Flying Fish

A Conservation Crisis
by Nicole Carlozo -- January 22nd, 2012

A visit by Dr. Sylvia Earle has forced me to reevaluate my views on conservation, even as she continually awes me with her passion for protecting the ocean, our “life support system.”

Just one year ago, I used this very blog to applaud Dr. Sylvia Earle, a renowned scientist, explorer, writer, and advocate in the field of oceanography and marine conservation. Imagine my surprise when I learned of her impending visit to the Duke Marine Lab in January of 2012. I eagerly awaited the opportunity to see her again, and this time on my home turf.

A zoomed out view of marine protected area data in Google Ocean.

A zoomed out view of marine protected area data in Google Ocean.

Last Tuesday, Dr. Earle spoke about the innovations and capabilities of Google Ocean, a component of Google Earth launched in 2009. She lamented over past depictions of the earth where the ocean was just a blob of blue – no texture, no substance.

So in 2006, she approached Google and the Google Ocean project was initiated. Of course, the depiction is not perfect. Dr. Earle reminded us that, in fact, only about five percent of the ocean has ever been seen, let alone explored. But scientists, IT specialists, and communicators are making strides to put the entire earth (brown and blue) at our fingertips.

And what is this for? Why is Sylvia Earle, of all people, interested in the Google Earth technology when she can drive submarines and go places that many of us will never see? I think her interests lie in outreach and increasing the American public’s interest in ocean issues and conservation. When I spoke to her later that evening, I asked her what her greatest challenge has been in spreading her message. She responded “ignorance.” But Dr. Earle continues to combat this challenge with stories and imagery.

Later on in her talk, she spoke on the issue of bycatch in the shrimping industry. She mused:

“Trawling the ocean floor is like using a bulldozer on New York City, just to shake out the taxi cabs and throw everything else away. That’s what we’re doing to the ocean.”

A powerful image.

And so Dr. Earle was just as powerful and inspirational as I remember in her call for marine conservation. I couldn’t help, however, but think about the other side. Surely, not all of the ocean can be conserved. What about its multiple uses?

As I sat in the fully packed auditorium, my mind turned towards the fishermen I’ve met along my academic journey. I found myself thinking about the tasty blue crabs I enjoy from my home state summer after summer. I think many Marylanders feel their consumption is a cultural right, if nothing else. Yes, I could give them up. But is it necessary?

This semester I’m studying Fisheries Policy, and if I’ve learned only one thing it is this: marine policy is not just about science or conservation (although I often wish it were, if only for my comfort in those disciplines). Economics, anthropology, human value systems, and social systems in general also play significant roles in our use and management of the ocean.

It’s difficult to imagine a world where nothing is extracted from the deep blue or coastal waters. And I don’t think the world needs to be that way, as long as we choose to extract resources responsibly, and with care and caution.

Although I’m not quite at Dr. Earle’s conservationist level, I’m still greatly interested and inspired by the prospects of marine protected areas. I did, after all, spend 3 semesters learning GIS and spatial management techniques. Here’s hoping that after a lifetime of work and dedication to coastal management, the world will be a more sustainable place. And perhaps a little closer to Dr. Earle’s vision of a healthy, protected ocean.

Sylvia Earle, courtesy of TED.

Sylvia Earle, courtesy of TED.

To view Dr. Earle’s talk, click here.

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