What we have lost and what we want to save

I was born in Venice Lido, Italy, and as a child I often played on the beach with my mask and dipnet. At sea I found crabs, seahorses, starfish and other treasures that fascinated me. This passion for the sea settled in my heart and as I grew up I enrolled at the University of Padua to become a biologist. At the age of 22 I began to board oceanographic and other vessels to study Mediterranean cetaceans. At the time little was known about these animals and each sighting evoked a strong emotion. I also sailed the ocean, but I can get seriously seasick on rough seas and living on a boat was not for me. In the end, I found an ideal setting by moving to the Island of Lošinj where, during former Yugoslavia’s turmoil years, I rented a small house in the port of Rovenska. With my inflatable boat, moored a few steps away, I went out to sea to study a community of bottlenose dolphins. Back then, I was unaware of the project being the first of this type in the Mediterranean. Dolphin monitoring in that area continues to this day, after over thirty years.

After Lošinj, I was lucky to study cetaceans in several other parts of the Mediterranean. My colleagues and I have spent considerable time observing free-ranging dolphins, and have written a number of conservation-oriented scientific articles. Twenty-five years ago we decided to study common dolphins in Ionian Greece, in an area inhabited by one of the last communities of this species in the eastern Mediterranean Sea. Common dolphins are wonderful animals and in the 1990s they were still abundant in those waters. We often spotted them in the company of schools of tuna, busy feeding on sardines or anchovies. After a decade, the common dolphin population had declined dramatically. Our research showed that the main responsibility was of industrial fishing: purse seiners and trawlers operated unsustainably, damaging the ecosystem and wiping out the dolphin’s key prey. The solution could be simple: reducing the industrial fishing effort and banning destructive fishing methods. We made several calls for action, but these measures were not taken.

Sadly, these types of measures are rarely taken, to the extent that the Mediterranean Sea is the world’s most overexploited by fishing. Within the Mediterranean, the Adriatic is the sea most affected by the cumulative impact of human activities. Due to these impacts, the common dolphin has completely disappeared. It was one of the most abundant species in the Adriatic, and today there is no more. The bottlenose dolphin still survives, but is considered vulnerable. How can bottlenose dolphins survive? To understand this, we are carrying out a study on the Italian side of the northern Adriatic, from the Tagliamento river to the Po delta. In the context of this study we also monitor fishing boats, and not infrequently we find bottlenose dolphins feeding behind trawlers. It is a form of adaptation: these dolphins have learned to take advantage of fishing activities, the same fishing that has impoverished their environment.

In a world increasingly altered by humans, only the most adaptable and opportunistic species can survive. These animals adapt their behaviour and eat what is left, while the least resilient species disappear. Those that are overfished also disappear. Fifteen years ago I visited the fish market in Tripoli, Libya. Back then, industrial fishing had just started in Libyan waters and there were still much fish. I remember large groupers put on display, but the Libyan fishmongers told me that those groupers were small, and that the really big ones had all disappeared because of overfishing. Today, it is quite difficult to imagine what the oceans used to be in the past. In the first half of the twentieth century the sea was teeming with huge fish, and even reputable scientists thought that marine resources were “inexhaustible”. They turned out to be badly wrong. We have wiped out much of the life in our oceans, destroying entire ecosystems. The large fish are gone.

Dolphins and whales also die in fishing nets. The vaquita, a porpoise living in the Gulf of California, has been decimated by incidental catches in illegal fishing nets. Although the problem has been known for many years, little action was taken to protect this small cetacean and today there are only 20 individuals left: the last of their species. Another dolphin, the baiji, was declared extinct in 2006. It lived on our planet for millions of years, but could not withstand human impact. The loss of species and biodiversity is a huge tragedy; the numbers and the effects of this tragedy are appalling. Natural ecosystems have halved, the biomass of wild mammals has decreased by more than 80%, and one million species are at risk of extinction. In peer-reviewed articles, scientists call it biological annihilation, biodiversity collapse, the sixth mass extinction, and climate catastrophe. The crime of ecocide has also been proposed. But who is responsible for such a crime?

Over the course of my life (I am 55) the human population has more than doubled. Today we are 7.7 billion people. The burning of fossil fuels (coal, oil, natural gas, etc.), produces carbon dioxide that alters the climate — and pollutants that poison the atmosphere. Every year, smoke from coal-burning kills more than half a million people. Part of the carbon dioxide produced in excess is absorbed by the oceans, but this makes them more acidic. The increase in acidity causes the death of corals and the disappearance of coral reefs, an invaluable biodiversity treasure. I am not an expert on climate change, but as a biologist and researcher I regularly read the scientific literature and am shocked by the ongoing and predicted effects of rising temperatures. The present lack of political response to the climate emergency is simply insane.

