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Mission Blue Voyage

Jeremy Jackson: How we wrecked the ocean

Filmed:

In this bracing talk, coral reef ecologist Jeremy Jackson lays out the shocking state of the ocean today: overfished, overheated, polluted, with indicators that things will get much worse. Astonishing photos and stats make the case.

- Marine ecologist
A leader in the study of the ecology and evolution of marine organisms, Jeremy Jackson is known for his deep understanding of geological time. Full bio

I'm an ecologist,
00:16
mostly a coral reef ecologist.
00:18
I started out in Chesapeake Bay
00:20
and went diving in the winter
00:22
and became a tropical ecologist overnight.
00:24
And it was really a lot of fun
00:27
for about 10 years.
00:30
I mean, somebody pays you
00:32
to go around and travel
00:34
and look at some of the most
00:36
beautiful places on the planet.
00:38
And that was what I did.
00:40
And I ended up in Jamaica,
00:43
in the West Indies,
00:45
where the coral reefs were really
00:47
among the most extraordinary, structurally,
00:49
that I ever saw in my life.
00:51
And this picture here,
00:54
it's really interesting, it shows two things:
00:56
First of all, it's in black and white
00:58
because the water was so clear
01:00
and you could see so far,
01:02
and film was so slow
01:04
in the 1960s and early 70s,
01:06
you took pictures in black and white.
01:08
The other thing it shows you
01:10
is that, although there's this beautiful
01:12
forest of coral,
01:14
there are no fish in that picture.
01:16
Those reefs at Discovery Bay, Jamaica
01:19
were the most studied coral reefs
01:22
in the world for 20 years.
01:24
We were the best and the brightest.
01:26
People came to study our reefs from Australia,
01:28
which is sort of funny
01:31
because now we go to theirs.
01:33
And the view of scientists
01:35
about how coral reefs work, how they ought to be,
01:38
was based on these reefs
01:41
without any fish.
01:43
Then, in 1980,
01:45
there was a hurricane, Hurricane Allen.
01:47
I put half the lab
01:50
up in my house.
01:52
The wind blew very strong.
01:54
The waves were 25
01:56
to 50 feet high.
01:59
And the reefs disappeared, and new islands formed,
02:01
and we thought, "Well, we're real smart.
02:04
We know that hurricanes
02:06
have always happened in the past."
02:08
And we published a paper in Science,
02:10
the first time that anybody ever
02:12
described the destruction
02:14
on a coral reef by a major hurricane.
02:16
And we predicted what would happen,
02:19
and we got it all wrong.
02:21
And the reason was
02:23
because of overfishing,
02:25
and the fact that a last common grazer,
02:28
a sea urchin, died.
02:31
And within a few months
02:34
after that sea urchin dying, the seaweed started to grow.
02:36
And that is the same reef;
02:39
that's the same reef 15 years ago;
02:41
that's the same reef today.
02:43
The coral reefs of the north coast of Jamaica
02:46
have a few percent live coral cover
02:49
and a lot of seaweed and slime.
02:52
And that's more or less the story
02:54
of the coral reefs of the Caribbean,
02:56
and increasingly, tragically,
02:58
the coral reefs worldwide.
03:01
Now, that's my little, depressing story.
03:03
All of us in our 60s and 70s
03:06
have comparable depressing stories.
03:09
There are tens of thousands
03:12
of those stories out there,
03:14
and it's really hard to conjure up
03:16
much of a sense of well-being,
03:18
because it just keeps getting worse.
03:20
And the reason it keeps getting worse
03:22
is that after a natural catastrophe,
03:24
like a hurricane,
03:27
it used to be that there was
03:31
some kind of successional sequence of recovery,
03:33
but what's going on now is that
03:36
overfishing and pollution and climate change
03:39
are all interacting
03:42
in a way that prevents that.
03:44
And so I'm going to sort of go through
03:46
and talk about those three
03:48
kinds of things.
03:50
We hear a lot about
03:52
the collapse of cod.
03:54
It's difficult to imagine that
03:56
two, or some historians would say three world wars
03:58
were fought during the colonial era
04:02
for the control of cod.
04:04
Cod fed most of the people of Western Europe.
04:06
It fed the slaves
04:09
brought to the Antilles,
04:11
the song "Jamaica Farewell" --
04:14
"Ackee rice salt fish are nice" --
04:16
is an emblem of the importance
04:18
of salt cod from northeastern Canada.
04:21
It all collapsed in the 80s and the 90s:
04:24
35,000 people lost their jobs.
04:27
And that was the beginning
04:30
of a kind of serial depletion
04:32
from bigger and tastier species
04:34
to smaller and not-so-tasty species,
04:36
from species that were near to home
04:39
to species that were all around the world,
04:41
and what have you.
04:44
It's a little hard to understand that,
04:46
because you can go to a Costco in the United States
