“Yet wild fish, like wild birds, have a place in the natural ecosystem which outweighs their value as food.”

Originally posted on ideas.ted.com:

We asked legendary oceanographer Sylvia Earle for her menu advice.

Oceanographer (and TED Prize winner) Sylvia Earle (TED Talk: My wish: Protect our oceans) has spent half a century campaigning to save the world’s seas. A new Netflix original documentary about her life’s work sheds light on the environmental impact of the commercial fishing industry and Earle’s crusade to create underwater “hope spots” through her organization, Mission Blue. After watching the film, it’s hard not to wonder: Are any fish still okay to eat? We turned to our favorite aquanaut for advice. Below, check out Earle’s take on wild fish, tuna rolls, and her ideal meal.

To restore the ocean ecosystem, you’re saying we must put an end to overfishing and bottom trawling, which you liken to “catching songbirds with a bulldozer.” Is there such a thing as eating fish responsibly these days?

Except for those living in coastal communities — or even inland if…

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Today, two plants that cling to life in one of the world’s most endangered habitats were added to the U.S. list of endangered species. Less than one month ago, two butterflies endemic to the same habitat were also listed.

This endangered Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak butterfly depends on Pine Rocklands to survive. (USFWS)

This endangered Bartram’s scrub-hairstreak butterfly depends on Pine Rocklands to survive. (USFWS)

The ecosystem is called Pine Rocklands (although grammatically it should be Piney, but whatever). My article about it was just published, and it outlines the scandal involving Walmart and the last large patch in urban Miami-Dade County.

Yes, it’s bad, and it looks like it’s getting worse and worse for the plants and animals that depend on this shriveling habitat.

People in southern Miami-Dade can voice their opinions about proposed developments in Rocklands at a town hall meeting on Thursday, September 11 at 7 p.m., sponsored by the Kendall Federation of Homeowner Associations. The location is Kendall’s “Little House” at 8625 SW 124 Avenue.


Confirming extinction in the ocean is difficult, and my researched list is here. To help you visualize that list, below are photos collected to represent each species.

Please realize that this list of 19 represents only extinctions confirmed by science, and there are likely hundreds of unrecorded extinctions. Still, it is worth seeing some of what we have lost.

1. Steller’s Sea Cow (click for funny video)

MSU V2P1a - Hydrodamalis gigas painting.png

Extinct 1768  (Wikipedia)

2. Sea Mink

3. Caribbean Monk Seal


Extinct 1952  (Wikipedia)

4. Japanese Sea Lion

Zalophus japonicus.JPG

Extinct 1950s  (Wikipedia)

5. New Zealand grayling

Prototroctes oxyrhynchus.jpg

Extinct 1930s  (Wikipedia)

6.Green Wrasse

(no image found; related species shown is Anampses elegant).

Extinction 2010, assumed but "data deficient."

Extinction 2010, assumed but “data deficient”  (Wikipedia)

7. Great Auk


Extinct 1852  (Wikipedia)

8. Labrador Duck

Labrador Ducks AMNH.jpg

Extinct 1875  (Wikipedia)

9. Large St Helena Petrel (no representative images found)

Extinct 1500s  (http://overfishing.org)

Extinct 1500s  (http://overfishing.org)

10. Small St Helena Petrel  (no representative images found)

Extinct 1500s  (http://overfishing.org)

Extinct 1500s  (http://overfishing.org)

11. Pallas’s Cormorant


Extinct 1950s  (Wikipedia)

12. Auckland Islands Merganser

Auckland Islands Merganser.jpg

Extinct 1910  (Wikipedia)

13. Canary Islands Oystercatcher

Canarian Oystercatcher.jpg

Extinct 1940s  (Wikipedia)

14. Eelgrass limpet

Extinction date unknown  (http://www.sydneyshellclub.net)

Extinction date unknown (http://www.sydneyshellclub.net)

15. Rocky shore limpet (no image found; related species shown is Lottia atrata)

Collisella atrata 002.jpg

Extinct 1860s  (Wikipedia)

16. Periwinkle Littoraria flammea (no image found; related species shown is Littoraria cingulata)

Littoraria cingulata 002.jpg

Extinct 1840  (Wikipedia)

17. Horn Snail (no image found; related species shown is Cerithideopsilla djadjariensis)


Extinct 1935  (Wikipedia)

18. Bennett’s seaweed

Vanvoorstia bennettiana.jpg

Extinct 1890s  (Wikipedia)

19. Turkish towel algae (no image found; related species shown is Gigartina serrata) 

Extinction date unknown  (http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu)

Extinction date unknown (http://ucjeps.berkeley.edu)

20. Most likely next extinction in ocean: a limpet

Represented by Diodora italica


Survival TBD

Diodoraitalica” by Wilson44691Own work. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons.

