Near the beginning of the upcoming National Geographic documentary, Sea of Hope: America’s Underwater Treasures, the famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle sits down for a conversation with Dave Palmer, a commercial fisherman. They’re talking about the destructive overfishing of menhaden (sometimes called pogie)–small fish that school in the trillions in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic, filtering the water and providing food for larger species. They’re caught en masse–not to be eaten by humans, but to be ground up into fertilizer or chicken feed. Without them, the ocean ecosystem tips off balance.
“Pogie boats, they go and they take in a whole school,” Palmer says. “There should be limits on all that.”
The 81-year-old Earle, who since the 1950s has spent more than 7,000 hours underwater and witnessed firsthand the devastating effects of overfishing and climate change on the oceans, agrees. “There should be, it seems to me, some places we should just leave alone, like national parks,” she says. “You don’t cut the trees, you don’t shoot the squirrels.”
“They don’t have that now?” Palmer asks.
For the most part, no. In 1983, Ronald Reagan extended America’s sovereign control 200 miles off the country’s coasts, but since then, most of that area, which is larger than the 50 states, has remained open to the taking of wildlife. Sea of Hope, which premiered on January 15, tells the story of how that could change. The documentary follows Earle, the National Geographic photographer Brian Skerry, the activist and writer Max Kennedy, and a team of teenage aquanauts on a year-long voyage around America to persuade President Obama to expand protected areas in the oceans and designate some of its most vital areas as blue landmarks. Traveling from Cashes Ledge in the Atlantic Ocean, to Bucks Island in the Caribbean, to Ewing Bank in the Gulf of Mexico, the team documents the natural beauty and necessity of these locations and builds a compelling case to preserve and protect them.
In one respect, they were successful: Timed to the centennial of the National Park Service in August 2016, the documentary ends with Obama establishing the largest protected area on the planet in the waters around Hawaii. President George W. Bush established Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument in 2006, but Obama’s action quadrupled the size of the protected zone. In September 2016, just weeks after expanding Papahanaumokuakea, Obama designated the first marine national monument in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of New England.
In addition to Papahanaumokuakea, the work of the Blue Centennial initiative found a receptive ear in Obama, who has racked up an impressive array of conservation efforts over the course of his eight-year presidency. Still, Earle says in an interview with Co.Exist, just 2% of ocean area is protected. The Blue Centennial initiative, a partnership between National Geographic, Earth Conservation Corps, and True Blue films, has set a goal of protecting 30% of the ocean in the U.S. Exclusive Economic Zone in an effort to mitigate climate change and curtail harmful human activities like overfishing and toxic waste dumping. Sea of Hope is one aspect of the 10-year initiative, which aims to combine storytelling with advocacy work across nonprofits, technology companies, universities, and all branches of government to further its message.
Earle acknowledges that they might not be able to expect the same rational response from Obama’s successor, Donald Trump, who says “nobody really knows” whether climate change is a real thing. To that, Earle says evidence is all around us that our neglect and harmful actions are destroying the planet. “It’s incontrovertible,” she says. “If we keep doing what we’re doing, what we’ve been doing, we’re heading for a very bad place.” There are the statistics: big fish stock (tuna, cod, halibut, flounder) has dropped over 90% since 1950. Ocean acidification—caused by an excess of CO2 in the air—is dissolving coral reefs at an alarming rate. But these are also changes that Earle has witnessed herself; the 2014 Netflix documentary Mission Blue showed Earle and a team of divers returning to the Coral Sea off the coast of Australia, where she first dove in the 1970s to discover a vibrant undersea life, and finding a wasteland instead.
While countries like the United Kingdom, Chile, Palau, and New Zealand have moved to protect swaths of their ocean territories, Blue Centennial may face more of an uphill battle securing protections from the Trump administration. And, as Sea of Hope makes clear in a troubling scene toward the end of the film, the longline fishing industry will post a considerable roadblock as well. One fisherman, speaking out against the proposal to expand Papahanaumokuakea in Hawaii said, “There is no scientific evidence to support any additional conservation benefits to be gained by expanding the no-fishing zone beyond its current limit.”
But Sea of Hope is not a pessimistic film. The teenagers who accompany Earle and the team, she says, “are the heart and soul” of the project. “Up until now, we’ve been able to take the natural world for granted,” Earle says. “We could trust that the air is just there for us to breathe, and the earth works in a way that makes human survival possible.” The generation growing up now, she says, is the first to do so with complete awareness that humans are agents of change–both negative and positive–and have the knowledge and skills to act in the interest of the greater environment. The teens’ role in Sea of Hope echoes the sentiment from Obama in his farewell address to the nation: “Without bolder action, our children won’t have time to debate the existence of climate change. They’ll be busy dealing with its effects.”
The young people in the film represent a generation ready to take on the challenge of remedying the disastrous effects of decades of mistreatment of our oceans. But the key, Earle says, will be for people to get to know the seascapes that make up 71% of the Earth’s surface. Just like how the children who grew up in the 1960s and ’70s were fascinated by space travel, Earle wants this generation to see the ocean as the next frontier of exploration. “What’s stopping us?” she says. “It’s only seven miles–any direction other than down, it’s so easy. Why we’ve avoided it for so long is a mystery.”