, 20, 30 percent of the ocean within what we call a refuge, a marine reserve, a protected area, amazing things can happen. The life that's closed off within that reserve will grow, it will reproduce. It will eventually start to throw out much bigger fish, juveniles, larvae into the more fished areas outside, and help regenerate those areas as well as rebuild those fisheries. So my initial idea was to work with communities to zone off areas of these reefs as these permanent marine reserves. Of course, the hubris involved in this, the hubris involved in a 20-year-old going to Madagascar with a view to doing something about coral reef conservation beggars belief. I appreciate that.
Manoush Zomorodi: [laughs] So they didn't go for the idea because you didn't really consider their day-to-day reality. Like, even if it was a great idea, they have to feed their families, like, today, right? Did their situation surprise you?
Alasdair Harris: The scale of it was very shocking to me. And seeing children in fishing communities go hungry at the same time as foreign industrial boats are fishing with impunity offshore. And this is going on around coasts like Madagascar and low-income tropical coastal developing states year in, year out.
Manoush Zomorodi: Okay, so you have this initial setback, a bit of humiliation. But then you come up with a new idea. Well, not exactly a new idea, really more a new framing, right?
Alasdair Harris: Absolutely.
Alasdair Harris: That initial rejection taught me that conservation is, at its core, a journey in listening deeply, to understand the pressures and realities that communities face through their dependence on nature. This idea grew into an organization that brought a new approach to ocean conservation by working to rebuild fisheries with coastal communities. Then, as now, the work started by listening—and what we learned astonished us. Back in the dry south of Madagascar, we learned that one species was immensely important for villagers: this remarkable octopus.
Alasdair Harris: The day octopus—octopus cyanea, it's called—a hugely charismatic species. But it's a very lucrative fishery, particularly for women in these coastal communities. And it grows exponentially once it's settled on the coral reef. And so we went back with another proposal, which was: how about we just start with maybe 10 percent of the fishing ground, but only for one species and only for six months? We think you're going to see some pretty explosive results.
Alasdair Harris: The community thought so too, opting to close a small area of reef to octopus fishing temporarily, using a customary social code, invoking blessings from the ancestors to prevent poaching. When that reef reopened to fishing six months later, none of us were prepared for what happened next: catches soared, with men and women landing more and bigger octopus than anyone had seen for years. Neighboring villages saw the fishing boom and drew up their own closures, spreading the model virally along hundreds of miles of coastline. When we ran the numbers, we saw that these communities—among the poorest on Earth—had found a way to double their money in a matter of months by fishing less.
Alasdair Harris: One closure became three closures and then five. And fast-forward, and we've seen hundreds and hundreds along thousands of kilometers of coastline. And we've studied the impacts of these closures, and they've led to really important and significant increases in catches, more and larger animals that mean higher incomes for these communities. So it's been a real fisheries management success entirely from the bottom up. And it's gone to about a dozen countries now.
Manoush Zomorodi: So these closures then, is this the way forward for conservation in these fishing communities?
Alasdair Harris: Well, that in and of itself is not necessarily a conservation effort. That's just focusing on those target fisheries. But I guess you could liken it to a catalyst that has enabled us to then revisit those first conversations about well, how about we close off those areas now? Now that we know what can happen?
Manoush Zomorodi: So is it kind of like bridging the needs and the rights of the local people with the desires of the scientists and conservationists?
Alasdair Harris: That's a really good question. I guess we're trying to address what we might call conservation's "people problem." So the world I work in has an ugly history of conflict and human rights abuses, which have often set people and conservation against one another. Now of course, that's really not okay, but it's also a massive paradox because fishermen and -women and conservationists really want the same thing: a healthy and diverse ocean.
Alasdair Harris: The real magic went beyond profit. Leaders from Andavadoaka joined forces with two dozen neighboring communities to establish a vast conservation area along dozens of miles of coastline. They outlawed fishing with poison and mosquito nets, and set aside permanent refuges around threatened coral reefs and mangroves, including—to my astonishment—those same sites that I'd flagged just two years earlier, when my evangelism for marine protection was so roundly rejected. They created a community-led protected area, a democratic system for local marine governance that was totally unimaginable just a few years earlier. And they didn't stop there. Within five years, they'd secured legal rights from the state to manage over 200 square miles of ocean, eliminating destructive industrial trawlers from the waters.