Hurray! The U.S. federal government can actually get something done, and yesterday it announced the largest single event in the history of the U.S. Endangered Species Act: 20 new coral species listed as “threatened.”

Before and after photos of same reef in the Florida Keys (Phillip Dustan).

Before and after photos of same reef in the Florida Keys (Phillip Dustan).

Perhaps now I will get some attention for my business plan for Caribbean Reef SOS, a new nonprofit to save the reefs (see http://crsos.org).

With a total of 22 coral species now listed, this group is bigger than all combined marine extinctions in the historical record. That’s right–only 19 species in the ocean have been confirmed extinct in human history, and that includes all mammals, fish, invertebrates and plants. Within the coral family alone, it is poised to double.

The really sad news is that this listing, while hopeful, is actually much worse than it sounds. The original petition from the Center for Biological Diversity asked for more than 80 listings, and the listing agency was considering more than 60 of them. The number 80 represents nearly 10% of all known reef-building corals.

Get details of the review process here.

Slide1President Bush once said, as a candidate in 2000, “I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.” At least he got the grammar right.

This week, we have been examining the recent history of Caribbean reefs and their emerging fate. While the situation looks dire, the problems facing reefs suggest solutions.

This report summarizes more than 30,000 projects on Caribbean reefs.

This report summarizes more than 30,000 projects on Caribbean reefs.

Five problems account for most of the destruction, according to the report Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012, in this order:

1. Too Many People

2. Overfishing

3. Coastal Pollution

4. Ocean Warming

5. Invasive Species

The first problem is not just overpopulation; it is also over-popularity among tourists. Both issues contribute to overfishing and coastal pollution. One feasible solution to such people pressures is to create strict (no access) and larger Marine Protected Areas. These have worked, and more of them could build up the region’s immune system.

As for ocean warming, this problem is beyond local control. This effect and other issues related to climate change require social revolutions at the grandest of scales. Caribbean nations can certainly make noise and wave the flag.

Invasive species are lesser concerns except for the Pacific lionfish, which people should hunt relentlessly. The root of the invasion problem, however, based in international trade, seems intractable.

Cancun, Mexico, where the reefs are not far from shore.

Cancun, Mexico, where the reefs are not far from shore.

A weak system will succumb to disease, whereas a strong system can withstand multiple threats. The diagnosis for Caribbean reefs is clear and disturbing: this region is weak and susceptible to collapse. Collapse means death.

The region itself can do some things to build its resistance, but do not expect it to shut down tourism and fishing altogether. A major shift in today’s global society could buy time, but do not expect rich nations to sacrifice their privileges.

Headlines about the report have emphasized that Caribbean reefs have about 20 years left to survive. If true, their collective heartbeats would cease in the year 2034.

As a synopsis, here are a few highlights from the report:

  • Caribbean reef decline has a long history that parallels human population growth and use.
  • The reefs have lost the majority of their living coral within the past 40 years.
  • Large animals are missing in action, namely sharks, other large fishes, and turtles.
  • A few protected and isolated reefs are healthy, showing that good management can work.
  • Disease, mass tourism, and overfishing are the clearest culprits in reef decline.

Read the report’s Executive Summary to learn more about the state of Caribbean coral reefs.



The confusion whirlpooled as soon as headlines started to spin a 300-page report into one-liners.

  •  “Climate Change Isn’t Main Culprit in Decline of Coral Reefs” wrote the Caribbean Journal.
  •  “Climate change ‘not wholly to blame’ for reef death in the Caribbean” opined The Times of London.
  • “Climate change wrongly blamed as lead cause of loss of Caribbean coral reefs, scientist says,” was the headline in The Australian.

