As a marine biologist, Sylvia Earle has spent more than half a century diving in pursuit of a greater understanding of the oceans. But now, the renowned scientist is concerned that there may be little left to study before too long, warning that “the ocean is dying” at the hands of human destruction.
“It's taken only a few decades to unravel those very basic systems,” Earle told “Power Players” during an interview at the Smithsonian Natural History Museum’s botany collection. “We're changing the chemistry of the planet, starting with the ocean, well the atmosphere too. It's a big thought that humans have the power to change the nature of nature.”
Earle points to the disappearance of 50 percent of the world’s coral reefs and the depletion – and in some cases complete extinction – of certain types of ocean life through causes that include over-fishing, the fertilizer runoff from farming, underwater bomb testing and oil spills.
And in harming the oceans, Earle explained, humankind is disrupting the basic planetary systems on which we rely.
“It drives the carbon cycle, the oxygen cycle, the nitrogen cycle, the chemistry of the planet as a whole -- and certainly the water cycle,” Earle said. “The ocean keeps us alive. We have to return the favor.”
As devastating as the destruction has been, Earle says there’s still reason for hope. And a newly released Netflix documentary “Mission Blue,” follows Earle, whom some have dubbed the “Joan of Arc” of the oceans, on her crusade to save what’s left of the ocean’s vulnerable systems.
“I call it the sweet spot in time,” said Earle, who believes that the next 10 years have the potential to be as influential in the next 10,000 if humankind takes action to preserve the oceans. “But we're closing doors all the time. I've seen species disappear, watched systems collapse, that won't come back again, ever; I mean, they can't, because the ingredients are simply gone.”
Her most urgent call to action is to establish the oceanic equivalent of national parks, what Earle calls “Hope Spots.”
“Protect what we can of the areas that are still in great shape,” she said. “Where are the healthiest coral reefs, and before they're gone, let’s embrace them with care, because they're what make the planet work … but we also need to restore places that are depleted that are damaged.”
Earle identified the Chesapeake Bay as a prime candidate for restoration.
“We can make Chesapeake Bay not the way it was 400 years ago when John Smith arrived, but we can make it better,” she said. “We can give the oysters and menhaden and crabs and clams a break and stop the upstream inflow of the nitrates, the phosphates and the fertilizers.”
In her own personal campaign to help the oceans, Earle has also stopped eating fish and encourages people to be aware of where there food comes from, whether it is vegetables or meat-based products.
“Say, ‘I wonder where this fish came from, and I wonder how far up the food chain it is, I wonder how old it is,’” Earle advised. “Because a 10-year-old tuna has a lot more investment in it than a 6-month-old chicken, if you want to eat meat. And look at the vegetable options; if you want great protein, consider all the plant protein that's out there.”
To hear more about Earle’s “Mission Blue,” and to see her “treasure chest” at the Smithsonian museum, check out this episode of “Power Players.”
ABC News’ Alexandra Dukakis, Gary Westphalen, Chris Carlson, and Nick Greiner contributed to this episode.