Jean-Michel Cousteau on the Gulf oil spill, herbivore fish and the primacy of plankton.
Thursday, August 19, 2010
Note to readers: This is a longer version of the interview that appeared in the Weekly's print edition.
A quarter-century ago, legendary ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau traveled the Amazon River with his son, Jean-Michel, to document the ecosystem’s rich and threatened diversity of life.
On the year that would have marked Jacques’ 100th birthday, Jean-Michel, the award-winning producer of more than 80 films, from 1968’s The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau to the 2006 documentary series Jean-Michel Cousteau: Ocean Adventures, carries on his late father’s legacy.
In 1999 he founded the nonprofit Ocean Futures Society (www.oceanfutures.org), promoting marine conservation and education on the myriad interconnections between humanity and the sea.
Now in his early 70s, Jean-Michel is still exploring the depths of the ocean’s mysteries. The Weekly spoke with him by phone soon after his return from the Gulf of Mexico, where his crew is filming the destruction wrought by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. He’ll be in Monterey Bay for the BLUE Ocean Film Festival, which runs Aug. 24-29.
WEEKLY: What did you observe in the Gulf?
COUSTEAU: There was oil all over the place and a new spill coming out of a pipeline which had been run into by a tugboat. That thing was gushing about 200 feet in the air, spraying oil all over the marshland. At some point they put booms around it to try to collect the oil, but it sprays up in the air with the wind and goes all over the place. Basically nobody was doing anything about it. In the last month our team has been there, there have been at least two other leaks like that, which are mostly accidental – because the [drilling] equipment is getting very old and rusted and falling apart.
And the media in particular walks away because we were told the spill is capped. Well, what’s going to happen for decades for the environment? We’re told that 70 percent of the oil has been contained or dissolved in the Gulf because of those dispersant chemicals that are not legal in Europe. What about the food chain? What about the little fish that are eaten by the whales and the dolphins? What’s happening to the crabs, the shrimps, the birds, the marshland itself? The New York Times was [reporting] that everything’s fine now, it’s under control. It’s not under control.
Here in Monterey Bay we have strong ocean protections, but we’re still seeing the impacts of human activities. Tell me about your connection to this area.
My connection goes way back. We’ve been there many times because of the different television programs I’ve done in the 40 years I’ve been based in the U.S. We did a two-hour special on the American underwater treasures which are the National Marine Sanctuary system, and of course Monterey Bay is one. I’ve always been a very strong supporter of the Monterey Bay Aquarium, which to me is symbolic of what can be done in other parts of the world without having to jail dolphins and whales and marine mammals that have not been maimed by our poor management. I think that's a perfect example of what we can do to help people understand.
Your 2006 documentary on the North Hawaiian Islands, Voyage to Kure, inspired President George W. Bush to declare that island chain a 1,200-mile national monument. How do you hope to inspire President Obama?
The president is facing some major issues, some inherited from the previous administration. The economy is a primary concern, obviously. But when it comes to the marine environment – or, I should say, the water environment, because there’s only one water system – education is critical, in order to allow decision-makers to know what the priorities are. We’re not here to point fingers. We’re here to help. Ocean Futures has always been doing that; my father used to do that. We provide information. We sit down with decision-makers, like I did with President Bush, and try to reach an understanding.
How do you balance that positivity with the gravity of the problems?
The gravities – there are several of them, of course. One is that we still use the ocean as a garbage can or universal sewer. That is affected by all of us and in return affects us wherever we live.
The second one is that we are destroying the critical coastal habitats, which is the case in the Gulf right now. [It may be] the weakest coastal habitat anywhere on the planet because of the conflict between that environment and this massive oil industry, which is getting old and falling apart. We’re finding out the coasts are very critical for reproduction of the majority of all forms of marine life, whether they are plants or animals.
And the third one is, because the majority of the planet is a no-man’s-land outside the territorial waters of the nations, there are no regulations. You can do whatever you want out there. It’s a mess.
We have a fishing industry that is taking more than nature can produce. Unless we look at nature as capital and live off the interest, we’re going beyond that, and now we’re starting to gobble up the capital. We’re heading toward bankruptcy—and nobody normal wants to go there. We need to help the fishing industry, so they can find a way to convert and ultimately do what we’ve done on land, and that is to become farmers.
We’re no longer hunting and gathering. We settled down because there’s nothing to hunt anymore. We’re farmers now. And what are we farming? Plants or grains. We’re farming herbivores – animals that feed on plants. We’re not farming lions and jaguars, which would need an immense amount of resources from the open nature to feed them.