After the release in early July of the most comprehensive report of its kind, Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012, reporters tried to make it digestible for their readers. Editors also choose which parts to emphasize in their headlines.

Dead Caribbean reefs are no fun. Bonaire, 2013 (c) Catlin Seaview Survey.

Dead Caribbean reefs are no fun. Bonaire, 2013 (c) Catlin Seaview Survey.

The headlines are technically accurate, because the report does state that climate change appears less statistically important than other factors in the decline of Caribbean reefs. The problem is that many readers do not get past the headline, and they may jump to the conclusion that climate change is not relevant.

The better headlines, in my opinion as a journalist and a reader, are those that emphasize the countdown of “20 years” to annihilation.

Caribbean coral reefs ‘will be lost within 20 years’ without protection” wrote The Guardian. Its subtitle was also effective: “Major report warns that loss of grazing fish due to pollution and overfishing is a key driver of region’s coral decline.” This article is the one to read, and it reinforces my view of this newspaper’s environmental coverage as far superior to the New York Times or any other U.S.-based news agency.

In fact, the New York Times did not even cover the seminal report. In 2013, this so-called newspaper of record closed its environmental desk.

My award for the worst headline goes to Time magazine: “Report Sees a Glimmer of Hope for Coral Reefs.”

The worst soundbites and headlines were fostered by the report’s own public relation’s campaign to brand it as “From despair to repair.” It rhymes, but it has little reason. The report’s publisher, the IUCN, also released a cute video of the lead author discussing romance. What?

I understand the drive to put a smiley face on everything. Cute things make people smile.


Breast cancer advocates were smart to brand this scourge with the color pink. Nobody wants to wear a t-shirt that shows accurate depictions of cancer cells. But people must understand the deadly reality behind the prettiness in pink.

The public does not yet comprehend the seriousness of coral reef decline or even general environmental decline, as evidenced by the lack of public engagement. For example, in the 2012 U.S. presidential election, the issue of climate change was not raised in any official debate.

People demonstrate great concern for cancer because they see it, and they get it. Until people see and get the collapse of the ocean environment, editors and reporters need to portray it in very raw and ugly terms.

As for the report’s perspective on climate change, the article in The Guardian summarizes it well: “While climate change and the resulting ocean acidification and coral bleaching does pose a major threat to the region, the report – Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012 – found that local pressures such as tourism, overfishing and pollution posed the biggest problems.”

It’s the people, stupid.



Jeremy Jackson could be called the “Michael Jackson” of ocean science. He has been called a rock star by other scientists, and his face appears as one of the new Jackson Five in a parody of Mount Rushmore.

Jesse, Michael, Jeremy, Andrew and Shoeless Joe (from http://shiftingbaselines.org)

Jesse, Michael, Jeremy, Andrew and Shoeless Joe (from http://shiftingbaselines.org)

At age 71, he is the lead author of the new report, Status and Trends of Caribbean Coral Reefs: 1970-2012. You can see him chatting about his Caribbean memories with his co-star (wife) Dr. Nancy Knowlton in the video “From despair to repair.”

Funny, this video uses their romance to infuse hope into a hopeless situation.

Some scientists have critized Jackson for being too public, too brash, and too invested in his demands for action. He is not content to be the cool-headed, detached scientist. He has seen the problem in the ocean, and the problem is us.

“It’s not about the fish; it’s not about the pollution; it’s not about the climate change. It’s about us and our greed and our need for growth and our inability to imagine a world that is different from the selfish world we live in today.” (Ted talk)

One theory he has promoted widely (and humorously) is called Shifting Baselines. It happens when new generations see the ocean today as “normal,” and they fail to recognize how clean and abundant it used to be. He has witnessed it firsthand on Caribbean reefs:

“Every ecosystem I studied is unrecognizably different from when I started. I have a son who is 30, and I used to take him snorkeling on the reefs in Jamaica to show him all the beautiful corals there. I have a daughter who is 17 — I can’t show her anything but heaps of seaweed.” (from shiftingbaselines.org)

In just a few years, Jamaican reefs became unrecognizable. Jackson says in the report that all Caribbean reefs have about 20 years left before than all become wastelands. He is not an alarmist. He is a respected scientist and a witness to natural history.


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