Fabien Cousteau, who has managed to charm the women in my office without coming closer than an Internet connection, brought his famous family name, his explorer's sense of wonderment and his concern about the health of the planet to a Green Leaders Global discussion Tuesday at ABC Carpet & Home's community space in New York City.
His latest project, with his father Jean-Michel and sister Celine, focuses on the orca, or killer whale, the largest and most widely distributed dolphin on the planet. The PBS special debuted on Earth Day. The grandson of Jacques Cousteau had only about 20 minutes to speak, but he used that time efficiently, making a number of profound statements:
Orcas are facing significant and mysterious health problems, which could be a warning sign for humans. Orcas, as marine predators, have high concentrations of manmade chemicals -- including long-ago banned but long-lived toxins like DDT and PCBs, as well as regulated chemicals like dioxins and pesticides and less-regulated substances like PBDE flame retardants. Some orcas have blood levels of these chemicals hundreds of times the level found in humans. "We eat the same things, from the same water," Cousteau reminded the audience.
While many adult orcas continue to live long lives, offspring seem to be surviving with more difficulty, suggesting that the chemicals in their blood may be having a disproportionate effect on their health. In a profound moment in the upcoming PBS special that Cousteau previewed, he showed how the level of PBDE in the blood of four of the team members and their families differed: A 40-something vegetarian mom from California had the highest blood level among adults (California has the most strict fire codes in the country) and her 4-year-old had many times as much in his blood. To Cousteau, that's damning evidence that PBDEs should be phased out. "Ignorance is not bliss," Coustea said. "We have to know what's going on."
The Pacific Garbage Patch, that vast area of floating litter, is not the size of Texas, as is widely reported, but the size of Canada, according to Cousteau. He sees the garbage patch as just one very visible sign of "the power of carelessness" that threaten the oceans, which cover nearly three-quarters of the world's surface, and provide 99% of the space available for life. "Our planet is vast, our oceans are deep ... and we've explored less than 5% of them," Cousteau said.
We have to start treating the oceans like a bank account, Cousteau said. 70% of our food depends, directly or indirectly, on a healthy ocean, as do many of our medicines and much of the natural protection we enjoy against storms. Already, roughly half the commercial fish stocks of the world have collapsed since the 1950s, and 90% of certain types of fish, like tuna and swordfish have collapsed; the prognosis for the next 50 years is no better, at current levels of exploitation. "We have to stop eating the capital and start living on the interest," he said.
"A healthy ocean is a healthy people and a healthy people is a healthy economy," Cousteau said, linking chemical contamination of fish to human body burdens of chemicals to cancer rates and the high cost of health care treatment.
While salmon farming is a "disaster" because it takes 12 pounds of forage fish to produce one pound of market salmon and because salmon farms tend to harm wild salmon runs by introducing lice and antibiotic resistance into the environment, he said there are smart ways of farming fish that we need to try. One example: Ocean Nutrition makes use of wild anchovies that would otherwise be discarded, rather than harvesting wild fish, to produce fish oil tablets. Another: the farmed barramundi, which grows quickly in farms based on land (not in ocean, river or lake environments where they can contaminate wild ecosystems) and which eats a vegetarian diet. The challenge is that "we have to make the barramundi sexy," Cousteau said, as marketers did to devastating effect with wild Patagonian toothfish -- by renaming them "Chilean sea bass," and then depleting wild stocks to feed the frenzy of enthusiasm for the meaty fish.
If you have an iPhone or iPod, Cousteau recommends the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch app, which tells you at a glance whether the fish you're about to order at a restaurant or buy at a fish market is sustainably harvested. He also recommends carrying a simple printout of best and worst choices (such as the Environmental Defense Fund's Seafood Selector) so you can hand off the card to chefs, fish market managers and others who are selling or serving depleted or overfished species.
Another thing Cousteau carries around: Blue marbles (made from recycled glass). The blue marble has, since the first manned missions produced the first photos of the Earth from space been a symbol of the Earth and its fragility. Cousteau hands out the marbles -- one a day -- as he performs "random acts of kindness." He asks the recipients of his marbles to do the same within 24 hours.
Despite the ailing health of the world environment, Cousteau remains optimistic because humans have the same capacity for "miracle making" as we do for destruction.
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