Why we shouldn’t eat the dinosaurs of the deep

27 September 2005

View the Quicktime Movie of the interview She holds the depth record for solo diving to 1000 metres. She has lived underwater for two weeks as head of a team of women aquanauts. She has spent a total of over 6,000 hours under water. Today, renowned US oceanographer and environmentalist, Dr. Sylvia Earle is one of over a thousand scientists calling for urgent action to protect the fragile habitats and life of the deep oceans. Earle: "Around the world, scientists are really now, just now, in the last few years beginning to be aware that there is a problem in the high seas. We now know by looking at images that cameras lowered into the deep sea are bringing back, and from observations from submersibles, that the destruction is rather equivalent to taking a bulldozer to a forest – in order to catch a few squirrels you bulldoze the entire system." Dr. Earle is referring to one of the world’s most destructive fishing practices – deep sea bottom trawling. Today's trawlers are capable of fishing deep-sea canyons and rough seafloor that was once avoided for fear of damaging nets. In a matter of a few weeks or months, bottom trawl fishing can destroy what took many thousands of years to create. Dr. Earle has personally witnessed the hugely devastating impacts of bottom trawling on marine life in the ocean depths. "I’ve been diving in the oceans of the world for more than half a century. I’ve been in submersibles thousands of feet beneath the surface of the sea, I’ve seen wonderful pristine oceans, I’ve seen wild places and I’ve seen areas where trawls have scraped the ocean floor under thousands of feet of water. It’s a strong motivation once you have seen the before and after consequences of trawling on a wild and pristine habitat." To capture one or two target commercial species, deep-sea bottom trawl fishing vessels drag huge nets armed with steel plates and heavy rollers across the seabed, plowing up and pulverizing everything in their path. Thousands of tons of coral are hauled up only to be thrown back dead, along with huge quantities of unwanted bycatch. "Until recently it wasn’t known that many of the creatures that are now being taken from the high seas, from the seamounts and adjacent areas, that they live a long time – orange roughy may take 30 years to mature, may be 150 years old by the time they reach the market. I'm personally haunted by experiences I've had in fish markets in various parts of the world, where deep sea fish taken by trawls, taken from the areas around seamounts in the deep ocean are on display with eyes that glow, eyes and other features that we simply don't understand. We do understand how good they taste. We don't understand the nature of the creatures, or how they solve the problems of living in the dark, living in the cold, living under pressure." Scientists are only just beginning to unlock the secrets of the deep. It is estimated that there may be as many as 10 million species living in our ocean depths – many of them yet to be discovered. "It is exciting on one side because we're making new discoveries about whole mountain chains, about forms of life that have previously eluded us. But is it reasonable to suggest that the highest purpose for these new discoveries should be to consume them? You see a new creature and the first thing you want to know is what does it taste like? How much can I get for it in the market? If someone found a dinosaur walking down the street would the first thing that one would want to say "I wonder how it tastes in a sandwich" instead of saying, "Incredible! Look at that creature, I wonder what we can learn from it". Visit this site again soon to hear the second part of this interview in which Dr. Earle explains why deep sea life should be protected and how she is involved in international efforts to halt high seas bottom trawling.