May 27, 2022
SEOUL – Climate crisis is an ocean crisis, said Sylvia Earle, marine biologist and National Geographic explorer-in-residence, during a forum Thursday in Seoul.
“It took time for climate scientists to recognize the inextricable connection between the atmosphere and the ocean, between climate and the ocean, between Earth’s living systems and climate. Now we know that the climate crisis is an ocean crisis,” she said.
Earle, who spent “thousands of hours” over five decades of her career in underwater laboratories and deep-diving submarines, said she witnessed the human toll on oceans firsthand.
“I was shocked and saddened by the collapse of once healthy, vibrant systems.”
Earle said protecting ocean was key to countering climate change.
Saving and restoring forests in the sea — mangroves, marshes, seagrasses, meadows — help stabilize climate.
“The microforests of phytoplankton capture carbon, generate food and release oxygen into the atmosphere and the ocean,” she said.
“The most abundant and diverse forms of life on earth are in the zooplankton that dine on the tiny photosynthesizers and in turn become food for small fish, which are then consumed by larger fish.”
Keeping the food chain safe was essential to continuation of the carbon cycle.
“Taking fish and other sea animals out of the ocean breaks the links and puts carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere, similar to clearcutting forests or burning trees,” she said.
The fishing industry has disrupted the natural flow of ocean wildlife on a global scale.
“This is not about fishermen taking a few fish for their families and communities. This is industrial killing of wildlife at a scale and with speed since the 1970s that far exceeds the capacity of the animals to recover,” she said.
“The International Monetary Fund commissioned a study in 2020 and found that the carbon value of whales was worth a trillion dollars with respect to climate stability.”
The good news was that protection has been working.
“Today there are more whales and sea turtles than when I was a child, because nations agreed to stop killing them commercially in 1986,” she said. “If more fish and other ocean wildlife stayed in the sea, more carbon would be retained in the ocean, leaving less to be contributed to the atmosphere.”
Protection currently exists for about 15 percent of land and 3 percent of the ocean globally, with some 70 countries committed to safeguarding at least 30 percent of their land and 30 percent of the ocean by 2030.
“If the ocean is in trouble, so are we. It is and we are. Taking care of the ocean means taking care of the future of all of us,” she said.