Preserving Our Underwater World

Click here to read an original op-ed from the TED speaker who inspired this post and watch the TEDTalk below.

The master illusionist Jean Hugard once said that genuine magic demands perfect simplicity of execution.

Those of us fortunate enough to explore the wonders beneath the surface of the ocean know that the most genuine and astonishing acts of magic are underwater.

That snake isn't a snake, it's a mimic octopus. That epaulette shark really is walking on its fins, not swimming. That piece of coral -- that's actually an ocellated frogfish. That rock -- a scorpion fish.

Some tropical corners of the ocean are so full of these master illusionists that is seems like nothing is what it seems to be. There is a constant shape-shifting, morphing, bamboozling, faking, and juking that is mesmerizing and disorienting.

These survival strategies also exist on land, but the evolution of underwater species -- freed from the problem of gravity -- seems capable of even more baroque adaptations.

To my mind, there is no more interesting marine species than the octopus. Octopi live less than four years, but they are born smart. A hungry octopus will unscrew a mason jar or serially raid adjacent aquaria in search of food. There is a species of octopus in the Southwest Pacific that is nicknamed mimic octopus because it can shape shift to resemble 15 other species -- when attacked by a damselfish, it makes itself look like a damselfish predator.

You can wiggle your fingers in front of a cuttlefish, and it will display amorous bands of electric lights rolling along its torso. You can dive at night in shallow Indonesian waters and watch an octopus immediately adapt to the beam of your flashlight and disappear in plain sight. It is one of the most head-slappingly amazing sights in nature.

But let's also be clear: The main reason for these incredible charades is that life under water truly is short, nasty and brutish. All but the very top of the marine food chain are in constant danger of meeting usually gruesome deaths. Life cycles are short, and if you don't reproduce in huge numbers, you'd better be wicked fast, poisonous, enormously useful, or practically invisible. There is no respite; the forces of threat and opportunity are relentless.

The ocean is a life laboratory on fast forward. Life adapts rapidly to highly specialized environments. Circumstances shift constantly in the ocean -- temperatures and nutrient levels fluctuate, currents shift, predators come in waves -- and the ocean responds with vehement resilience.

It is resilient; it will adapt; and it will provide for us unless we forget about its vital role at the center of the biggest challenge of our time -- how to help meet the enormous resource demands of a rapidly growing global population without destroying the natural systems that sustain us. -- Andreas Merkl

But we cannot take the ocean's resilience for granted, especially as we are saddled with an utterly uncertain climate future that is changing the ocean's physical and biological characteristics right before our eyes.

The first rule of crisis management is to preserve your options at all costs. The ocean preserves our options. It is resilient; it will adapt; and it will provide for us unless we forget about its vital role at the center of the biggest challenge of our time -- how to help meet the enormous resource demands of a rapidly growing global population without destroying the natural systems that sustain us.

In every aspect of this challenge -- food, energy, climate and protection of our natural resources -- the ability to manage our impacts on the ocean will make the crucial difference in sustaining the resources that we need to survive.

The ocean, in its vastness, is hard to damage; but we have cleverly used our very best technologies to do so. Humans have utilized satellite and sonar systems to herd the last of the Georges Bank cod into nets the size of football fields and have employed longlines of 30 million hooks in the Southern Pacific every year to snag all kinds of predators. We've fished down sharks -- large predators that are the symbol of a healthy ecosystem -- to 10 percent of their original biomass.

This makes absolutely no sense, when we know that the most economically beneficial fishing is sustainable fishing, when we keep enough fish in the water to reproduce and ensure a bountiful catch in the future.

Our current ways of managing the ocean are economically irrational, and we run the risk of permanently impoverishing the very system on which we will rely in the future to keep the process of adaptation and evolution going. While there are short-term profits to be made, it robs us of the most precious commodity we have in these turbulent times: options.

What gives me great hope is that our ability to understand complex systems is exploding right now. It is no accident that the U.S. has completely reformed its fishery management system in the past 10 years, and that Europe is set to soon approve a policy that if implemented in a timely manner will stop overfishing and allow fish populations to recover. Expanding these management practices into the tropics and the arctic regions are the most immediate and pressing challenges.

Although we are in a race against time, we may just turn the corner. Ocean Conservancy intends to lead the way in ensuring that our astonishing underwater world continues to sustain lives and livelihoods for future generations. With careful science and wise decisions, our great grandchildren will also find our ocean to be, if I may borrow from Mr. Hugard, genuinely magical.
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