Widening Our Horizons

By Jean-Michel Cousteau

As we move from the Year of the Reef into the Year of the Oceans, divers may begin to feel spoiled. These United Nations designations mean the sea will enjoy unprecedented public attention. Conferences, blue ribbon panels and scientific papers dealing with our favorite element will proliferate.

But is that really enough? I think not.

People everywhere need to learn more about the sea. Although water covers almost three-quarters of the Earths surface and nourishes the hydrologic cycle that determines how, where and even whether we survive, most people are still fundamentally uninformed about how it works. Without this knowledge, they are unable to understand the impact they have on marine ecosystems. As a result, they lack information that would help them make intelligent and environmentally responsible decisions in their daily lives.

My dream is for people everywhere to become conscious of where water comes from and where it goes after they have used it. My dream is for them to realize how important water quality is and to demand that industrial processes and political decisions respect the basic biological need for clean water. My dream is for our leaders to respond to this public pressure with concerted efforts to guarantee a very high level of water quality, whether it is destined for a drinking fountain or the open sea.

After the Year of the Reef, we are still far from my dream. The public may have a renewed appreciation for the beauty of coral reefs and some may have learned they are vulnerable to the effects of human activities, be it global warming, pollution or the aquarium and live fish trade. But, on the whole, the global media has failed to recognize and relate in simple terms the links between landbased causes and marine-based effects and to illuminate the resulting feedback loops. I hope during the Year of the Oceans these links become more environmentally agreeable.

The Year of the Oceans gives us an opportunity to examine many challenges. Water quality is one of them, especially in coastal areas. We are in the midst of an enormous worldwide population shift, from inland areas to the coast. The effects are predictable and obvious: runaway coastal development and intense local pollution. As divers know, coastal margins are the most biologically sensitive and productive areas of the sea. Wetlands and coastal estuaries are important nurseries for dozens of commercially valuable species and also play a role in filtering pollutants out of rivers and streams. Coastal development is ruining these key ecosystems.

Another major challenge to the ocean environment is overfishing. Currently, we are exploiting the living resources of the sea at a rate that exceeds their ability to reproduce. Population crashes routinely occur as our trawlers scour the sea, locating schools of fish by satellite and sonar. Too many fishermen are too good at what they do. For the ocean, the result is ecological imbalance and, for the fishermen, unemployment.

Global warming is another issue that demands our attention. Here the ocean is a great classroom, helping us understand the subtle relationships that make up climate. But, global warming is not a passive witness. If we ignore its potential for destruction, we will be hurting ourselves.

The sea is not in good shape. And, with human population on the rise, we must be conscious of our impact. The ocean is huge but its vitality is spread unevenly over its expanse. Most of this vitality is concentrated in areas strongly impacted by humans. If the Year of the Reef has made one thing clear, it is that these ecosystems are extremely vulnerable to disruption. We cannot prevent a typhoon from ripping up reefs but we can prevent reckless resorts from flushing waste onto them, fishermen from dynamiting them and careless divers from breaking off pieces of them.

As divers, we must demand more of our media, our elected representatives and our industrial bosses. We represent the kind of power that could have a decisive impact, for good or ill, on marine ecosystems. But we also need to demand more of ourselves. Let us not forget that we are the undersea eyes of the human species. Think of it: a mere two million people serving witness for six billion. We know where water comes from and where it ends up. We are uniquely qualified to report on what we have seen and we have a responsibility to speak out in the great debate on the future of the global oceans.