04:48
and buy cheap fish.
04:51
You ought to read the label to find out where it came from,
04:53
but it's still cheap,
04:55
and everybody thinks it's okay.
04:57
It's hard to communicate this,
04:59
and one way that I think is really interesting
05:01
is to talk about sport fish,
05:04
because people like to go out and catch fish.
05:07
It's one of those things.
05:10
This picture here shows the trophy fish,
05:12
the biggest fish caught
05:15
by people who pay a lot of money
05:17
to get on a boat,
05:19
go to a place off of Key West in Florida,
05:21
drink a lot of beer,
05:24
throw a lot of hooks and lines into the water,
05:26
come back with the biggest and the best fish,
05:28
and the champion trophy fish
05:31
are put on this board, where people take a picture,
05:33
and this guy is obviously
05:36
really excited about that fish.
05:38
Well, that's what it's like now,
05:41
but this is what it was like in the 1950s
05:43
from the same boat in the same place
05:45
on the same board on the same dock.
05:48
The trophy fish
05:51
were so big
05:53
that you couldn't put any of those small fish up on it.
05:55
And the average size trophy fish
05:58
weighed 250 to 300 pounds, goliath grouper,
06:00
and if you wanted to go out and kill something,
06:03
you could pretty much count on
06:05
being able to catch one of those fish.
06:07
And they tasted really good.
06:09
And people paid less in 1950 dollars
06:11
to catch that
06:14
than what people pay now
06:16
to catch those little, tiny fish.
06:18
And that's everywhere.
06:21
It's not just the fish, though,
06:23
that are disappearing.
06:25
Industrial fishing uses big stuff,
06:27
big machinery.
06:30
We use nets that are 20 miles long.
06:32
We use longlines
06:34
that have one million or two million hooks.
06:36
And we trawl,
06:39
which means to take something
06:41
the size of a tractor trailer truck
06:43
that weighs thousands and thousands of pounds,
06:45
put it on a big chain,
06:48
and drag it across the sea floor
06:50
to stir up the bottom and catch the fish.
06:52
Think of it as
06:55
being kind of the bulldozing of a city
06:58
or of a forest,
07:00
because it clears it away.
07:02
And the habitat destruction
07:04
is unbelievable.
07:06
This is a photograph,
07:08
a typical photograph,
07:10
of what the continental shelves
07:12
of the world look like.
07:14
You can see the rows in the bottom,
07:16
the way you can see the rows
07:19
in a field that has just been plowed
07:21
to plant corn.
07:23
What that was, was a forest of sponges and coral,
07:25
which is a critical habitat
07:28
for the development of fish.
07:30
What it is now is mud,
07:32
and the area of the ocean floor
07:35
that has been transformed from forest
07:38
to level mud, to parking lot,
07:41
is equivalent to the entire area
07:43
of all the forests
07:46
that have ever been cut down
07:48
on all of the earth
07:50
in the history of humanity.
07:52
We've managed to do that
07:54
in the last 100 to 150 years.
07:56
We tend to think of oil spills
08:00
and mercury
08:02
and we hear a lot about plastic these days.
08:04
And all of that stuff is really disgusting,
08:06
but what's really insidious
08:08
is the biological pollution that happens
08:10
because of the magnitude of the shifts
08:13
that it causes
08:16
to entire ecosystems.
08:18
And I'm going to just talk very briefly
08:20
about two kinds of biological pollution:
08:22
one is introduced species
08:25
and the other is what comes from nutrients.
08:27
So this is the infamous
08:30
Caulerpa taxifolia,
08:32
the so-called killer algae.
08:34
A book was written about it.
08:37
It's a bit of an embarrassment.
08:39
It was accidentally released
08:41
from the aquarium in Monaco,
08:43
it was bred to be cold tolerant
08:45
to have in peoples aquaria.
08:48
It's very pretty,
08:50
and it has rapidly started
08:52
to overgrow
08:54
the once very rich
08:56
biodiversity of the
08:58
northwestern Mediterranean.
09:00
I don't know how many of you remember the movie
09:02
"The Little Shop of Horrors,"
09:04
but this is the plant of "The Little Shop of Horrors."
09:06
But, instead of devouring the people in the shop,
09:09
what it's doing is overgrowing
09:12
and smothering
09:14
virtually all of the bottom-dwelling life
09:16
of the entire northwestern
09:19
Mediterranean Sea.
09:22
We don't know anything that eats it,
09:24
we're trying to do all sorts of genetics
09:26
and figure out something that could be done,
09:28
but, as it stands, it's the monster from hell,
09:31
about which nobody knows what to do.
09:34
Now another form of pollution
09:37
that's biological pollution
09:40
is what happens from excess nutrients.
09:42
The green revolution,
09:44
all of this artificial nitrogen fertilizer, we use too much of it.
09:46
It's subsidized, which is one of the reasons we used too much of it.
