Sylvia Earle’s ‘Hope Spots’

“Hope spots” is a term I learned as Sylvia Earle gave the TED talk that helped her earn the creation of Mission Blue, a movement to raise awareness about ocean conservation.

The work she’s done this last year through Mission Blue was also a significant part of why she earned our Person of the Year award.

Currently, Sylvia and a team of scientists including Edith Widder and Carl Safina, are in the Gulf of Mexico using a submarine to explore and document areas east and west of the oil spill site to judge the impacts from the disaster and the status of local ecosystems.

She was kind enough to take a moment to answer a few questions we had for her regarding marine conservation, and in particular, her take on “hope spots.”

TH: Why do you call marine preserves “hope spots?”

SE: “Hope spots” are pristine places in the sea that, if protected, can serve as sources of renewal for depleted species and systems, while contributing to overall planetary stability and health. They also include seriously traumatized areas such as Chesapeake Bay, the Gulf of Mexico and the Mediterranean Sea, because with care, they can be restored to better condition – a cause for hope.

As far as I’m concerned, there is just one big blue hope spot -the ocean, all of it. If we succeed in protecting the ocean, there is hope not only for dolphins, fish and coral reefs – there is hope for humankind as well.

TH: What do you think was the biggest success story for marine preserves during 2010?

SE: The biggest success in 2010 was the increase in protected marine areas, from .8 percent to a little over 1 percent. Unfortunately, the amount of the ocean where even fish, lobsters and other commonly consumed species have safe havens is still a tiny fraction of 1 percent. The increases are encouraging because they are happening globally, but discouraging still, as nearly 99 percent of the ocean is open for fishing and other forms of exploitation.

TH: What is your biggest hope for marine preserves in 2011?

SE: My main hope is that that there will be many more preserved areas large enough to embrace entire ecosystems.

Moreover, I hope the importance of the ocean to the world’s economies, health, security, and, most of all, to the existence of life itself will become recognized and assimilated into government policies, at the local, national and global levels.

TH: What is the single most important action you’ve taken for marine conservation during your career so far?

SE: As a scientist and explorer, it is most important to maintain a steady course while simultaneously advancing and using new ocean technologies. This also entails accepting government service, serving on corporate and non-profit boards and complementing traditional academic communication with other media (e.g., books, essays, films, public talks, radio and internet). I feel an obligation to speak for those who have no voice in human society – all creatures, everywhere – and for future generations.

TH: If someone wants to follow in your footsteps and advocate for marine preserves, what should be their first three actions to make change?

SE: First, hold up a mirror. Second, assess your talents. Third, use those talents to make your own unique footprint.

Are you a poet, a writer, a musician? Use your way with words or music to change the way people think. A scientist? Take what you know and share it. Are you good with numbers? Apply that gift to build a case that number-crunchers understand and value.

Then, join with others whose talents complement yours and assess what it will take to bring about protection for an area, make compelling cases for why and how protecting the ocean matters, and take action to make it happen.

The most important part is to take on the challenge of protecting the ocean as if your life depends on it–because it does.