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  June 7, 2004

Earle Says Wise Choices Crucial
In Reversing Oceans' Decline

Earth's oceans are in a state of decline that can only be reversed if human beings make wise choices, one of the world's foremost oceanographers warned at a UConn marine sciences conference.

"The ocean is resilient, but we're at a pivotal point in history," said Sylvia Earle, former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and now an explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society.

Earle was the opening speaker at a two-day conference at Avery Point April 30-May 1. The event honored Professor Dick Cooper, who is retiring after a career of more than 20 years teaching and conducting research.

Earle, who holds an honorary degree from UConn, presented sobering data: 90 percent of big fish, such as swordfish and halibut, have declined by 90 percent from their high point; half of the coral reefs are gone, compared to 50 years ago; and the world population has doubled in the past 50 years, greatly increasing the stress on oceans.

The choices that governments make in the next 10 years will determine whether the oceanic decline becomes irreversible, Earle said. Overfishing and fertilizer runoff are among key threats that have to be addressed if the world is going to preserve what she called "the cornerstone of our life support."

Earle has led more than 50 expeditions worldwide and spent more than 6,000 hours underwater in her research. In 1979, she walked un-tethered on the sea floor at a depth lower than any other person before or since - 1,250 feet.

She recalled how pristine the Norwegian explorer Thor Heyerdahl found the seas in his first voyage in 1947, only to see massive deterioration 20 years later.

Yet Earle said she is hopeful that science and government will combine forces to save fish and oceanic ecosystems. She said her optimism derives partly from the fact that the problems have been identified, and technology exists to solve them. People on all continents are discussing and debating ocean-related issues, she said, and that too is a cause for optimism.

"I'd like to see the oceans benefit from the kind of effort that Theodore Roosevelt put forth to establish national parks on land," she said. Bringing people in large numbers to undersea marine sanctuaries would create public support and awareness that is lacking today, she suggested: "People need to see the oceans from the inside out."

She also cited with optimism the work of the Pew Oceans Commission, which has stressed the need for international action to heal the oceans and their inhabitants and protect coastlines.

For the United States to take a credible leadership role, the commission said, it should ratify two international conventions that provide a framework for ocean governance, especially in the area of protecting species and resolving disputes among nations.

Earle presented her audience with a filmed account of scientists William Beebe and Charles Barton making their first dive in 1930 in the bathysphere they invented. A buzz ran through her audience of trained explorers and oceanographers when the clip ended, moments after the two scientists had entered the spherical steel ball barely large enough to hold them, and were bolted in behind a heavy hatch and lowered more than 1,000 feet into rough seas.

The bathysphere, with all its perils as a tool for exploration, was abandoned in favor of safer and more maneuverable devices. Earle said she looks forward to a time when "we have systems so simple that even scientists can drive them underwater."