28 Nov 2020 ‘We’ve lost 50% of our oceans’ life — but we can still restore abundance to our seas’
Srijana Mitra Das | Times Evoke
Alexandra Cousteau is an environmentalist, filmmaker and president and founder of Oceans 2050. Granddaughter of the legendary marine explorer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Alexandra is a distinguished global advocate of restoring ocean abundance. Speaking to Srijana Mitra Das at Times Evoke, Alexandra shared in-depth insights:
Why are oceans so vital for human existence?
Oceans cover 70% of the Earth. They produce every other breath of oxygen we breathe. They feed billions of people each day. They are critical to our economies, our food security and our happiness — many people find peace simply being by the sea. Yet, we are at a crossroads now — the abundance which the oceans had when my grandfather started exploring them in the 1950s has shrunk by half. That’s an enormous fact — we’ve lost half of our oceans’ diversity and life. Half the whales that lived in the seas when my grandfather was exploring them are gone. With business as usual approaches, by 2050, our oceans will be lost, unable to host life within them. We must start restoring ocean abundance immediately.
You often emphasise the idea of ‘restoring marine abundance’. Is this different from sustainability?
Yes. When you’ve lost 50% of a resource, speaking of sustaining what’s left feels insufficient. We need to use terms like ‘restoration’ and ‘rebuilding’ now, so that we have very specific measurements and yardsticks for progress. That approach can take us into a different future, where science shows that we can rebuild ocean abundance by 2050. At meetings, I’ve heard government officials discuss the blue economy, using terms like ‘sustainable exploitation’ — that fills me with dread because, in my view, this will lead us to make the same mistakes in the ocean which we’ve made on land. We’re seeing exponential marine losses now — in 10 years, we could lose 60% of the world’s seas. We need an entirely new approach and a change in how we articulate our ambition on this.
TO REGENERATE A SEA: Oceans 2050 is training farmers to grow kelp and seaweed scientifically to sequester carbon and save marine biodiversity. Photo courtesy: Alexandra Cousteau
Your family is known for its marine explorations. Are there ocean sites you’ve seen changing over the years?
Marine exploration was always a way of life for us. As a child, I would explore tide pools and bays across France. I observed tiny snails, shrimps, octopus and sea urchins very closely — these living beings helped shape my worldview. I’ve seen their habitats degraded over the years — some have disappeared completely. We all have places which we loved as children, a forest, a river, a stream. To watch my childhood places by the sea die away has been heartbreaking. I can’t share these with my children now. That’s an inter-generational loss affecting many people today.
What are some key solutions Oceans 2050 is focusing on?
At Oceans 2050, we are working on accelerating ocean regeneration through the blue economy, supporting restoration abundance and biodiversity. A major keystone is ocean forests which give us a real opportunity to mitigate climate change. The projects include kelp farming, mangroves, salt marshes, sea grasses, carbon sequestration and preserving ecosystems services.
The effort involves both protecting and restoring wild forests and regenerative sea farming of kelp. Our seaweed carbon farming project under Dr Carlos Duarte’s scientific leadership unites seaweed farmers globally to understand carbon sequestration. We can create a blue carbon market or a voluntary carbon protocol for seaweed farming. We need to compensate such farmers as stewards of the ocean, for sequestering carbon and fostering biodiversity.
Oceans 2050 also looks at technology offering traceability and transparency in the global seafood supply chain. Every stakeholder, from consumers to port authorities, everyone — except pirates — wants transparency on the fish reaching them. Those who fish illegally and harm ocean resources must be frozen out of that market. Technologies like satellite monitoring can help track this. Technology can also bridge a very important gap with coral reefs. In ten years, with global warming, we will lose most coral reefs — 3D printing of a biologically accurate specimen of calcium carbonate, and seeding a living coral onto that, can help restore a reef with more resilient corals.
How can ordinary people help with ocean regeneration?
First, we must examine our beliefs and actions and see if these are aligned. I had a remarkable conversation in India which made me understand the value of this very underrecognised human need. I was hosting a documentary in Madhya Pradesh.
A man with a small farm was the first person in his village to adopt organic cotton farming. He had more harvests, less chemical-related illnesses and more earnings. Plus, he’d become a leader in his village, where people once laughed at him. I asked him, ‘How does all this make you feel?’ He said, ‘I feel amazing — for the first time in my life, I am able to align my values and my actions.’ We need to talk about this much more in our modern, capitalistic societies.
We know our way of life is destroying our planet. We need to examine our values and choices. We must look at our consumption practices, our markets, our online shopping and the environmental impacts of what we buy. We should learn about our plastics and carbon footprint. And we should support each other. India has inspirational people like Afroz Shah who cleaned up beaches — we can join such efforts and bring the power we have as individuals to build an abundant future.