By Edward Norton
President John F. Kennedy, in a speech made at an event for the 1962 America’s Cup race crews, said, “I really don’t know why it is that all of us are so committed to the sea, except I think it is because in addition to the fact that the sea changes and the light changes, and ships change, it is because we all came from the sea. […] We are tied to the ocean. And when we go back to the sea, whether it is to sail or to watch it, we are going back from whence we came.”
I have a deep connection to the sea. In 30 years of diving reefs all over the world, from the Caribbean to the Tyrrhenian Seas, from the Pacific to the Indian Oceans, I have seen unimaginable beauty: astonishing abundance, a profusion of colour, and an array of biodiversity that seems only to be possible in the depths of one’s imagination. And yet, it was all true. Fishes, flora, and marine mammals were all connected in a world of irrepressible activity and mystifying tranquility.
Upon becoming a father, one of my greatest joys has been to share this wonder with my children. To my delight, they have taken to the water both naturally and joyfully. But to my deepest regret, I know that they will never see the abundance that I have seen, nor will they swim in waters as pristine as those that I have enjoyed. Apart from this being a tragic impoverishment of experience for them, it also represents a prospective global economic catastrophe.
How did we get here? As quoted by Elizabeth Kolbert in a piece in The New Yorker, the English biologist Thomas Huxley, in a speech delivered at the opening of the London International Fisheries Exhibition in 1883, posed the question: “Are fisheries exhaustible? That is to say, can all the fish which naturally inhabit a given area be extirpated by the agency of man?” In an answer that would be imponderable today, he maintained, “Probably all the great sea fisheries are inexhaustible; that is to say that nothing we do seriously affects the number of the fish” in the sea.1
Sadly, over the next hundred years, we have learned that nothing could have been further from the truth. Decades of industrial fishing, with subsidized fleets using sea trawling nets (and their attendant by-catch), has decimated the world’s fish stock. Marine ecosystems have been destroyed by an onslaught of land-based pollution, overfishing (including dynamite fishing), alien invasives, sea level rise, acidification, and finally, the increasingly severe and more frequent coral bleaching essentially driven by climate change and ocean warming. Despite our management efforts, the oceans are being depleted. We have worked our way through whales, tuna, salmon, cod, orange roughy, Patagonian toothfish and countless other species, as well as the creatures that depend on them. This includes us, and therefore, this is no longer merely a metaphysical problem. An estimated 1 billion people around the world depend on fish as their primary source of protein and on the ocean for their livelihoods.
At the same time, we have discovered that coral reefs, the marine equivalents of the tropical rainforests, are dying due to warming oceans. As documented recently by Damien Cave and Justin Gillis in the New York Times2 and by Terry P. Hughes and others in the journal Nature, an alarming portion of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest reef system, has died in the third worldwide coral bleaching episode since 1998.
The significance of this catastrophe cannot be underestimated, or understated. Hughes, the Director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Townsville, Australia, and his colleagues have found that climate-change-induced warming sea temperatures-not other pressures) such as pollution or overfishing-was the driving force behind this massive coral die-off. The authors suggest that only a global effort in “curb future warming” can “secure a future for coral reefs.”3
As the United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity, I have travelled the world speaking to people about the defining challenge of our generation: bringing the way we live into a sustainable interaction with our planet. Paradoxically and tragically, while the need for global action on our climate has become more urgent, the political opposition we face from the new administration in Washington, D.C. has become more intense. Therefore, now more than ever, we must respect the conservation protocols, including community-managed coral reef and open ocean marine protected areas established by commitments made by countries under the Aichi Biodiversity Targets of the Convention on Biological Diversity, linked to the recently adopted Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 14 on oceans. This is our last chance to help our oceans survive and recover their lost productivity, so that marine ecosystems can continue to provide food and livelihood security for even more than the one billion people who currently depend on the ocean’s bounty, and so our children can form the timeless bond with the seas that President Kennedy so movingly described over 50 years ago.
1 Quoted in Elizabeth Kolbert, “‘The scales fall: is there any hope for our overfished oceans?”, The New Yorker (2 August 2010).
2 Damien Cave and Justin Gillis, “Large sections of Australia’s great reef are now dead, scientists find”, New York Times, 15 March 2017.
3 Terry P. Hughes and others, “Global warming and recurrent mass bleaching of corals”, Nature, vol. 543, no. 7654 (16 March 2017). pp. 373-377 (373).
Edward Norton is an acclaimed actor and three-time Academy Award nominee. As United Nations Goodwill Ambassador for Biodiversity, Mr. Norton works with the United Nations system and the Convention on Biological Diversity to advocate for the conservation and sustainable use of biodiversity and the advancement of sustainable development.