09:49
It runs down the rivers,
09:52
and it feeds the plankton,
09:54
the little microscopic plant cells
09:56
in the coastal water.
09:58
But since we ate all the oysters
10:00
and we ate all the fish that would eat the plankton,
10:02
there's nothing to eat the plankton
10:04
and there's more and more of it,
10:06
so it dies of old age,
10:08
which is unheard of for plankton.
10:10
And when it dies, it falls to the bottom
10:12
and then it rots,
10:14
which means that bacteria break it down.
10:16
And in the process
10:18
they use up all the oxygen,
10:20
and in using up all the oxygen
10:22
they make the environment utterly lethal
10:24
for anything that can't swim away.
10:26
So, what we end up with
10:28
is a microbial zoo
10:30
dominated by bacteria
10:32
and jellyfish, as you see
10:34
on the left in front of you.
10:36
And the only fishery left --
10:38
and it is a commercial fishery --
10:40
is the jellyfish fishery
10:42
you see on the right, where there used to be prawns.
10:44
Even in Newfoundland
10:46
where we used to catch cod,
10:48
we now have a jellyfish fishery.
10:50
And another version of this sort of thing
10:53
is what is often called red tides
10:55
or toxic blooms.
10:57
That picture on the left is just staggering to me.
10:59
I have talked about it a million times,
11:02
but it's unbelievable.
11:04
In the upper right of that picture on the left
11:06
is almost the Mississippi Delta,
11:08
and the lower left of that picture
11:10
is the Texas-Mexico border.
11:12
You're looking at the entire
11:14
northwestern Gulf of Mexico;
11:16
you're looking at one toxic
11:18
dinoflagellate bloom that can kill fish,
11:20
made by that beautiful little creature
11:22
on the lower right.
11:24
And in the upper right you see this
11:26
black sort of cloud
11:28
moving ashore.
11:30
That's the same species.
11:32
And as it comes to shore and the wind blows,
11:34
and little droplets of the water get into the air,
11:37
the emergency rooms of all the hospitals fill up
11:40
with people with acute respiratory distress.
11:43
And that's retirement homes
11:45
on the west coast of Florida.
11:47
A friend and I did this thing in Hollywood
11:49
we called Hollywood ocean night,
11:51
and I was trying to figure out how to
11:53
explain to actors what's going on.
11:55
And I said,
11:57
"So, imagine you're in a movie called 'Escape from Malibu'
11:59
because all the beautiful people have moved
12:02
to North Dakota, where it's clean and safe.
12:04
And the only people who are left there
12:06
are the people who can't afford
12:08
to move away from the coast,
12:11
because the coast, instead of being paradise,
12:13
is harmful to your health."
12:16
And then this is amazing.
12:18
It was when I was on holiday last early autumn in France.
12:20
This is from the coast of Brittany,
12:23
which is being enveloped
12:25
in this green, algal slime.
12:27
The reason that it attracted so much attention,
12:30
besides the fact that it's disgusting,
12:33
is that sea birds flying over it
12:36
are asphyxiated by the smell and die,
12:38
and a farmer died of it,
12:41
and you can imagine the scandal that happened.
12:43
And so there's this war
12:45
between the farmers
12:47
and the fishermen about it all,
12:49
and the net result is that
12:51
the beaches of Brittany have to be bulldozed of this stuff
12:53
on a regular basis.
12:56
And then, of course, there's climate change,
12:58
and we all know about climate change.
13:00
I guess the iconic figure of it
13:02
is the melting of the ice
13:04
in the Arctic Sea.
13:06
Think about the thousands and thousands of people who died
13:08
trying to find the Northwest Passage.
13:11
Well, the Northwest Passage is already there.
13:14
I think it's sort of funny;
13:16
it's on the Siberian coast,
13:18
maybe the Russians will charge tolls.
13:20
The governments of the world
13:23
are taking this really seriously.
13:25
The military of the Arctic nations
13:27
is taking it really seriously.
13:30
For all the denial of climate change
13:33
by government leaders,
13:35
the CIA
13:37
and the navies of Norway
13:39
and the U.S. and Canada, whatever
13:41
are busily thinking about
13:44
how they will secure their territory
13:46
in this inevitability
13:49
from their point of view.
13:52
And, of course, Arctic communities are toast.
13:54
The other kinds of effects of climate change --
13:56
this is coral bleaching. It's a beautiful picture, right?
13:58
All that white coral.
14:00
Except it's supposed to be brown.
14:02
What happens is that
14:05
the corals are a symbiosis,
14:07
and they have these little algal cells
14:09
that live inside them.
14:11
And the algae give the corals sugar,
14:13
and the corals give the algae
14:15
nutrients and protection.
14:17
But when it gets too hot,
14:19
the algae can't make the sugar.
14:21
The corals say, "You cheated. You didn't pay your rent."