Manoush Zomorodi: So I guess to go back to your original hope, Alasdair, when you first arrived in southern Madagascar, in addition to better fishing, are the reefs also healing?
Alasdair Harris: Well, we've helped those fishermen monitor those sites with scuba, and every year the reefs are getting healthier. The resident biomass, the sheer quantity of fish in the water has got greater. And it's become a really important scientific reference site that's demonstrating the power of locally-led marine conservation, not just for fisheries but now also for that broader objective of ecosystem conservation. But we've got to a place that we could never have got to had we not put the interests of those communities first.
Manoush Zomorodi: That's Alasdair Harris. He's a marine biologist and the executive director of Blue Ventures. You can learn more at BlueVentures.org. And you can watch his full talk at Ted.com. On the show today, an SOS from the ocean. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you're listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR. Stay with us.
Manoush Zomorodi: It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. And we want to end our series on the ocean with a look back at how much our understanding about oceans has changed over the last century, through the eyes of a legend.
Sylvia Earle: As a three-year-old, I got knocked over by a wave, and life in the ocean has held my attention ever since.
Manoush Zomorodi: This is oceanographer Sylvia Earle.
Sylvia Earle: I'm a National Geographic explorer and founder of Mission Blue.
Manoush Zomorodi: Now Dr. Earle, can I call you Sylvia? Or should I call you Your Deepness, as you have been referred to over the years? [laughs]
Sylvia Earle: You can call me whatever you like. I've been called a lot of things over the years. [laughs]
Manoush Zomorodi: Sylvia is 85 years old now. And what we've learned over the past six decades or so about our oceans is, in part, thanks to her.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Fred Rogers: I remember a day when I was able to go in the ocean with someone who knows as much as anybody in the world about what's underwater in our world. Her name is Sylvia Earle.]
Manoush Zomorodi: As a scholar, she went on scientific expeditions all over the globe. She was usually the only woman on board a team documenting sea life—some of which is now extinct.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: The biological program began by converting the former presidential yacht Williamsburg.]
Manoush Zomorodi: In the '60s, space travel was all the rage, but Sylvia got people excited about exploring the mysteries of the deepest oceans. And in the 1970s, she lived in an underwater lab, studying coral reefs.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Now a team of divers will attempt to live for two weeks.]
Manoush Zomorodi: While leading an all-female team—shocking, I know.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: Ironically, these aquanauts are not men, but five young and attractive women—the world's first real-life mermaids.]
Manoush Zomorodi: Then in 1979 ...
[ARCHIVE CLIP: There is a new tool in the sea.]
Manoush Zomorodi: ... Sylvia helped design and test a special pressurized underwater suit.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: If successful, she will be the first woman to walk the seafloor beyond 1,000 feet.]
Manoush Zomorodi: She set that record, then later led NOAA, the government agency tasked with protecting the ocean.
[ARCHIVE CLIP: In 1990, Sylvia Earle received a presidential appointment that for her, was the culmination of a life's work.]
Manoush Zomorodi: Sylvia received numerous titles and honorary degrees—including the million-dollar TED Prize in 2009. In short, Sylvia Earle is a pioneer who has no plans to stop advocating on behalf of the ocean or stop exploring.
Sylvia Earle: If I'm still breathing, I'm still diving. Come on!
Manoush Zomorodi: Are you still going in submarines?
Sylvia Earle: Why not? I mean, it's like getting into a car, for heaven's sakes. It's just ... [laughs]
Manoush Zomorodi: All right. So Sylvia, tell me about how you first got so curious about the ocean and marine life. You grew up in Florida, right? And you spent a lot of time exploring the beach.
Sylvia Earle: For me, it was an adventure every day after school to be able to get out and wade in these seagrasses and see sea urchins, to find little seahorses about half the length of my little finger. They're pygmy seahorses, they're known as. And I saw creatures like sea hares that used to crawl around in those meadows. And scallops, you could walk out and see these blue-eyed scallops just pulsing around. Like, they are jet-propelled when they close the two halves of their shells. They would just—it was such an exciting adventure. And occasionally to find a little octopus. It was such a joy!
Manoush Zomorodi: And it sounds like you let that joy and all the questions that you had about these creatures, you let them kind of propel you academically because you knew you wanted to be a scientist.
