In this episode of “The Kids Are Alright” podcast, we learn how global warming is threatening crucial links in our ecosystem — sharks and coral reefs.
By Bethan Ashmead Latham
In this episode of The Kids Are Alright podcast, Gabriella Iskra introduces listeners to marine biologist Emma Williams, Reuters Environment Correspondent Alister Doyle and News-Decoder correspondent Sue Landau.
Emma Williams, 24, spent nine months in the Seychelles rebuilding coral and studying damage from rising sea temperatures and bleaching. Now, she is committed to educating people about the importance of sharks for keeping the ocean healthy by killing off old, dying and sick sea life.
Our reporter, Gabriella, found the interview both inspiring and terrifying. “Marine conservation is something we don’t encounter much because we don’t see it, it’s under the sea.”
The ocean’s hidden challenges have drawn Emma in, and Gabriella said she was surprised to hear about the extent of the damage that Emma describes to listeners.
Gabriella is keen to learn more about the human impact on the environment, plastic waste, oil companies, farming, animal welfare and climate change. “She [Emma] explained to me how terrifying it was to witness the state of the coral reefs. In parts of the ocean where she went diving, it’s just barren. They’re bleached, there’s no life, and this whole image we have of beautiful fish and plants, there is none of that.”
There’s more. Beyond the sharks and coral, all marine life is affected by pollution, climate change, overfishing and trawling. “Imagine if we used the fish trawling methods on land in safari parks and needlessly took all the zebras and lions and tigers.”
There are some things we can change. But time is of the essence. In her conversations with Alister Doyle and Sue Landau, Gabriella asks just how urgent it is to take action on ocean issues.
I’m Nolwazi Mjwara! Originally from South Africa, I moved to Paris, France three years ago to pursue a master’s degree. I’m a news enthusiast and have always been interested in what young people think and are doing to address some of the things I read about in the news. Before we begin, here’s a message from colleague Megha Thomas, who helped me produce this podcast.
Megha Thomas: Hey there! Thanks for tuning in to today’s episode. The Kids Are Alright was produced by a team of students and aspiring journalists interested in learning more about some of the biggest issues facing the global community. From social media fame to the Venezuelan crisis to Climate Change, we’ve reached out to young people and experienced professionals alike in order to provide you with different perspectives on hot topics.
We hope you enjoy it! Share your thoughts with us on Twitter @kidsalrightnews or on Instagram @kidsarealrightnews.
Nolwazi Mjwara: Sharks and acid. No, this isn’t the name of an obscure alternative band. It’s the focus of today’s episode.
The oceans are sick because of certain human activities — namely overfishing and carbon emissions.
Here’s a quick chemistry lesson before we jump into today’s episode.
When carbon dioxide dissolves in this ocean, carbonic acid is formed. This leads to high acidity, mainly near the surface, which has been proven to have an adverse effect on marine life and our oceans.The pH scale measures how acidic or basic a substance is, and ranges from 0 to 14, increasing in acidity as we approach zero. Over the past 300 million years, ocean pH has been slightly basic, averaging about 8.2 on the pH scale. Today, it is around 8.1, a drop of 0.1 pH units. That change may sound negligible, but it represents a 25 percent increase in acidity over the past two centuries!
So where do the sharks come in? Well they’re part of the same ecosystem! As predators, they help maintain sustainable levels of herbivorous fish populations, who eat algae that in high abundance kill corals.
But ecosystems are as complicated as they are fragile, so the relationship mustn’t be simplified.
Our reporter on this episode is Gabriella Iskra. Here she is to tell us more.
Gabriella Iskra: This is Gabriella. I’m 28 years old and a fund-raiser and campaigner for Greenpeace. We chose to look at this subject of the destruction of coral reefs and shark fishing because, as Nolwazi mentioned, it’s an issue which has become increasingly dangerous for our planet. I chose to interview Emma because she’s a marine biologist and she’s very much involved with these issues.
