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Despite the doom and gloom view often touted by climatologists - that the planet has been irrevocably damaged by human activity - there's at least one scientist who believes this may just be the best time in history to save the oceans.

That scientist is Sylvia Earle, a famed oceanographer whose career accomplishments include the title of current explorer-in-residence at the National Geographic Society, Time Magazine's first Hero for the Planet and former chief scientist of NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

"There's a great opportunity to take action to save what we can while we still can, but we first have to understand what is going on," Earle said in the Montana State University Friends of Stegner Lecture at the Ellen Theatre on Thursday evening.

"What is going on," according to Earle, includes the deterioration of the world's coral reefs, the overfishing and poaching of important ocean carnivores like the blue fin tuna and increased pollution of the sea, largely a result of Western abundance and overindulgence.

Due to industrialized nations' insatiable appetite for tuna, a 200-kilogram tuna can be sold for $100,000, Earle said, making it one of the most overfished species in the world.

"We take 100 million tons of wildlife out of the sea every year," she said, "and most of it is just bycatch," caught unintentionally by fishermen after the big-ticket fish.

Most of what we've learned about the ocean has been gleaned with technological advances in the past half-century. When Earle was growing up in the 1950s, there was a species of monk seal that inhabited the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico, she said. But capture of the animal for its pelts caused the seal to disappear. The last one was sighted in 1952.

"People didn't realize it was happening until it was too late," she said. "But there's just no excuse anymore."

Earle said she no longer eats fish because of her intimate knowledge about the effects of commercial fishing on ocean life. When asked by an audience member what individuals can do to remedy the state of the oceans, Earle first suggested "holding up a mirror" to examine how personal behavior affects the sea.

If you must eat fish, choose species that are lower on the food chain, like catfish or carp, she said. Recycle as much plastic as possible. But most important, tell other people about what's happening and try to get them involved in making a change.

Humans have the advantage of being able to reflect on our actions and the technology to understand them, she said. That, combined with the resiliency of nature and the ideology of future generations, can truly make a difference.

"This is a moment in time, maybe a decade, when there's still a chance," she said.

Lauren Russell can be reached at or 582-2635.


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