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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

On the Beach With Dr. Sylvia Earle

Air Date: Week of

While on a recent trip to northern Jamaica, Steve Curwood spoke with eminent marine scientist Dr. Sylvia Earle about fishing and the state of the oceans. Ms. Earle likens current methods of fishing more to hunting or bulldozing than to the concepts of farming or harvesting.


NUNLEY: A few weeks ago, Living on Earth's regular host, Steve Curwood, was in Jamaica attending a conference about the state of our oceans. There, Steve met renowned marine biologist Sylvia Earle at Dragon Bay on the north coast of the island. She was about to embark on a diving expedition. She talked with Steve about the collapse of many of the world's fisheries. Ms. Earle told Steve that in the 1960s the world's fish catch hovered around 60 million tons a year. It grew steadily, peaking in 1989 at about 90 million tons. Then the numbers started to decline. And now as fishermen come up short on the catch, they are turning to more powerful technology and dragging up much more than just their target species.

(Ocean waves in the background)

EARLE: The bycatch, the throw-away items, those fish that aren't regarded as keepers, represent a huge part of what is removed from the sea, but it's not part of this 90 million tons. Some call this the by-kill. When I look at a shrimp cocktail I think of this halo of creatures that the real cost, creatures that died in order to bring me 6 shrimp.

CURWOOD: Is this a -- an emergency? Is this a worldwide crisis?

EARLE: Is there time now? I don't know, I mean I really don't. If we stop taking all cod from the sea right now, will they ever get back to what they were in the 1800s? Probably not, because not only have we perturbed the cod, we have upset the things that the cod rely on in order to make more cod. We've taken the equivalent of bulldozers to their forests.

CURWOOD: What can we do to reverse the decline of fish stocks?

EARLE: We think of, often speak of fishermen as harvesting the sea, as if that somehow has to be equated with farming. It's not. Fishermen are hunters. It's wild caught game. We're removing without putting back anything to encourage the natural systems to become more productive. One possibility, of course, is looking to the sea for the source of individual kinds of creatures that lend themselves well to cultivation that might well be done in high concentrations in saltwater tanks, or cultivated ponds.

CURWOOD: Let's talk about fish farming. Some people say this is not a good idea. That aquaculture, as some call it, creates a whole host of problems of fish waste and disturbance of natural habitat to the skewing of the genetic pool. Does it make sense, fish farming?

EARLE: Aquaculture is not a panacea. Aquaculture is fraught with problems. For example, many criticize shrimp farming, aquaculture, because of the tradeoff in terms of mangrove areas. I mean, something like half of the mangroves that have been around in the last 50 years have been converted to shrimp farms in the tropics of the world. It seems like a horrendous number and a horrendous tradeoff of these great productive, essentially rainforests of the sea, bordering the sea, and converting them to monocultures of shrimp. But that doesn't mean that therefore shrimp farming is bad. It means that that approach is bad.

CURWOOD: Do you eat fish?

EARLE: No, I don't eat wild caught fish any more. I eat very few fish, period. But sometimes I do munch on a catfish or other farm-raised critter. I'm not opposed to eating fish, period, I'm not.

CURWOOD: Tuna's off your list?

EARLE: Tuna is definitely off my list. I recognize the high cost of tuna. To make a pound of tuna fish, a high-speed open ocean predator, a fish that eats a lot of fish that eats a lot of fish and so on down the chain, it may be 10 years or 15 years old by the time it comes to your plate, to your salad or your tuna fish sandwich. They represent an investment of 100,000 pounds of plants or more for one single pound of tuna fish. I won't eat tuna any more than I'd eat a lion or tiger. They are the predators that it takes to keep the wild systems healthy. There's another reason why I tend not to eat wild caught fish, and it's a selfish one but it's a reason that I think matters to a lot of people. I'm really concerned about the high levels of noxious substances that now occur in the tissues of wild caught fish from the sea, or bringing back to the tables of people all over the world. Our resiliency is impaired because of the levels of heavy metals, of PCBs, of pesticides that accumulate in the tissues of fish and shrimp and other creatures that are extracted from the sea, that then go on to become our legacy when we consume them. Everything ties to everything else. There is no escape. And there shouldn't be. I don't see that as a bad thing at all. I see that as glory be, we're tied to the system that supports us.

CURWOOD: Well, thank you very much, Sylvia Earle.

EARLE: Thank you, Steve. Great to be here.

(Music up and under)

NUNLEY: Marine biologist Sylvia Earle speaking with Living on Earth's Steve Curwood on Dragon Bay in Jamaica.



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