Emma Williams: So I’m Emma. I’m 24, and I studied Marine Biology and Coastal Ecology down at Plymouth. I just spent eight months working in the Seychelles to try and get some experience up. My main interest is sharks and how they’re being affected by fisheries. But, yeah, at the moment still young in the field and quite broad interest in these issues, so yeah!
Gabriella Iskra: So when did your interest in sharks begin? What’s the story behind that?
Emma Williams: That only really began a couple of years ago, during my placement year. I was volunteering with the Large Marine Vertebra project, which are based in the Philippines.
Gabriella Iskra: Ok, and in the Philippines something happened between…
Emma Williams: Well, we were researching whale sharks, which are fabulous. They’re huge. The kind of largest on record are 20 meters long — massive things. But they’re now an endangered species. And often people are scared of sharks.
Gabriella Iskra: And there’s always a big story, isn’t there, when there’s a shark attack. But how many shark attacks are there?
Emma Williams: I think it obviously depends yearly, but there’s roughly about 10 people die from sharks a year, which, I mean, it’s less than toasters kill a year. It’s led to us not really protecting them in the way that we should, in the way that dolphins are being protected, where similar things are happening. It’s a bit unfair. It’s led not necessarily just that bit — a conservative estimate is that 100 million sharks are killed per year, which if you break that down, that’s over 11,000 sharks per hour.
Gabriella Iskra: That’s a lot.
Emma Williams: It could be as much as 32,000 sharks an hour . You just wonder how there are any left.
Gabriella Iskra: And how important are sharks to ocean life?
Emma Williams: They’re hugely important because they kind of act as the immune system of the ocean. So they will pick off the ill, the weak, the old, and they leave, you know, a nice living system behind with healthy animals. Most of them aren’t top predators, but they are keystone species. So, yeah, when you remove — for example on a reef system, if you take the sharks away, which eat some of the big fish, because the population of big fish aren’t now controlled, then they just deplete the levels below that. And then that can also lead — you’re taking out the herbivorous fish, which feed on algae, and then if there’s too much algae growing, then it smothers the reefs and the corals so then they die. So it can actually have really big effects.
Gabriella Iskra: Why is it 11,000 an hour? Where does that statistic come from?
Emma Williams: There’s a lot of targeted shark fishing for shark fin soup, which is huge in Asia. It was seen as a prosperity thing, so as the wealth goes up, more people are having it. And then you also get huge amounts of by-catch when particularly the tuna long-line fisheries. They can have like kilometers of line with hooks all along it, and they just aren’t very selective. So they get sea birds often. They get turtles, sharks.
Gabriella Iskra: And they all just get killed.
Emma Williams: And then you also have — well, for me it was a new thing to become aware of — but there’s quite a lot of, like, sports fishing for sharks. And a lot of places have —
Gabriella Iskra: Trophy hunting?
Emma Williams: They thought if I release it alive, it will live. But actually a lot are worn out from the fight. A lot have injuries or high stress levels, and they end up dying after that.
Gabriella Iskra: And what made you decide to go to the Seychelles?
Emma Williams: Not a hard decision to make! Like many young girls, I always wanted to be a vet. So always had an interest in animals, but when I was 14 on a family holiday, I went scuba diving — and I thought that would be better. If I can do this for work, that seems very good. I think I just googled like “marine research organizations,” or “marine centers seychelles,” and then Marine Conservation Society Seychelles came up. The project that I spent most of my time on was a coral restoration project.
Gabriella Iskra: Coral restoration?
Emma Williams: Yes. Corals are suffering a lot from climate change. And I’ve never seen it so bad as I did in the Seychelles. If it gets hotter than it used to for too long, the corals bleach. And —
Gabriella Iskra: So they literally go…?
Emma Williams: They go white. So corals, when they become stressed, they get rid of these algae as a method of trying to be like, “We don’t know what’s going on. I feel stressed. We’ll get rid of those. We’ll see what happens.” So, with the high temperatures, they do that and that’s why they turn white because they’ve got rid of their algae.
The Seychelles have had two major bleaching events. One was in 1998. They lost 90 percent of their coral. And then —
Gabriella Iskra: That’s unbelievable.