14:23
They kick them out, and then they die.
14:25
Not all of them die; some of them survive,
14:28
some more are surviving,
14:30
but it's really bad news.
14:32
To try and give you a sense of this,
14:34
imagine you go camping in July
14:36
somewhere in Europe or in North America,
14:39
and you wake up the next morning, and you look around you,
14:42
and you see that 80 percent of the trees,
14:44
as far as you can see,
14:46
have dropped their leaves and are standing there naked.
14:48
And you come home, and you discover
14:51
that 80 percent of all the trees
14:53
in North America and in Europe
14:55
have dropped their leaves.
14:57
And then you read in the paper a few weeks later,
14:59
"Oh, by the way, a quarter of those died."
15:01
Well, that's what happened in the Indian Ocean
15:04
during the 1998 El Nino,
15:07
an area vastly greater
15:09
than the size of North America and Europe,
15:11
when 80 percent of all the corals bleached
15:13
and a quarter of them died.
15:16
And then the really scary thing
15:19
about all of this --
15:21
the overfishing, the pollution and the climate change --
15:23
is that each thing doesn't happen in a vacuum.
15:26
But there are these, what we call, positive feedbacks,
15:29
the synergies among them
15:32
that make the whole vastly greater
15:34
than the sum of the parts.
15:36
And the great scientific challenge
15:38
for people like me in thinking about all this,
15:41
is do we know how
15:44
to put Humpty Dumpty back together again?
15:46
I mean, because we, at this point, we can protect it.
15:49
But what does that mean?
15:52
We really don't know.
15:54
So what are the oceans going to be like
15:57
in 20 or 50 years?
16:00
Well, there won't be any fish
16:03
except for minnows,
16:05
and the water will be pretty dirty,
16:07
and all those kinds of things
16:10
and full of mercury, etc., etc.
16:12
And dead zones will get bigger and bigger
16:17
and they'll start to merge,
16:19
and we can imagine something like
16:21
the dead-zonification
16:23
of the global, coastal ocean.
16:25
Then you sure won't want to eat fish that were raised in it,
16:28
because it would be a kind of
16:31
gastronomic Russian roulette.
16:33
Sometimes you have a toxic bloom;
16:35
sometimes you don't.
16:37
That doesn't sell.
16:39
The really scary things though
16:41
are the physical, chemical,
16:43
oceanographic things that are happening.
16:46
As the surface of the ocean gets warmer,
16:49
the water is lighter when it's warmer,
16:52
it becomes harder and harder
16:54
to turn the ocean over.
16:56
We say it becomes
16:58
more strongly stratified.
17:00
The consequence of that is that
17:02
all those nutrients
17:04
that fuel the great anchoveta fisheries,
17:06
of the sardines of California
17:09
or in Peru or whatever,
17:11
those slow down
17:14
and those fisheries collapse.
17:16
And, at the same time,
17:18
water from the surface, which is rich in oxygen,
17:20
doesn't make it down
17:23
and the ocean turns into a desert.
17:27
So the question is: How are we all
17:30
going to respond to this?
17:32
And we can do
17:34
all sorts of things to fix it,
17:36
but in the final analysis,
17:38
the thing we really need to fix
17:40
is ourselves.
17:42
It's not about the fish; it's not about the pollution;
17:44
it's not about the climate change.
17:47
It's about us
17:49
and our greed and our need for growth
17:51
and our inability to imagine a world
17:54
that is different from the selfish world
17:57
we live in today.
17:59
So the question is: Will we respond to this or not?
18:01
I would say that the future of life
18:04
and the dignity of human beings
18:06
depends on our doing that.
18:08
Thank you. (Applause)
18:10

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About the Speaker:

Jeremy Jackson - Marine ecologist
A leader in the study of the ecology and evolution of marine organisms, Jeremy Jackson is known for his deep understanding of geological time.

Why you should listen

Jeremy Jackson is the Ritter Professor of Oceanography and Director of the Center for Marine Biodiversity and Conservation at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Painting pictures of changing marine environments, particularly coral reefs and the Isthmus of Panama, Jackson's research captures the extreme environmental decline of the oceans that has accelerated in the past 200 years.

Jackson's current work focuses on the future of the world’s oceans, given overfishing, habitat destruction and ocean warming, which have fundamentally changed marine ecosystems and led to "the rise of slime." Although Jackson's work describes grim circumstances, even garnering him the nickname Dr. Doom, he believes that successful management and conservation strategies can renew the ocean’s health.

More profile about the speaker
Jeremy Jackson | Speaker | TED.com