When I was 15 my mother took my sister and me to Key West, Florida, for my sister’s 18th birthday. Crossing the two- lane overseas highway I looked out at the clear blue, turquoise and aquamarine waters and felt I’d come home to a place I’d never been before.
Until then I'd thought I was born a generation too soon to explore other worlds. But that week, getting hold of a face mask and snorkel and swimming out into multihued gardens of living rock, fan and branching corals, shoaling fish, sea turtles and a small hammerhead shark cruising past me with predatory grace, I realized there was a whole other alien world right off the seawall. Today we send probes to Mars, Pluto and Jupiter’s moon Europa and what’s the first thing we look for as a sign of life? Water. Yet we’re living on a blue water planet that’s little explored yet highly vulnerable to our human behaviors.
In the half-century blink of an eye since my first visit to the Florida Keys, its shallow-bottom cover has declined from 90 percent live coral to less than 10 percent and its branching elkhorn and staghorn corals are now listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. Half the world’s tropical corals, covering just .1 percent of the ocean but home to 25 percent of its pulsing, vibrant biodiversity, have now died off or are in a state of ecosystem collapse due to overfishing, pollution, physical impacts and climate-linked bleaching and acidification that makes it harder for shell-forming critters from plankton to clams to corals to survive.
Phytoplankton, the base of the oceanic food web and generator of half the oxygen we breathe, has seen a 40 percent decline since I was born in the spring of 1951, according to reports in the science journal Nature and elsewhere.
Since the day of my birth, when there were fewer than half the number of human beings there are today, 90 percent of the large pelagic (open ocean) fish, the big sharks, tuna and billfish have disappeared. Actually they didn’t disappear. We know where they went: onto our plates, as industrial overfishing for the global seafood markets of the developed world decimated edible marine wildlife essential to the survival of hundreds of millions of the world’s poorest coastal peoples. The U.N.’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates 85 percent of this living resource is now fully exploited, over-exploited or depleted as we continue to catch fish faster than they can reproduce.
Oil, chemical, nutrient and ubiquitous plastic pollution, loss of critical coastal and marine habitat, sea-level rise, melt-off of polar and glacial ice due to global warming, and the spread of invasive species such as Asian clams and Lionfish are some of the other cascading disasters that have exploded like depth charges during my brief tenure on Earth, which is not the name I’d actually choose for a blue planet that has 99 percent of its livable habitat underwater.
Luckily, I remain viscerally optimistic when I’m in that habitat, either bodysurfing fast waves or scuba diving, sailing, kayaking or just walking a wild ocean beach waiting for the green flash at sunset (yes, it’s real). The No. 1 action I suggest in my book "50 Ways to Save the Ocean" is "Go to the beach," because you’re more likely to protect the things that you love.
Despite the best available science projecting some of the worst imaginable scenarios I find myself more frustrated than despairing because we know what the solutions are. If you stop killing fish they tend to grow back, stop producing 100 million metric tons of disposable plastic every year and you’ll reduce the flow rate of oceanic pollution. Coal and oil were great energy systems for the 16th and 19th centuries, but it’s now the 21st and time to move on to clean, renewable energy, including offshore wind. After all, no wind spill ever decimated a beach or a bayou. The challenge is not identifying practical solutions for our blue planet’s restoration but creating the political will to grow the solutions faster than the problems. That’s now my life’s work.
This past May we held a Blue Vision Summit in Washington, D.C., that included the largest citizen lobby for ocean conservation in U.S. history to oppose new offshore drilling and support clean energy, and to support a bipartisan bill that will target illegal, unreported and unregulated pirate fishing. In recent years we’ve been able to identify and link marine grass-roots activists who are making a difference with powerful policymakers and ocean-dependent business people who have begun listening, learning and implementing needed changes; many of these stakeholders are now forming a nonpartisan Sea Party Coalition for the 2016 elections.
These changes involve a matrix of greening ports and shipping, sound coastal development and waste management, sustainable fisheries and aquaculture that favors artisanal (community-based) fishermen and women, a rapid transition to clean energy, improved maritime enforcement of treaties including the Law of the Sea Convention (U.S. Senate ratification would help here) and protection of large parts of the ocean as Marine Protected Areas -- essentially wilderness parks in the sea that act as reserves of living biodiversity for our future, including on the high seas and in the deep seas.
Using just the example of Marine Protected Areas, many of the early and now proven successes were small community-based initiatives led by local fishermen and activists who have protected and restored living seas from the Philippines to Cabo Pulmo, Mexico; Culebra, Puerto Rico; and Port Orford, Oregon. These local models have helped inspire regional and national leaders such as Prime Minister David Cameron of Great Britain and even Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama in the United States. Together they, along with small island nation leaders of the Pacific and a few far-sighted leaders in Africa, Asia and Latin America, have protected millions of square miles of ocean, tripling the size of global reserves in just the last five years. I’ve seen and documented the resiliency of the ocean when common sense actions are taken, including in my home waters of California where 16 percent of its coastal seas are now under protection. I even wrote a book, "The Golden Shore," about how California has evolved from a late maritime frontier where first fortunes were made hunting sea otters for their pelts into a contemporary world model for ocean stewardship.
Still, I’m not sure we’ll do enough in a timely fashion for a healthy living ocean to remain after I’m dead and gone. All I know for certain is that if we don’t try we lose, and this blue marble world of ours is too heart-achingly beautiful, scary and sacred to lose. If you don’t believe me, join the space program, travel out into the Cosmos and look back from the heavens. It’s not God’s green earth – it’s God’s Blue Marble.
David Helvarg is an author and executive director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation and policy group. His latest book is "Saved by the Sea: Hope, Heartbreak, and Wonder in the Blue World."