Cop26: Oceanographer Sylvia Earle calls for industrial fishing ban on high seas

Ending unsustainable commercial exploitation of the Earth’s ‘blue heart’ is as vital as curbing fossil fuel use, says pioneering biologist

World leaders gathered for Cop26 must ban industrial fishing on the high seas to have a chance of preserving the ocean, the Earth’s “largest carbon-capturing and oxygen-generating system”, the deep-sea explorer and oceanographer Sylvia Earle has said.

Earle, 86, has clocked up more than 7,000 hours underwater and holds several records, including in 1979 for the deepest untethered dive by a woman.

  • Blue carbon is the CO2 sequestered and stored in coastal and marine ecosystems.
  • Mangroves, salt marshes and seagrass are the “big three” – the best studied and understood blue carbon ecosystems. They suck carbon dioxide from the air via photosynthesis and store it in biomass and sediment. Seaweed aquaculture is another way to store carbon.  
  • These ecosystems are carbon storage powerhouses, storing up to 10 times as much carbon as forests.
  • Seagrass is one of the world's most effective carbon sinks – it can bury carbon 35 times faster than tropical rainforests and, if undisturbed, can store it for millennia, where rainforests hold it for decades.
  • They are also among the most threatened ecosystems on the planet, however, and disturbing them could release vast greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says blue carbon ecosystems can be included in official national accounting and mitigation commitments under the Paris climate agreement, but many countries – including the UK – have not yet done so. 

She was at Cop26 in Glasgow this week, taking part in events with Al Gore, John Kerry and Zac Goldsmith, as well as young climate activists at the Ocean Action Hub.

Stopping industrial fishing in international waters, Earle said, was as important as curbing fossil fuel use.

“It’s the No 1 priority, because we have the chance, in a stroke, to safeguard the blue heart of the planet,” she said. “It’s where most of the oxygen that comes from the ocean is generated. It’s where most of the carbon is taken up.”

The amazing @SylviaEarle speaking at @TIME magazine event in Glasgow with @vanessanakawe @StellaMcCartney @algore and @JohnKerry at cop26

— Maximiliano Bello (@max_bello_m) November 2, 2021

The exponential growth in industrial fishing is blamed for an alarming drop in marine life in the last half century. A third of commercial fish populations are being harvested at biologically unsustainable levels, according to a 2018 report by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization.

“All of that wildlife taken out of the ocean not only affects biodiversity and fosters extinctions at an accelerated rate. It breaks the carbon cycle – the nutrient chain that maintains the fabric of life on Earth,” she said.

The pioneering marine biologist from New Jersey made history in 1970 with Mission 6, when she and an all-female team of scientists spent two weeks in Nasa’s underwater laboratory in the US Virgin Islands, Tektite II, to study aquatic life as well as the psychology of a small crew in extreme conditions, as part of Nasa’s research for sending humans to the moon.

Graph of fish and seafood production

She operated deep-sea research submarines in the 1980s and served as the first female chief scientist of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. In 1998 Time Magazine named her its first Hero for the Planet.

“It is frustrating to be able to see the future so clearly, from having spent years at sea, and thousands of hours under the sea, and to realise that so many people can’t see it,” she said.

“The climate scientists are saying: ‘Listen up, we’ve got about 10 years, to make or break our behaviour toward nature.”

Earle noted that just five nations were “benefiting disproportionately on an industrial scale from the wild animals that live [in international waters]”.

Sylvia Earle speaking on Ocean Day at Cop26
Sylvia Earle speaking on Ocean Day at Cop26: ‘We must protect nature as if our lives depend on it.’ Photograph: Max Bello

China and Taiwan account for 60% of distant-water fishing, while Japan, South Korea, and Spain make up about 10% each, according to a 2019 report by the Stimson Center.

“Only a small segment of the human population truly relies on ocean life for sustenance,” said Earle. “Many more rely on it for money, using wild animals as a source of revenue.”

She argued that the coastal communities who survived on fishing could do so within national waters, and compared fishing the high seas to killing elephants for ivory or rhinoceroses for their horns. Industrial fishing was “cutting slashes in the web of life” by destroying fish populations around the world, she said.

Worldwide, 3 billion people rely on wild-caught or farmed seafood as their main source of animal protein, particularly in coastal communities and small-island states, according to the WWF.

Sylvia Earle scuba diving outside an underwater lab in 1970.
Sylvia Earle, leader of an all-female team of scientists, outside their Tektite II underwater lab in the US Virgin Islands in 1970. Photograph: Jim Bourdier/AP

Earle is also president of Mission Blue, an organisation that aims to establish marine protected areas (MPA) around the world. She hailed last week’s announcement at Cop26 of a new “mega-MPA”, linking the waters of Ecuador, Colombia, Panama, and Costa Rica, but said the signatories of the “30x30” initiative – to secure at least 30% of the world’s ocean as marine protected areas by 2030 – needed to step up.

“We must protect nature as if our lives depend on it,” she said, adding: “Achieving 30% of full protection for land and sea … doesn’t mean we can trash the rest.”

She said the Covid-19 pandemic had helped give people a greater appreciation of nature and realise that what affects one affects us all.

“We are equipped with the superpower of knowing,” said Earle. “We are one species with an oversized impact, an oversized responsibility and I’d say an oversized opportunity to take what we now know and act.”

Earle, a vegetarian who says she has not eaten fish for at least four decades, called the ocean a “living system, a biogeochemical miracle, that keeps us safe in a universe that doesn’t have a built-in life support system.

“We have abused it, thinking that it’s infinite in its capacity to recover – no matter what we put in, what we take out.”


Dan Collyns

The GuardianTramp

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