The oceans are in trouble, but today's graduates can save them

Douglas Rader

Doug Rader

This is an excerpt of a commencement address given to the Institute for the Environment at the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill’s graduating class on Mother’s Day 2013.

The litany of ocean threats is long. Overfishing is rampant, affecting perhaps 70% of known stocks and as much as 85% of less-well known stocks, threatening food security for a billion people.  Most large predators, especially sharks, are severely depleted. Around the world, key habitats dwindle: coral reefs may disappear by the turn of the next century; mangrove swamps, seagrass beds and other coastal wetlands are threatened by rising seas and intensifying storms, placing important fish nurseries and coastal communities at risk. Toxic algal blooms and oxygen-poor “dead water” are increasing in scale and frequency, globally. Exotic species, including the venomous and predatory pacific red lionfish, are more prevalent every day. I myself counted 58 on one dive on one of the most remote reefs of southern Cuba.

Some scientists feel that even the most basic aspects of the sea are changing, with warming and acidifying waters shifting marine ecosystems into uncharted territory, and potentially imperiling the global current conveyor system to which all ocean life is attuned.

On its face, it seems a bleak Mother’s Day for mother earth, and a tough row to hoe for those of you poised to take the torch.

I submit to you, though, that these tales of the earth’s demise are premature, and that people working together have the potential to turn around every one of these “doom and gloom” scenarios. We have most of the tools we need, and a bright future is available. All it will take is the right plan.

Doug Rader

Take overfishing as an example. We know for sure that well managed fisheries can work, with the right science, the right management, and the right incentives. In fact, we have turned the corner on rebuilding fisheries in the United States, with ever-improving stocks and more stable fishing businesses. A set of incentive-based tools that we are applying now covers 65% of us federal fisheries, and even some of the most intractable cases are on the mend – red snapper in the Gulf of Mexico, ground fishes in New England, and ground fishes on the pacific coast. The European Union is moving towards a cross-cutting policy that will rebuild the fishing power in the northeast Atlantic.  There are answers for even the most intractable science and management problems.

Even the thousands of dispersed small-scale fisheries around the world are tractable with the right programs, and partnerships. A new project called “fish forever” is underway in Indonesia and the Philippines, proving concepts that should also work in other cultures around the world.

Lest you doubt me, let me share more direct proof from Dr. Jim Yong Kim, past president of Dartmouth and now president of the World Bank.

Twenty years ago, AIDS was tearing Africa apart. Everyone agreed that the problem was intractable – culture and social status prevented effective treatment, the needed drugs did not exist, and no one could afford them even if they did.  How can people who do not read or write, or use a watch, stay on a treatment regimen they cannot afford anyway?

Yet, a small handful of people decided they could in fact beat aids in Africa, with the right plan. They identified every step necessary to solve this unsolvable problem, and did whatever it took to check each box in turn: developing the drugs, solving the financial problems, and building the delivery systems that were needed.  Today, 12 million Africans are being successfully treated, breaking the back of the AIDS epidemic in Africa, and giving the continent a future.

Dr. Kim, himself, was one of that small group with a powerful plan.  

Photo by: Fausto De Nevi Herrera

I recently watched as Dr. Kim challenged a group of eminent Americans to meet our gravest environmental challenges head on.  He said, “Show me your plan to solve climate change.”  The room erupted; we are taking him up on that.

On overfishing – the biggest single threat to the world ocean – he said, “Show me your plan to bring half of the world’s fish production into sustainability in ten years, and the rest of it in our lifetimes.”  EDF’s Oceans program is today fully committed – through a growing partnership spearheaded by the World Bank – to make that happen. We know the steps it will take, and the partnerships we must build, and we are beginning now.

Together we will make these powerful plans work. 

What Dr. Kim did not say, but what demonstrates in his own story, is that it also takes that small group of dedicated visionaries – the heroes.

Luckily for me, and for your “mother” planet, you see them standing all around you here today: your professors, your friends of today who will also be your colleagues of tomorrow.  Perhaps most importantly, deep inside each and every one of you a hero lurks. The future of your own “mother” earth is truly in your hands.