Expert sounds the alarm on troubled seas

Photos by Marlena SkrobeResearch vessel with dolphins

‘Next 10 years will impact the next 10,000 years’

The oceans of the world are in terrible shape and are getting worse, a senior ocean scientist told environmental journalists, government officials and other experts in Miami Friday.

Speaking on the third day of the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists, Dr. Sylvia A. Earle, a former chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said that how people deal with the ocean over the next decade could be critical.

“What we do or fail to do will have a magnified impact,” she said. “The impact of the next 10 years will have a major impact on the next 10,000 years.”

Dr. Earle spoke on a day that was packed with seminar-like panel discussions on a range of topics about the oceans: from the acids created by the absorption of carbon dioxide in the air, to the survival of dolphins and sharks, to sea currents and how they affect climate, to the way putting exotic fish in home aquariums can harm coral reefs. There were also discussions focused on the BP oil spill, China and U.S. energy policies and the enforcement of environmental laws.

“This is the day when we get down to the real meat and potatoes,” said Jeff Burnside, a Miami television reporter and the co-chair of the conference.

Oil rig

On Wednesday night the participants heard from Ken Salazar, the U.S. Secretary of the Interior; novelist Carl Hiaasen and Donna M. Shalala, the president of the University of Miami and the host of the conference. They also listened to a son of Jacques Cousteau and four of the pioneer ocean explorer’s grandchildren. Thursday was field trip day, and the journalists and other experts went off to see the Everglades, coral reefs and places in Miami that scientists say will be submerged as climate changes cause the level of the Atlantic Ocean to rise.

There were so many events that no one could possibly attend them all. “Walking down a hallway here and hearing the various panels in the hotel conference rooms is something like clicking the TV control and, on every channel, seeing something you want to watch,” Burnside said.

In early evening, many of the roughly 900 journalists at the conference went to restaurants on Miami Beach for further discussions with guests like Dr. Earle and Jane Lubchenco, the director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Washington.

On Saturday the journalists and other experts will hear panelists talking about the environment in the Caribbean, especially in Cuba and in Haiti, deep-sea exploration, drilling for oil off Cuba and the federal clean water act.

A small fleet of environmentally friendly cars from Chevrolet, Hyundai and Kia is going to be available for test drives. Ron Cogan, the editor and publisher of Green Car Journal, is in charge of the eco fleet.  He said that trying them out would give journalists a better perspective on environmental issues far beyond the vehicles themselves. “It gives you context when talking about issues like air quality, because of emissions, and land use, because of highways,” Cogan said.

“There is a whole new generation of vehicles they should be familiar with if they write about climate control or global warming,” he said. “There’s a direct correlation between high- efficiency vehicles and lower carbon emissions.”

On Saturday night the organization’s seafood dinner is highlighting the kinds of fish that can be eaten without further harming life in the oceans.  In an interview, Dr. Earle said, for example, that stocks of Blue Fin Tuna have been severely depleted. Blue Fin Tuna will not be on the menu Saturday. After dinner, the Society of Environmental Journalists is hosting a fashion show with environmentally correct clothing created by some of the hottest designers.

Burnside and the other conference planners have been working on the events for nearly a year. He said the reactions of participants have been enthusiastic. “I think people’s expectations were high,” he said, “and I think they have been pleasantly exceeded.”

Dolphins at speed

Many journalists said the conference was a goldmine of ideas and stories. Andrew Revkin, a long-time environmental reporter for The New York Times who is now at Pace University while continuing to write for and edit the DotEarth blog that he created for The Times online, said he was collecting ideas and bits of information that he expected to develop later into stories.

Some reporters at the conference have been writing stories every day and sending them to publications around the world., an online publication created by the University of Miami in collaboration with Florida International University and Miami Dade College, has more than two dozen reporters, photographers and editors working on coverage of the conference.

Burnside said he made a special effort to attract experts in government positions and non-governmental organizations, at universities and at foundations. Getting those people to the conference, he said, helps raise the profile of the Society of Environmental Journalists and also gives journalists a chance to meet potential sources.

The opportunity to develop contacts was a big draw for Sam Eaton, a Los Angeles radio and television producer.  He was in Miami, he said, “to meet people that I can call and pick their brains further after the conference.”

“As a freelancer,” he said, “it is essential to be here.”

Joe Guthrie, a specialist on bears from the University of Kentucky, and Carlton Ward, a photographer from Tampa, said they were developing a plan to dramatize some of the main environmental issues in Florida. The conference offered them one-stop shopping to meet environmental writers, researchers and others knowledgeable about business and the environment. “The cross-pollination of ideas and networking is great,” Guthrie said. “People here have the knowledge. We need to know what they know.”

Dr. Earle, who gained global attention for her appearances as an underwater explorer in documentary films, gave the only solo presentation of the day Friday. She said that perhaps half the coral reefs around the world have been ruined or are in “a state of sharp decline.” Shrimp, lobster and squid are in danger of being fished-out, she said, and no more than 10 percent of some kinds of fish still survive. She said too many fish are being taken from the oceans and too much garbage and sewage is being dumped in.

“We have to alter what we put into the oceans and what we take out,” she said.

Dr. Earle said the oceans provide much of the oxygen people breathe and absorb great quantities of carbon dioxide, one of the main elements in global warming.

“We’re reaching a critical point,” Dr. Earle said. “We have to change our ways of taking wildlife out of the sea. These fish are going to be gone.”

She appealed to the journalists to look into the problems of the oceans and write about them.  Public ignorance about the seas, she said, is vast, and the result is indifference and apathy. When people don’t know there is a problem, she said, “they can’t care.” #

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3 responses to “Expert sounds the alarm on troubled seas”

  1. AC says:

    I sincerely hope that measures will be taken to preserve marine life for future generations. More research needs to be done so that these species (like bluefin tuna) can be bred in captivity to satisfy global demand and preserve its population at sea. The fact that ordinary people are slowly becoming more conscious of these kinds of issues is a positive development. I’m sure that consumers will come to their senses sooner rather than later and change their eating habits towards species that are becoming over-fished.

  2. Isabella Lyle-Durham says:

    Startling to hear that our practices/actions in next 10 years will impact the next 10,000 years of ocean life; hopefully this realization will encourage people to be more environmentally aware

  3. As a college student majoring in musical theatre, there is rarely (perhaps never) a time when I am thinking about the ocean. I know it is there, I know it is important, and I know we are doing bad things to it. That is the extent of my knowledge. I suppose I represent the public ignorance described in this article. What i do know is that as a culture we like to pretend situations are not dire and put them off as long as possible because they present massive challenges we don’t want to face. Climate change and environmental damage are the ultimate examples.