Plastic, which has become part of our daily life, does not disappear after we throw it away. If it is not burned (producing toxic substances such as dioxin), or exported to poorer countries, it is released into the environment. Part of it ends up in the sea, where it floats on the surface or covers the ocean floor. It is even found at the depth of ten thousand meters, and in the stomachs of cetaceans. The Mediterranean is the sea with the highest concentration of microplastics; being a closed sea, all the plastic we pour in remains there. Plastic fragments and fibers are now everywhere, they enter the food chain and sneak into our body, with effects still unknown.

Pollution has made the air of big cities unbreathable. A recent study by the University of Chicago shows that air pollution takes away an average of 1.8 years of life to the entire human population. By comparison, road accidents take 4.5 months; war and terrorism 22 days. We have poisoned the air we breathe, the water we drink, the food we eat. These facts are reported daily, and perhaps we have become gradually accustomed to them. Yet, they jeopardise the survival of entire human communities, affect us personally, and threaten the next generations even more.

So we have to do something, but what? Indeed, we can engage in individual actions, collective actions, or both. For example, we can use more sustainable means of transportation, and fly less, considering that aviation produces large amounts of CO2. We can choose carefully what we buy and where to buy it, preferring locally sourced food grown without the use of poisons. We can stop consuming meat, because the global consumption of meat has unsustainable environmental costs, and contributes to global warming. If we can’t do without eating meat, we can at least reduce its consumption, pay attention to where it comes from, and choose more sustainable products. The industry is slowly adapting, with new plant-based products such as Beyond Meat and the Impossible Burger (which meat-lovers find very good). We should also stop eating fish, because we cannot keep devastating the sea. For the record, eating farmed fish does not have a lower impact: farmed fish are predators and fed with wild fish caught at sea. To produce a kilogram of farmed fish, several kilos of fish are caught and turned into pellets, fuelling overfishing. Finally, we can and should recycle, reuse and above all reduce our consumption patterns.

Individual action, however, is not enough: collective action is also desperately needed. Anthropologist Margaret Mead wrote: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world: indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.” It is necessary to mobilize, and the students’ protests and strikes seen in recent months are effective warnings to steer humanity away from catastrophe. Last April, in London, more than a thousand people were arrested as they protested the government’s lack of response to the environmental and climate emergency (the movement is called Extinction Rebellion). Some may mock or dismiss these initiatives, but recent research shows that they have great potential. In the last 100 years, non-violent campaigns have been twice as successful as violent uprisings. These non-violent protests are among the actions that really can change the world, and the mechanism can be set in motion by a relatively small percentage of “thoughtful, committed citizens”. Some research suggests that 3.5% of a population can trigger significant change in politics and human behaviour.

In addition to protest actions, initiatives to protect and restore natural environments can also be effective. A recent article published in Nature, one of the most prestigious scientific journals, shows that rebuilding natural forests is the best way to remove atmospheric carbon dioxide. No doubt: we need more forests to save the planet. In the oceans, posidonia beds and kelp meadows (the “forests” of the sea), and indeed the phytoplankton, play the same role as plants on land. The oceans help keep the planet in balance and that is one more reason to protect them. Unfortunately, we are not doing so, and less than ever in our Mediterranean.

Finally, individual actions can inspire collective actions. Individual actions are rarely exclusively “individual”, because our behaviour and choices affect those of others. On 20 August 2018, 15-years old Greta Thunberg started a school strike in front of the Swedish Parliament, to ask for incisive climate action. Her individual initiative has inspired millions of people around the world, giving life to the Fridays for Future movement. After only seven months, 1.6 million people in 131 nations participated in the protest inspired by Greta. Another example is Felix Finkbeiner. At the age of 9, he decided to plant one million trees. Felix then founded the Plant for the Planet movement and after only four years he achieved his goal. The motto of his movement is “Stop talking, start planting.” Felix went on planting. He is now ​​21 years old and thanks to him and his movement there are 15 billion more trees on our planet. In 2011, the United Nations entrusted him with the management of the Billion Tree Campaign, which aims to plant one thousand billion trees.

The great primatologist Jane Goodall said “You cannot get through a single day without having an impact on the world around you. What you do makes a difference, and you have to decide what kind of difference you want to make.” One doesn’t have to be like Greta, Felix or Jane; everyone can engage in the way that suits them best. We can set a good example, involve others, mobilize, support those who act. Our small team of marine conservation biologists has been trying to contribute by studying dolphins in their natural environment, in the hope of protecting them. However, it isn’t just about hope. As Emily Johnston wrote, “Our job is not to feel hope—that’s optional. Our job is to be hope, and to make space for the chance of a different future.” As long as there is something beautiful and important to be protected, we can always make a difference. And therefore we must.

Dr. Giovanni Bearzi

Dr. Giovanni Bearzi

Founder and President of Dolphin Biology and Conservation, Italy