Sylvia Earle: I just kept making choices along the way that would lead me in that direction. All the science classes I could take, but not all the classes had answers. I had to go see for myself, and find books that would answer some of the questions. But the books weren't always enough. I asked questions the books couldn't answer.
Manoush Zomorodi: [laughs] Well, so you stuck with it, and you ended up getting your PhD in botany, specifically aquatic plants and algae. And I love the story about how in 1964, you jumped at an invitation to work on a scientific expedition to the Indian Ocean—and you were the only woman on the boat.
Sylvia Earle: The headline in the Mombasa Daily Times the next day came out: "Sylvia Sails Away With 70 Men."
Manoush Zomorodi: [laughs]
Sylvia Earle: "But She Expects No Problems." And actually, the only problem that any of us really had was, here we are in a little boat on the surface of the ocean, and our job, our goal, was to explore the ocean. How do you do that from the top of the—and the ocean is beneath you? Well, we were lucky. We had some of the first scuba tanks and an air compressor onboard. And we were the first to actually, using scuba, to explore some of these legendary places like Aldabra, parts of the Seychelles, little islands that some were not populated by humans. And we were in the water, and the fish were seeing humans probably for the first time face to face, the way fish see fish.
Manoush Zomorodi: So you were one of the first humans to ever go scuba diving. You were also one of the first humans to live in an underwater habitat. You have spent hours at the bottom of the ocean during your lifetime. How did all that time down there change you, do you think?
Sylvia Earle: So I've had a chance to live underwater 10 times now in various underwater laboratories, and to use more than 30 different kinds of submarines. Thousands of hours seeing the ocean from the inside out and realizing this is not just rocks and water, this is alive. It's a soup like minestrone, but all the little pieces are alive. And then to realize that most people haven't had the depth and breadth of experience that comes with thousands of hours. And I think we're right at the time of transition now that there are millions of divers all over the world who are now being able to go repeatedly back to the same areas, and to be able to document the same individuals and to see what occurred to me was just natural. It's the way it is.
Manoush Zomorodi: But you say that you remember—when actually you were pretty young, that you realized you saw that something bad was happening to nature, that marine life was thriving, and then it started disappearing. And you saw it happen.
Sylvia Earle: Being a child in Florida when my parents moved there in 1948, and witnessing the changes in the coastline, the marshes that I first discovered. Finding horseshoe crab eggs, these tiny little creatures prospering in really clear water. And going out on a dock at night and seeing these bioluminescent creatures just flashing and glowing. And witnessing the change, that the waters became not beautiful, clear and blue but muddy. That was powerful incentive to say, "Why are we doing this?" Well, it's progress. People need a place to live, and people love the waterfront. And there's not enough waterfront. So building these finger-fill areas to magnify the amount of land along the coast, building causeways out to the islands, blocking the flow of water, disturbing the seagrass beds, digging them up. And then they were gone. They're gone. So it was, I think, my experience as a witness, not reading about it, not looking at images, but watching it happen, feeling empathy for the creatures in the sea as I got to know them. And I watched them disappear.
Manoush Zomorodi: I can only imagine that you had that memory in mind when you decided to transition from doing research to policy. So in 1990, you were asked to become the chief scientist at a US agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Like, why go work for the government? What was your thinking? What did you want to accomplish?
Sylvia Earle: What really convinced me that yes, I should be the chief scientist of NOAA was within NOAA is this small but promising agency called the National Marine Sanctuary program, the counterpart of national parks that are actually housed in the Department of Interior. There are some marine-protected areas in the national park system, but most of the idea of ocean protection was embodied within this small but growing organization. So I thought, this is an opportunity to begin to develop the ethic of caring for the ocean in the same way that a hundred years ago, you know, we began looking at the land and the need for protection.
Manoush Zomorodi: You ended up being kind of a controversial figure there. You got oceans probably in the headlines more than any other government official. I believe it was you who called attention to the fact that—what was it?—that the bluefin tuna was nearly extinct? Why were you so—why did people take issue with you? All the things you're saying seem hardly controversial. What was the tension that was going on in the '90s then?
