Oceans in Balance

By Shawn Heinrichs, Safina Center Fellow Alum

As young child growing up on the Wild Coast of South Africa, the ocean I knew was a very different place than the ocean we know now. The ocean of my childhood was vast and unfathomably bountiful, where billions of sardines migrated annually in shoals so vast and dense, that they turned the coastal waters black and overflowed onto the beaches where fishermen scooped them up by the bucket load. Pursuing the sardines by sea, schools of thousands of sharks and tens of thousands of dolphins assaulted the shoals, while armadas of countless cape gannets gave chase in the air, plunging into the sea in machine gun rapid-fire successions, gobbling up their hapless prey. And as the backdrop to this awesome spectacle, the magnificent humpback whales came charging up the coast by the hundreds in their annual migration, exploding into the air and performing brilliant acrobatic stunts.

A humpback whale launches into the air off the Wild Coast of South Africa

Oceanic blacktip sharks race by in pursuit of a school of fleeing sardines in Misool, Raja Ampat

Fast-forward to my first open water dive in the Caribbean over two decades later, after years of living apart from the oceans. I remember descending down to the ‘reef’ and being struck by an overwhelming sense of loss and despair. Everything I knew and loved from my childhood was missing. The reefs were decaying and covered in algae. Large fish and sharks were nowhere to be found. The cloudy, muted-grey landscape of crumbling reef structures reminded me of a post-apocalyptic war scene. How had it all come to this in such a short period of time? I decided then and there that I would make it my mission to search out and document those last great and thriving places in the oceans, and one day use those stories to help turn the tide of destruction.

Anchovies pour over a reef by the millions as hungry groupers wait to pounce in Raja Ampat

Rubble, debris and algae are all that remain of a destroyed reef in Raja Ampat

If we aspire to truly address the critical threats facing our oceans today and to restore the health of the world’s reefs, reversing the precipitous decline in sharks and other predatory species and rebuilding fish populations, we cannot look to the current condition of most of our reefs as a baseline reference for a healthy system. Instead we must consider what these reef systems looked like before they were so severely degraded, suffocated in silt, overgrown by algae, and emptied of most large predators and commercially-valuable fish species. We must look to those places where people have taken a stand for their oceans, and in the face of ever-mounting pressure to recklessly extract their valuable marine resources, have refused to yield, choosing instead to safeguard their marine systems for the good of nature and their communities. We must remind ourselves of what thriving reef systems actually look like, with a rich diversity of corals and a healthy balance in predator-prey species. We must celebrate that such reef systems still exist, despite the destruction. We must inspire new policy, new practice and a new understanding of what could be again, if we have the foresight and political will to help our oceans recover from a century of degradation.

The abundance, diversity and mesmerizing colors of the reefs of Raja Ampat are beyond words

Safe from poachers, blacktip reef sharks patrol the shallows of Wayag, Raja Ampat

Working in concert with Paul G. Allen Philanthropies, our film project ‘Oceans in Balance’ provided the opportunity to realize my ambition to tell that story of what reefs systems, shark populations and fish stocks looked like before we so severely depleted them. Our modern society has fallen to the trappings of a “shifting-baseline” perspective, where most people forget how abundant and thriving the oceans once were, and allow the current severely depleted state to become the new baseline. And with this shortsighted perspective, we lack the understanding and will to support broader marine conservation initiatives and large-scale fisheries reform. As a result, in only fifty years, we have lost almost half the reefs in our oceans (Earth Institute, Columbia University, Losing Our Coral Reefs) and fished-out greater than 90 percent of all large predatory fish (Meyers, RA, 2003, Rapid Worldwide Depletion of Predatory Fish), with only a shadow now left of our once-thriving oceans.

Schools of fusiliers pour over the flourishing reefs of Raja Ampat, Indonesia

After a decade of hard-fought conservation, reef sharks once again thrive in Misool, Raja Ampat

Read the rest of Shawn’s blog post, originally published on March 10, 2018, on the National Geographic’s Blog, here.

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