I have personally witnessed a time of unprecedented discovery ‚Äì and unprecedented loss. Half a century ago, it seemed the ocean was too vast, too resilient to be affected by our actions. Now we know: coral reefs, kelp forests, coastal marshes, numerous kinds of fish and other ocean wildlife have declined sharply owing to pressures we have applied. Dead zones have appeared. Oxygen-producing plankton is declining. The ocean is in trouble – and that means we are in trouble, too.
More has been learned about the ocean in recent decades than during all preceding history combined, but at the same time, more has been lost. Among the most important discoveries is recognition that the ocean is fundamental to life on Earth, starting with the presence of 97 percent of the water. We now know that the ocean drives the water cycle, the carbon cycle, the oxygen cycle, regulates temperature, shapes climate and weather, and otherwise is the cornerstone of Earth’s life support system.
I experienced my first breath underwater as a young scientist in 1953, and I marveled at the clarity of the ocean and the wealth and diversity of life during trips to the Florida Keys. Pink conchs plowed trails though seagrass meadows, and schools of colorful fish crowded the branches of elkhorn and staghorn coral. Long, bristly antennae marked the presence of lobsters under ledges and crevices, and elegantly striped and irrepressibly curious Nassau grouper followed me on most dives and likely would have continued onto the beach but for the limitations of fins and gills.
Six decades later, I note the difference. Globally, about half of the coral reefs that existed when I was a child are gone or are in a state of serious decay. The waters of the reefs where I made some of my earliest dives are not nearly so clear as they are in my recollections. The great forests of branching corals are largely gone. The pink conchs and Nassau grouper are mostly memories ‚Äî the remaining few are protected in U.S. waters because of their rarity.
With care, there is a chance that these and many other species may recover, but some losses are irrecoverable. I missed meeting, for instance, one of Florida’s most charismatic animals, the Caribbean monk seal, a playful St. Bernard-sized creature that once lolled on beaches throughout the region, sometimes ranging as far north as Galveston, Texas. The last one was sighted in 1952. The species is now officially listed as extinct.
Given the drastic changes in the nature of the ocean that people have caused in the latter half of the 20th century ‚Äì loss or serious decline of half of the coral reefs, 90 percent loss of many fish and other ocean wildlife, changes in ocean chemistry, notably acidification, and overall warming among other issues ‚Äì I am driven to do everything I can to reverse these dramatic declines.
We need to convey a sense of urgency because the world is changing quickly. The next ten years is likely to be the most important time in the next 10,000 years. We have options that we are going to lose within ten years unless we take action now. Every day, options close. Take care of the ocean as if your life depends on it, because it does.
Words by Dr Sylvia Earle