Transcript: Julia Whitty, "The Fate of the Ocean", Mar 06 2006

Julia Whitty spoke of the state of the oceans worldwide, and how attacking them on all sides: fishing, dead zones, fish farming, chemical contamination, the political will.

Thom Hartmann interview with Julia Whitty, March 20 2006

[Thom Hartmann] Julia Whitty has a new article out. She's a contributing writer for Mother Jones magazine, motherjones.com, new article out titled "The Fate of the Ocean". Julia, welcome to the programme.

[Julia Whitty] Hi.

[Thom Hartmann] Great to have you with us, here. What is the state of the oceans worldwide?

[Julia Whitty] Well, it's not good right now. There's a lot we're doing to the oceans on every front. We're kind of attacking them on all sides and most of this goes on out of sight of us living on land, so that most of us aren't even aware of what's happening. If we were doing to the land what we're doing to the ocean there'd be a huge uproar, but most of it goes unseen.

[Thom Hartmann] And what is it that we're doing to the ocean?

[Julia Whitty] We're attacking from a variety of fronts. Let's start with fishing. We have modern industrialized fisheries that takes, indiscriminately take life out of the ocean, so that the world fish catch, about 25% of that per year is species that we don't eat or there's fish that are too small; we don't eat them. Twenty five percent of the annual world fish catch is thrown overboard that are dying. That amounts to about 88 billion pounds of fish a year; that's 'b' as in bravo. We couldn't sustain that on the land and neither can the oceans.

[Thom Hartmann] So, are we running out of fish?

[Julia Whitty] We are running out of fish. A study that came out of Nova Scotia which was a really seminal study, there'd always been an assumption within fisheries management that there were still lots of big fish out there in the ocean; the big tunas, the big swordfish, the big sharks and things like that. This study determined that in fact more than 90% of those big fish are gone. They are completely gone. There are no more big fish in the ocean. And the few that are left are tending to be captured smaller and smaller; frequently before they've even reached sexual maturity and can breed. Obviously this is a very short-sighted policy.

[Thom Hartmann] Are they gone because their food supply is gone, because we're competing with them for food? Or are they gone because we're taking them out?

[Julia Whitty] It's because for the most part we're collecting them. And because these modern industrialized fisheries are indiscriminate, even if we don't eat so many of them, say, some of the shark species we don't even eat them, but they get caught on the long lines, in the gill nets and in the trawl fisheries and they are, you know, wiped out in that manner. Now, sharks and many of these fish are slow breeders. Some sharks don't reach sexual maturity until 25 years old, and then they maybe only give birth to a litter of twins every three years. So you can imagine, just run the math on that one in your head. If you're taking out the adult breeding population and you aren't allowing other ones to grow up you're going to end up with none of these animals eventually. And we're heading, we're hitting that point in some species. There's currently, the Gulf of Mexico Oceanic Whitetip was an extremely prevalent shark, is now 99% gone; it's effectively extinct.

[Thom Hartmann] We're talking with Julia Whitty. Her new article "The Fate of the Ocean" in Mother Jones. Julia, you use an analogy or a metaphor or whatever the right word is, I can't keep them straight, about hunting lions.

[Julia Whitty] Yes, basically this again goes back to if we did on the land what we're doing in the sea, you know, there'd be such an uproar. So, the way we take fish out of the sea, we hunt fish in the sea, let's say we ate lions, and that's basically what we're eating when we eat tuna and swordfish; we're eating the lions of the sea.

[Thom Hartmann] You mean the top predators.

[Julia Whitty] The top predators. And in order to catch those, let's say we went to the savanna and we threw a net around the whole savanna and we dragged in every last living thing; all the wildebeest, all the gazelle, all the meercats. We dragged all the vegetation out by the roots and then we threw all that stuff away and ate a few lions. That's what we're doing in the oceans.

[Thom Hartmann] Tell me about dead zones.

[Julia Whitty] Dead zones are a sad reality of the green revolution. They are a byproduct of using chemical fertilizers on the land, as we make plants grow on the land all those fertilizers wash downstream. They end up in the ocean. They end up on those coastal shelf regions that were the most productive fisheries in the ocean. But plant bloom in the ocean is not a good thing like it is on land. And it leads to a chain reaction of events that eventually ends up with huge areas that there is no oxygen in the water. So imagine you're in your office or you're in your car and suddenly all the oxygen is sucked out of your world. Well you'll either try to get away or you'll die. And you don't have a lot of time to do that. So these dead zones are all over the mouths of rivers of the word where there's no oxygen in the water. There's currently 150 dead zones on the planet and the number of those is doubling every decade.