To make one pound of farmed salmon, you need 10 to 12 pounds of wild-caught fish, which means in order to satisfy our selfish bad habits in rich countries of having salmon farmed, we are accelerating the depletion of the ocean. Because we’re not going to feed Africa or India, 2 billion people, with salmon. They can’t afford it; it’s too expensive. We need to farm plants and animals that are herbivores.
And we can do it. There is an immense opportunity in the future for businesspeople to not only provide resources that are needed, but to also make money. So let's focus on what makes sense.
There are some folks around here that are boosting the sardine fishery for that reason. Another movement in the Monterey Bay area is a ban on take-out Styrofoam packaging. And the state Legislature is looking at a plastic bag ban. You’ve been outspoken about marine debris; do you think those sorts of regulations are a positive step?
Well yes, I think they are, but I wish we didn’t have to create regulations. People should understand it’s in their best interest to make those decisions themselves. Every American consumes between 1,000 and 1,600 plastic bags a year. I have my own bag, and every time I go to my shop, I get 5 cents off the bill. At the end of the year I could invite you to a wonderful dinner, which maybe otherwise I could not.
I can take you to the house where I grew up in the south of France, and on the doorknob of my kitchen, the bag that my mother used to go shopping with is still there, and that’s the bag I use myself when I go there on vacation. So why not pick a bag you like? Keep it – it’s your bag! At the same time, you’re improving the quality of your life.
I’m saying this because it’s very symbolic of everything we do. Why is it that homeless people are going in the trash can to pick up beer cans and plastic bottles? Because they’re getting money for it! What does that mean? It means we’re throwing money away! That’s stupid!
While covering the Styrofoam bans, I was hearing from the American Chemistry Council. In their arguments against these regulations, they used your name and said they have funded public service announcements in which you say people should take personal responsibility. Implicitly they’re saying, “It’s not the product that’s the problem; it’s the people. And if we focus on recycling, we don’t need to focus on reducing the production of plastic products.”
In their way it was very clever. [Laughs.] They’re using me and other people, and it’s written in such a clever way you have to read between the lines to know what it really means.
But what they’re saying is real. It’s individual choice. We’re talking about a country that claims to be free. That means we, each of us, has to be responsible. And in order for that to happen, we need to know. And once you know, hey, you can make a better decision. In the end, not only are you doing a good thing for the environment and the quality of your life, but you’re saving money.
I had a very nice conversation with the plastic council; we had lunch. I’m trying to convince them, just like I’m trying to convince my neighbor. I said, “I don’t want to put you out of business; that’s not my goal.” My goal is for future generations, if we’re not selfish, to have the same privileges that we have had.
A new study reports that phytoplankton has declined 40 percent worldwide since 1950. What does that mean to you?
That means that the Empire State Building will fall. It’s symbolic. Phytoplankton and zooplankton are the foundations of the pyramid of life. You take out the foundations, and the whole system will collapse. That’s why, going back to the Gulf, I’m very concerned, as a lot of scientists are, that this dispersant is affecting the foundations of the pyramid of life. The food chain starts with phyto – and zooplankton. If you don’t have those, everything collapses.
You opposed the International Whaling Commission’s “compromise,” which would have legalized some commercial whaling, but it stalled out at the last IWC meeting. Where does that leave the world’s whale populations?
The whole approach was, “Kill whales to save whales,” which is absurd. There has been a change – at least a suspension for now – and we need to continue focusing on it. If we lose the whales, we’re losing species which are a critical part of the food chain. Again, it’s a management issue. We’ve depleted the ocean to the point where the whole system is in the process of collapsing or disappearing because we are taking more than nature can produce. We need to look at nature like we look at a business. I know it’s not very romantic, but we can be very romantic when things are going well.
That’s an interesting perspective. What are three simple things people can do to make a difference?
The number one difference they can make: At home, think about how you handle what you take for granted, whether it is water, electricity or power; whether it is merchandise when you go shopping; whether it is your automobile, if you have one. All of those things can be reorganized, replanned, to make a huge difference on the impact we have on the environment, which happens to be our life-support system. And hey, good news, you’re going to save money.
What do you think festivals like BLUE Ocean can inspire in people?
One, it will make people understand better than they have in the past—even the people who are already convinced. And for the young people who haven’t yet decided what they’re going do with their life, it will inspire what direction they would like to take, whether it’s research, photography, cinematography or writing.
There are so many things that come out of that gathering. There will be debate on the oil situation in the Gulf; I have been invited to be involved with that. They will see some absolutely beautiful programs. And they can talk to some extremely creative people, including a lot of local people. Many of the people I’ve worked with will be there.
Anything else you’d like to mention?
Protect the ocean and you protect yourself. That’s our mission. I know it sounds very selfish, but if we don’t start there, then we may disappear like many other species, and life will keep going on without us. It’s our choice. We have the power, the gift of being able to make that decision.