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New Year what-next pondering

A few days before the end of 2011, the BBC broadcast my last appearance on Home Planet. After nearly 6 years of taking part I’m undeniably sad to see the series come to an end. But on that last show, rather than dwelling on things coming to an end I was granted the chance to cast an eye forwards and ponder what-next for marine science and the oceans.

Today being New Year’s Day – the traditional day to look ahead – here is a neatened, expanded-on, written-down version of those thoughts. Happy 2012 everybody.

There’s no doubt that these are exciting times for the oceans. Technology is opening up the depths and extraordinary discoveries are pouring out. We’re encountering forms of life we could never have imagined – there are corals that live for four thousand years and yeti crabs that tend farms of bacteria in their hairy, crabby claws. And it’s likely that so far we’ve found only one in ten of all the species that lurk beneath the waves. Twenty percent of the oceans remain utterly unexplored. How exciting to ponder what we’ll find next.

But as our understanding of the oceans deepens, as the seas give up more of their innermost secrets, we also continue to unveil and bring into focus the dire state of  the planet’s blue parts.

As we do that, it will become ever more urgent to transform our attitudes towards the oceans and our relationship with all the things that live there.

We need to protect much more of the oceans from our collective assaults and we need to completely rethink the way we throw junk into and pull food out of the seas.

We need to stop killing bluefin tuna, stop killing sharks, stop killing Atlantic cod. We need to pull off the label that reads FOOD from a host of other vulnerable and endangered species and reinstate them as wild species, to place them in the same part of our consciousness as all those other more beloved land-based, air-breathing beasts.

As consumers it’s well within our abilities and brains to change our ways. Refuse to swallow the blue wash; demand better information about the seafood you buy; ask questions.

That may seem like a radical change but it’s happened before and it can happen again. Only a generation ago it was acceptable to hunt whales for food and oil. People spread whale fat on their toast, made underwear from their bones, and licked their boiled down blubber from the back of stamps. Now public opinion has spun around and commercial whaling is (more or less) seen as outrageous and wrong. We’ve found alternatives and now we leave whales alone.

Science played a major part in this. It showed the complexities of whale biology, it revealed just how effectively we obliterated their numbers, and it helped transform whales from industrial resource to strictly protected wildlife. We need to do the same for other marine species and for the oceans as a whole.

And as ocean science moves forwards we will find more ways in which the oceans matter to us. From the practical and economic benefits (the food we eat, the oxygen we breathe) all the way through to the intangible, as we slowly realise that the world is a better place just knowing that there are extraordinary creatures out there.

As the filmmaker Werner Herzog said “what would an ocean be without a monster lurking in the dark? It would be like sleep without dreams”.

We need to start doing a much better job of looking after our seamonsters – the ones we know about, and all the others that we haven’t yet found.

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