Sylvia Earle: It wasn't just the '90s. It's still there. The habit of thinking that the ocean is too big to fail. And we're still taking life in the ocean for granted. We still think that we have the capacity to take fish on a scale that we currently are and continue to do it forever. Sustainable extraction of ocean wildlife: tuna, swordfish, cod, shrimp, what we collectively regard as seafood. And if we just think of it as sea life that keeps us alive, we might make a transition from just looking at what lives in the ocean as something to eat or something to grind up for oil or products, to think of them as individuals, as part of the social structure of the ocean. We have made a transition with birds. We have made a transition with whales. There isn't such a large constituency of people who care about tuna and grouper for their own sake.
Manoush Zomorodi: Hmm.
Sylvia Earle: And you're right. I got into trouble when I was at NOAA because I attended the Fisheries Council meeting, and I heard that in the Atlantic, the bluefin tuna populations were down by 90 percent. And I had the audacity to stand up and ask the question: so we only have 10 percent left from their numbers in the 1970s? A decline of 90 percent in 20 years from 1970 to 1990? I said, "What are we trying to do, exterminate them? Because if we are, we're doing a great job. We only have 10 percent left to go. What are we waiting for? Let's go get them." I mean, that's when they started calling me the "Sturgeon general."
Manoush Zomorodi: [laughs] Okay, so fast-forward another decade, and in 2009, you won the TED Prize, and you founded an organization called Mission Blue.
[ARCHIVE CLIP, Sylvia Earle: My wish is a big wish. But if we can make it happen, it can truly change the world and help ensure ...]
Manoush Zomorodi: And you said in your TED Talk at the time—like, you laid out a lot of what we've been discussing, but you said at the end of it that there is good news because 10 percent of the big fish remain, that there's time—but not a lot of time—to turn things around. So it's been, you know, about a dozen years since you gave your talk, since you founded Mission Blue. Tell me about how things have gone in those last 12 years. What have you been able to achieve with your organization and what haven't you?
Sylvia Earle: I think one of the most important trends is the awareness and willingness to embrace places, and to recognize that protecting nature, the natural systems, have benefits back to us in terms not just of better health, not just because they're beautiful, it's not even a choice anymore. It's necessary for our existence. We have to realize we're a part of nature. We can see the connection between trees and climate. We can see connection between the forests and the ocean, the phytoplankton capturing carbon, generating oxygen, maintaining a planet that works in our favor.
Sylvia Earle: This is common sense. You take care of your personal health because you want to live a long time and you want to be happy, you want to be healthy. But we can't be happy or healthy if we don't take care of our life support system—the planet. So Mission Blue really has as its core, to protect the ocean with a network of "Hope Spots," protected areas large enough to save and restore the health of the planet. We now have 140 places around the world with champions for Hope Spots and communities gathering information about places that are not always in great condition. Some of them are. They start out either with some form of protection, or they're in beautiful, healthy condition, and the idea is to keep them that way and tell stories about what a good healthy system looks like. But there are also places like San Francisco Bay, not particularly in great shape as compared to what it was 500 years ago. But with care, it can improve.
Sylvia Earle: The 21st-century humans are poised to be the heroes for all time because we're armed with a superpower of knowing that we have to change our attitude about the world that keeps us alive, that we can't just continue mining and, you know, taking and taking. We have to be aware of the consequences.
Manoush Zomorodi: That's legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle. You can see her full talk at Ted.com. Thank you so much for listening to our show today. To learn more about the people who were on this episode, go to Ted.npr.org. And to see hundreds more TED Talks, check out Ted.com or the TED app.
Manoush Zomorodi: This episode was produced by Katie Monteleone, Fiona Geiran, Matthew Cloutier and Christina Cala. It was edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. Our production staff at NPR also includes Jeff Rogers, Rachel Faulkner, Diba Mohtasham, James Delahoussaye, J.C. Howard and Janet Woojeong Lee. Our audio engineer is Daniel Shuhkin. Our intern is Harrison Vijay Tsui. Our theme music was written by Ramtin Arablouei. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, Colin Helms, Anna Phelan, Michelle Quint and Micah Eames. I'm Manoush Zomorodi, and you've been listening to the TED Radio Hour from NPR.
Alex: Thanks so much for listening to this episode of the TED Radio Hour on NPR. If you want to check out the rest of the episodes they've released, you can find them on Spotify as well as npr.org. We'll see you next week with a brand new episode of How to Save a Planet.