Emma Williams: — there was some recovery obviously, but in 2016 they had a big one and lost 50 percent of their corals. We had a project where we had exit tube — a coral nursery, which means we had some tanks that we put the corals in to grow them there as well. And because they’re so sensitive, we didn’t find they grew too well. The growth rates were quite slow. But the idea of it is that if there is another big bleaching event, these corals aren’t part of that, and then you can put those ones back, to kind of replenish. But it kind of needs to be done on such a big scale if you want that kind of project to work.
Nolwazi Mjwara: If there’s one thing we can take away, it’s that unsustainable human activities have a serious cascade effect on marine ecosystems, some of which may not even be clear until the damage starts to show.
After speaking with Emma and learning a bit more about how interconnected marine life is, we decided to turn to Sue Landau and Alister Doyle.
After a career in business and financial reporting at the International Herald Tribune, Reuters and Investors Chronicle, Sue now writes on climate change for News-Decoder.
Alister Doyle is an Environment Correspondent at Reuters and regularly reports on issues ranging from rising sea levels to climate change.
Gabriella Iskra: Hi Sue. And thank you very much for your time this morning. To begin, I’d like to just ask you what you think of the work which Emma is doing.
Sue Landau: I think her work and that of other marine biologists is really important because they’re alerting us to the state of the ocean’s health. And that is absolutely vital to human survival.
The corals are the warning beacon of how sick the oceans in fact are. What happens is this: There’s two things that affect the oceans in a very big way. Greenhouse gas emissions, we know that we’re warming up the planet because we burn fossil fuels and give off carbon dioxide, but that makes the oceans warmer. The oceans are doing us a huge favor. They’re absorbing apparently 90 percent — almost all of that excess heat. But this warmth bakes the coral and it also means that marine animals’ territories are displaced according to temperatures, which you can obviously understand. But it takes very little to make a coral reef bleach. Apparently in just a few weeks it sees only one to two percent warmer than usual. So, it’s a very sensitive system.
Gabriella Iskra: And it’s not just Sue who believes our oceans are being affected by this crisis. Here’s Alister.
Gabriella Iskra: Can you explain a little bit how losing coral reefs might affect the rest of the ocean. For example, food chains and nurseries?
Alister Doyle: So a quarter of all life depends upon less than two percent of the ocean floor. So, you know they call them the rainforest of the sea because they’re so diverse. So this means losing the reefs would have huge knock-on effects across the oceans. You lose the small reef fish — the finding-nemo-type little fish, the bright colored angel fish. And then all the predators up the chain lose out on a source of food. Right up to big, ocean-going sharks and tuna fish. They’d be left without so much food. So of course it’s really difficult to know what would happen without the reefs. And if we lose coral reefs worldwide, it’s a sign we’re losing on the climate front elsewhere as well. So the big ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, they’ll be melting, too, unless we do enough to restrict the rise in temperatures, so that in turn will spill into the oceans.
Gabriella Iskra: I was really shocked to learn how close we were to disaster, so I asked Sue whether she thought we could still save the oceans.
Sue Landau: The problem for me with an environmentalist’s point of view is that those kind of threats come from the same exploitative model that’s created the whole problem. Now there could perhaps be other ways. An environmentalist approach says we must at least limit this exploitation of the earth in our own self-interest, because we’re threatening our own survival. And we’re not just talking long-term versus short-term considerations anymore. Short-term for those companies, that will be, what in the next 20 to 25 years? The crunch for the climate and for oceans comes at the end of this century. That is the generation of millennials’ children. It’s that close.
Gabriella Iskra: We have just over a decade to dramatically reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This comes from the most recent report published by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in October. After speaking with Emma, Sue and Alister, there is one thing I would like to reiterate and that is this: We must take action now, before it is too late.
Nolwaz Mjwarai: You’ve been listening to an episode of The Kids Are Alright. It was a production from Podium.me and News-Decoder. Tell us what you thought of this episode by tweeting us @kidsalrightnews.
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