The renowned oceanographer Sylvia Earle has urged a global gathering of marine experts to rein in industrial overfishing that threatens hundreds of species with extinction and to rethink our relationship with the oceans, calling on humanity to “do unto fish as you would have them do unto you”.
In an interview with the Guardian at the Fifth International Marine Protected Areas Congress (Impac5) in Vancouver, the American marine biologist and first female head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration says intensive factory fishing is treating marine species the same as farmed livestock, despite being very different.
“So many people seem to think that fish are equivalent to cows and chickens and pigs. We even talk about ‘harvesting’ the sea,” she says. “It’s not a harvest – we’re just out there as hunters.”
The key difference, she argues, is that industrial fishing drives species to extinction. “We’re seeing species after species winked out. The trajectory is more than a million species will be lost. We don’t know enough about the ocean to say how many have already been lost … But we do know that we’re good at eliminating whole ecosystems,” she says. “We’re on the brink.”
Earle, 87, compared the hubris of the huge new krill fisheries in Antarctica to the decimation of cod in the 20th century, which led to moratoriums on cod fishing. “With krill in Antarctica, we have the illusion that there are billions of them. ‘We can never eliminate all the krill, we can never eliminate all the tuna’ … except the cod! Oh my goodness, think of the cod here in Canada, in the US and Europe: it just seemed the cod would never ever, ever [run out].”
Born in New Jersey, Earle first came to global attention in 1970 when she set a record by living underwater for two weeks with an all-female team. She has since spent nearly a dozen stints living below the waves, and holds the record for the deepest solo dive.
Her experience living on the Tektite underwater habitat and subsequent vessels gave her a newfound perspective on fish, she explains, allowing her to think of them as individuals. “They have personality,” she says.
“Jane Goodall got into trouble with her learned colleagues for daring to suggest that chimpanzees have personality – that they have feelings, they have families, they care about one another, they feel pain, they feel pleasure, they laugh.
“I don’t know that fish laugh,” she says. “But I’m pretty sure they feel pain and pleasure.
“They are not our fellow primates, but they are our fellow vertebrates. We have eyes, they have eyes. We have a backbone, they have backbones. They have a heart, we have a heart. They have brains – some of us have brains,” she says.
A frequent misconception about fish is their age, she says. “Many of the fish on menus around the world are older than not just our parents, but our great-grandparents. Fish that can be more than 100 years old are on our plates.
“It’s not good for us to be so complacent about where food comes from. It doesn’t mean we’re going to stop eating fish. But maybe we should be more respectful … We don’t accord them with the kind of dignity that we do with most other forms of life. They’re measured by the ton. How many fish are in a ton of fish? How many people are in a ton of people?”
As well as her scientific work, Earle’s advocacy organisation, Mission Blue, has partnered with conservation groups to nominate “hope spots” worldwide in an effort to secure them permanent protection, such as the glass sponge reefs on Canada’s west coast that were designated a marine protected area in 2017.
Despite such successes, she noted that only about 3% of the ocean is protected. “That means 97% is open for exploitation,” she says.
“Some of it is protected because it’s still relatively inaccessible. But we’re getting so good at going to the deepest parts of the ocean – going even under the ice, or places that even 50 years ago you couldn’t access. Now with sonar, there’s no place to hide.
“We capture [fish] with techniques that didn’t exist when I was a kid. We have the power to take the last tuna, just as we had the power to take the last whale, but we stopped in time. Can we do that again?”
She argues that after more than six decades of work, she has a perspective that can be useful now that scientific advances have revealed the ocean in ways never seen before.
“Until fairly recently, the ocean was too big to fail. You didn’t have to protect it,” she says. “But I’ve been a witness. I’ve had the perspective that David Attenborough talked about in the BBC profile, where he referred to himself as a witness to this time of remarkable change.
“Attenborough and I had a parallel trajectory, when the world population was only 2 billion,” she says. “Now we have 8 billion people and the Earth is the same size. We have to be mindful of the mark we’re making on the systems that keep us alive.”
Paradoxically, Earle says it is precisely her experience that gives her optimism. She points to the campaign to stop killing whales, which she contributed to during four years on the International Whaling Commission.
“I have watched the trajectory of decline. I’ve also seen the capacity to turn things around,” she says. “Whaling was a big deal for most of the 20th century and for several centuries before. And we came perilously close to losing a chance to save whales, their numbers got to such low levels. But we did, through international agreements,” she notes, pointing out the irony that it was only when the economic value of whales was seen in terms of tourism and the climate crisis that some countries realised the true cost of killing them.
A similar reckoning with the true cost of killing wild fish would, she says, allow us to reframe their value, undermining what she calls the biggest threat to the ocean: the concept of “seafood”.
“We are so casual about taking wildlife from the ocean,” she says. “I sound like a fish hugger [but] they’re beautiful – as beautiful as any of the other amazing creatures that we have come to treat with greater respect.
“We need to use this thing we call a brain and our empathy for life – all forms of life have a place. And we have this attitude: ‘What good are they? Can I eat it? Can I sell it? If I can’t, it’s just something to crush.’ In your actions, you just ignore it. Unless you’re a three-year-old kid! A little kid is curious and has an empathy for life … We teach them to kill. We teach them it’s OK. In fact, we encourage it. We have become a species that is just superb at killing.
“If we can make one transformative movement in the 21st century, it’s to gain a greater respect for caring for life – for all of life, ourselves included.”