[Thom Hartmann] We're talking with Julia Whitty. Her new article "The Fate of the Ocean" in Mother Jones is brilliant, in motherjones.com, you've got to read this thing. Julia, I think a lot of Americans assume that, you know, the law of supply and demand is the - or the so-called law of supply and demand - is the canary in the mineshaft. It's the point, you know, that's the flag for them, you know. And when the price of gasoline doubles in a 3 year period then people start looking around, going, "Hey! Maybe this stuff is getting in short supply, and, you know, let's talk about peak oil". Whereas before that nobody wanted to talk about peak oil. Why, if this is true, if the oceans are so badly being depleted, if the fisheries are so exhausted, or if the fish are so exhausted, quantities of fish, if there are so many dead zones around the world, why is fish still a relatively cheap food?

[Julia Whitty] Well, I know in my lifetime it's become more and more expensive. It used to be a cheap food. It's really not any more. But the truth is, once we wipe out one species, we just change the target and go after another. I mean, you look back in the past, and apparently there have been people who've actually been studying historical restaurant menus from the past, and they realize that in 19th century America lobster for instance was snubbed as food for the poor because it was so incredibly abundant that poor people could just, just ate it all the time. Middle class people wouldn't touch the stuff. Obviously that's changed. Now lobster's some of the most expensive food that you can eat. So our tastes change, and abundance changes and what we're willing to eat changes. So it creates a false sense of continuing abundance when in fact there isn't.

[Thom Hartmann] Now, what about the, what about the suggestion that if we just engage in intensive agriculture in the oceans the way we do in the mid west, you know, giant monoculture farms where we grow, you know, 100,000 acres of wheat or, you know, 500,000 acres of corn. Why don't we just, you know, grow a thousand acres or 5,000 acres of salmon, for example, in a giant fish farm? "That'll solve all our problems".

[Julia Whitty] Well, we do have fish farming under way, and sadly it's not the fix it's supposed to be. To feed every one pound of farmed salmon that goes to market, three pounds of fish were taken out of the wild to feed that salmon and as a result of the increase in farming or aquaculture of salmon and other fish right now, we're actually going out into the ocean and fishing new species that were completely pristine and completely untouched until we began to farm fish. And some of these are the basis of the food web like krill. We're going out and collecting increasing amounts of krill to feed salmon, primarily for the purpose of when they eat krill, it turns their flesh a nice desirable pink color. That's the main reason we're wiping out krill to feed salmon. So, in addition to that, a lot of these farming operations happen in coastal areas that are heavily polluted. There's a lot of contaminants in many of these farmed fish. Farmed salmon from Scotland have been deemed so contaminated that people are advised to eat them only a handful of times a year.

[Thom Hartmann] Contaminated by what?

[Julia Whitty] Pretty much everything that comes out of our modern industrialized world. I mean, everything from fire-retardant chemicals to PCBs, DDT, everything that we use; the thousands and thousands of chemical compounds that we create every single year. All of them eventually make their way to the ocean. And in many cases they stay there longer than they stay on the land.

[Thom Hartmann] Julia Whitty, we have a minute and a half or so. What can be done?

[Julia Whitty] There are solutions to every one of these problems. In some cases they're simple. The Gulf of Mexico dead zone, we need to minimize fertilizer applications by 12 to 14% a year and we can drastically reduce the dead zones. Simple. Even all the global climate change issues we know what to do, they're not that hard, we just won't do it. Fisheries: we know how to better manage fisheries than we're actually managing them right now. There are solutions to every one of these things. So far, we lack the political will. We seem to lack the maturity to tackle these true threats to homeland security.

[Thom Hartmann] And what happens if we do nothing?

[Julia Whitty] The world as we know it will never be the same and this is the world we evolved in. We evolved in a relatively stable time in the planet's history and that isn't going to be in the future. We're going to be looking at major upheaval on every front and it's not entirely clear how well we will fare under those conditions.

[Thom Hartmann] Do you see any evidence that, of any political will anywhere, obviously not in the Bush administration unless I am mistaken, but are you, the opposition party, the Democratic Party?

[Julia Whitty] I think they're dreadfully under-interested in this stuff. I mean we had a State of the Union address and a follow-up Democratic response and nobody mentioned once any of these issues. These are the real challenges of the twenty-first century; these are what we have to solve and we're not even, we don't even have legislation pending on most of this stuff. So I think Europe in some areas is slightly ahead of us, and this is why I'm cheering them getting together and becoming a stronger political force but even that is not perfect.

[Thom Hartmann] Yeah, and they're ahead of us on the atmosphere as well. Julia Whitty, motherjones.com, the article "The Fate of the Ocean". Check it out my friends. Julia, thank you for being with us.

[Julia Whitty] Thank you, Thom.

[Thom Hartmann] Great talking with you.

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