Changing Planet

Oceans in Balance

By Shawn Heinrichs

As young child growing up on the Wild Coast of South Africa, the ocean I knew was a very different place than the ocean we know now. The ocean of my childhood was vast and unfathomably bountiful, where billions of sardines migrated annually in shoals so vast and dense, that they turned the coastal waters black and overflowed onto the beaches where fishermen scooped them up by the bucket load. Pursuing the sardines by sea, schools of thousands of sharks and tens of thousands of dolphins assaulted the shoals, while armadas of countless cape gannets gave chase in the air, plunging into the sea in machine gun rapid-fire successions, gobbling up their hapless prey. And as the backdrop to this awesome spectacle, the magnificent humpback whales came charging up the coast by the hundreds in their annual migration, exploding into the air and performing brilliant acrobatic stunts.

A humpback whale launches into the air off the Wild Coast of South Africa
Oceanic blacktip sharks race by in pursuit of a school of fleeing sardines in Misool, Raja Ampat

Fast-forward to my first open water dive in the Caribbean over two decades later, after years of living apart from the oceans. I remember descending down to the ‘reef’ and being struck by an overwhelming sense of loss and despair. Everything I knew and loved from my childhood was missing. The reefs were decaying and covered in algae. Large fish and sharks were nowhere to be found. The cloudy, muted-grey landscape of crumbling reef structures reminded me of a post-apocalyptic war scene. How had it all come to this in such a short period of time? I decided then and there that I would make it my mission to search out and document those last great and thriving places in the oceans, and one day use those stories to help turn the tide of destruction.

Anchovies pour over a reef by the millions as hungry groupers wait to pounce in Raja Ampat
Rubble, debris and algae are all that remain of a destroyed reef in Raja Ampat

If we aspire to truly address the critical threats facing our oceans today and to restore the health of the world’s reefs, reversing the precipitous decline in sharks and other predatory species and rebuilding fish populations, we cannot look to the current condition of most of our reefs as a baseline reference for a healthy system. Instead we must consider what these reef systems looked like before they were so severely degraded, suffocated in silt, overgrown by algae, and emptied of most large predators and commercially-valuable fish species. We must look to those places where people have taken a stand for their oceans, and in the face of ever-mounting pressure to recklessly extract their valuable marine resources, have refused to yield, choosing instead to safeguard their marine systems for the good of nature and their communities. We must remind ourselves of what thriving reef systems actually look like, with a rich diversity of corals and a healthy balance in predator-prey species. We must celebrate that such reef systems still exist, despite the destruction. We must inspire new policy, new practice and a new understanding of what could be again, if we have the foresight and political will to help our oceans recover from a century of degradation.

The abundance, diversity and mesmerizing colors of the reefs of Raja Ampat are beyond words
Safe from poachers, blacktip reef sharks patrol the shallows of Wayag, Raja Ampat

Working in concert with Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, our film project ‘Oceans in Balance’ provided the opportunity to realize my ambition to tell that story of what reefs systems, shark populations and fish stocks looked like before we so severely depleted them. Our modern society has fallen to the trappings of a “shifting-baseline” perspective, where most people forget how abundant and thriving the oceans once were, and allow the current severely depleted state to become the new baseline. And with this shortsighted perspective, we lack the understanding and will to support broader marine conservation initiatives and large-scale fisheries reform. As a result, in only fifty years, we have lost almost half the reefs in our oceans (Earth Institute, Columbia University, Losing Our Coral Reefs) and fished-out greater than 90 percent of all large predatory fish (Meyers, RA, 2003, Rapid Worldwide Depletion of Predatory Fish), with only a shadow now left of our once-thriving oceans.

Schools of fusiliers pour over the flourishing reefs of Raja Ampat, Indonesia
After a decade of hard-fought conservation, reef sharks once again thrive in Misool, Raja Ampat
An excited village boy dives in to greet me on a shallow reef in Indonesia

I remember that moment when I first descended down to the reefs of Raja Ampat, Indonesia in the heart of the Coral Triangle – the unfathomably vibrant colors, the endless stretches of complex and intricate reef structures, the sheer volume and diversity of fish – and in that moment restoring my belief that the ocean I knew as a child was not lost to history. Journeying to the remote island territory of New Caledonia, I discovered an oasis of marine stewardship – legions of curious silky sharks in gin clear waters, trains of manta rays dancing in a flourishing marine ecosystem, diverse and colorful coral reefs resilient to warming seas, and lots of large predatory fish – creating a vision of what the Pacific Islands’ reefs could once again become. And finally, in the shallow mangroves of the Gardens of the Queen, Cuba – lying motionless in sea grass filming an 8 foot American crocodile just inches from my lens, reflecting on the past week of interactions with schools of silky sharks, patrolling reef sharks and curious goliath groupers, all in a thriving marine ecosystem – I witnessed firsthand that even in the Caribbean, where over 80 percent of the reefs had been lost (Catlin Scientific Survey, 2013), there were reefs that refused to yield and stood tall in defiance.

Vibrant soft and hard corals cover every square inch of a coral bommie in Misool, Raja Ampat
Globally threatened, legions of silky sharks patrol the deep waters off Nouméa, New Caledonia
An American crocodile gives a big smile as it rests in shallow sea-grasses of Gardens of the Queen, Cuba

By showcasing examples of successful conservation and management of reef systems and shark populations in key regions across the oceans, we can engage wider and more diverse audiences to support critically needed global reef and shark conservation initiatives. Each of these model reef systems, from the Caribbean Sea, across the Pacific Islands, to the Coral Triangle, host some of the highest diversity and greatest abundance of species for their respective regions, with relatively intact reef structures, abundance of sharks and other predators, and dense schools of other fish species. And above all, they are inspiring examples of how a variety of conservation strategies can be employed to safeguard fragile marine eco-systems, even in the face of often-daunting threats.

A massive and curious goliath group comes in for a closer look in Gardens of the Queen, Cuba
Oceanic manta rays gather to clean and social on a seamount in Misool, Raja Ampat
Healthy and resilient coral reefs still flourish in the shallow lagoons of Nouméa, New Caledonia

My observations are being confirmed by Global FinPrint data that is showing that with effectively enforced marine protected areas, healthy shark populations can rebound relatively quickly. This global survey of reef sharks, another Paul G. Allen initiative, is providing critical data to help inform our conservation efforts. Our inspiration must be guided by critical data.

 

My hope is, that by presenting what truly thriving marine ecosystems should look like, we can all be inspired to raise the bar higher, take more proactive steps to conserve what is left, and choose to make significant course-corrections to help the world’s reef systems.

 

– For more information on Paul Allen and his ocean initiatives, visit PaulAllen.com/Ocean

– For more information on Shawn Heinrichs and his foundation’s ocean initiatives, visit BlueSphereFoundation.org

Shawn Heinrichs is an advisor to Paul G. Philanthropies, a Safina Center Fellow, a member of SeaLegacy Collective, and founder of Blue Sphere Foundation

A young village boy sits proudly holding his catch as the sun sets in Raja Ampat, Indonesia
Author Shawn Heinrichs connects with a curious hawksbill turtle in Misool, Raja Ampat
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, CNN.com and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.

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