Going with the flow

Jean-Michel Cousteau : Ocean Futures Society

From the Santa Barbara, California headquarters of Ocean Futures Society, the non-profit organisation he founded in 1999, Jean-Michel Cousteau describes his commitment to protecting the oceans and the environment. This subject has been close to his heart since the age of seven, when his father Jacques-Yves threw him overboard to let him discover for himself the fascinating world of the sea. Now 74 he is one of the ocean’s most noted ambassadors, full of new projects.

Jean-Michel Cousteau, you have been studying the world’s oceans for more than 40 years. Do you think people have finally woken up to the urgent need to think about the health of the water that covers 70% of our planet?

Absolutely. Twenty or thirty years ago when the first warnings about the health of the oceans began to go public, governments took no interest at all. Unfortunately, fish don’t vote. At that time personalities like my father stood virtually alone in their desire to bring to the fore this issue of global significance since the oceans cover 70% of the earth’s surface. Forty years later his efforts and those of other marine specialists are paying off. This was demonstrated at the Rio + 20 conference in June, where protecting the oceans was the sixth of seven critical themes covered in the zero draft (the official text of the subjects discussed at this event). Ocean-related themes accounted for almost 20% of the discussions by the Brazilian government and the United Nations.

“ Water is a unique element that is essential to life on earth. Global reflection is therefore needed to ensure that action is taken intelligently.”

You attended the conference as an expert, did you feel your message was heard?

Yes, we were able to run an entire campaign on the protection of the oceans and implementation of measures to ensure that nature can peacefully thrive in this fragile ecosystem. People have to understand that the water all over the world is controlled by one single system. If you ski in the Swiss mountains, the snow you are gliding down comes from the same water you find in the oceans ; it is a globally-interconnected system. Until recently we treated the oceans rather like giant dustbins. Rapid changes of attitude are necessary at a time when the world’s population is growing by 100 million each year.

“We need to stop viewing the ocean like a no man’s land, with the attitude that once you reach the 200 nautical mile mark, you arrive in international waters where everyone can just do as they please.”

What specifically do you do on a daily basis to lead the campaign to foster care for the environment and the seas?

I devote a great deal of time to youth education and trying to convince governments to put in place school programmes to firmly fix environmental concern in young people’s minds from the earliest years onwards. On a global level, we need to stop viewing the ocean like a no man’s land, with the attitude that once you reach the 200 nautical mile mark (370 km), you arrive in international waters where everyone can do as they please, particularly when it comes to commercial fishing. We need to be conscious of the fact that 90% of our large fish have disappeared in the space of 50 years. Fortunately 10% remain, so that if we take the right steps soon, there is hope that we will see the return of better-stocked underwater fauna.

Is this decline in underwater diversity essentially due to human activity?

Yes, the available resources are being used up too quickly and that cannot go on. There is an urgent need to start thinking about the environment in the same way as we do the economy. You cannot spend more than you have without your company or the whole system collapsing. The terms economy and ecology share the same Greek root, oikos, meaning house. The house in question is the earth; and I have no desire to move out. Without water, life will not be able to exist on this planet.

What specific measures do you propose?

Just 2% of the oceans belong to protected zones. If we were able to bring this up to 20% of the zones that are not currently controlled, the situation would rapidly improve, and I am speaking from my own experience. In 2005 and 2006 I led an expedition to the islands situated to the north-west of Hawaii, several thousand kilometres from the nearest human life. We found thousands of tonnes of plastic waste from more than 52 different countries. A few months later, I had the opportunity to show our film at the White House in the presence of President Bush and the First Lady, afew months after that, on 15 June 2006, George W. Bush designated this area a protected zone. Australia and the UK have since enacted similar measures. If these zones really are protected and monitored, species will be able to reproduce at extraordinary rates and everyone will benefit, even the fishermen who are no longer permitted to work in them.

“ The available resources are clearly being used up too quickly and that cannot go on.”

How will people benefit?

When all the conditions are met for allowing the ecosystem to function adequately, species will develop at such a rate that the overpopulation of fish will quickly leave the protected zones to thrive. Fishermen will then see their nets brimming with fish in the authorised zones. Five or six years ago when new protected zones were designated in California there was outcry among fishermen. Today, they are thanking us. I have always been on the fishermen’s side, I love eating fish, but I am campaigning so that fishing is managed in a way that is sustainable and takes in the global picture.

You are totally committed to the protection of the sea. Does your concern also embrace access to clean drinking water for all of the world’s population?

Of course, I find it shocking that in the third millennium 4,000 to 5,000 children are dying each day because they lack access to clean water. It is simply unacceptable. If we can put a man on the moon we should be able to eliminate this problem tomorrow morning – especially as solutions exist. For example, there are companies that make water bottles that can filter any water 300 times to make it fit for human consumption; other companies make blocks for transporting drinking water. These blocks can be re-used as a material for housing construction. There are a wealth of easy solutions that can be implemented rapidly.

If you ski in the Swiss Mountains, the snow you are gliding down comes from the same water you find in the oceans covering the earth’s surface.”

Are disasters like those experienced at Fukushima or in the Gulf of Mexico really that catastrophic for the environment? A few months or years later no one is talking about them.

Unfortunately, yes. I met with a team that has serious concerns about Fukushima. They have discovered bluefin tuna, (fast-moving, like undersea Formula 1 racing cars) affected by this nuclear disaster, arriving on the east coast of the USA. They contain mercury and radioactive traces. Other species will follow in the coming months. As for the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, we are still seeing prawns without eyes and crabs without claws several years after the event. All of these things have a grave environmental impact.

You also produced the film “call of the killer whale” in 2009, which shows the extent to which chemical products are contaminating many species, including the eponymous killer whales.

Yes, I am truly fascinated by killer whales, a dominant species that resembles man in the water, with its matriarchal society. The film shows that the synthetic flame retardants that we use to prevent everything, from baby’s pyjamas to mobile phones, from rapidly igniting have permeated our oceans. This has reached such an extent that some groups of sedentary killer whales can no longer reproduce. The situation is serious, the quality of these animals’ sperm has changed significantly and their thyroids have been affected. The negative impact of these products is also affecting humans, as some of us eat the same fish!

“In the third millennium, 4,000 to 5,000 children are dying each day because they lack access to clean water.”

When you produce and direct a film it often raises the public’s awareness of an issue, what will be the subject of your next film?

I dream of making a film about the arteries of the sea – the deep currents due to high density and gravity at depths of more than 300 metres. They play an incredibly important role in the overall functioning of the oceans and the planet. A friend of mine is developing a sort of armour that will make it possible to dive with the same freedom of movement as a tank, while providing protection from the pressure at depths of up to 300 metres. I am going to test this equipment in the next few weeks and it could be very useful for such a project.

Is your work still a family affair with the new generation of Cousteaus?

Yes, my children, Fabien and Céline, accompany me on some expeditions but they are involved in their own projects as well. My son launched a global marine life preservation initiative with his “Plant a Fish” programme. Among other achievements he has re-introduced oysters, which filter water and provide shelter or food for other species, in New York. My daughter Céline is mainly focusing on the human race. She has spent a great deal of time in Chile and Latin America working on several projects.

Your father travelled the world on board the calypso. Do you have a vessel of your own to travel on expeditions?

Unfortunately not, but I do dream of having one. All the drawings exist for a ship that runs on wind and solar energy, but we don’t have the funds to build it. It was a lot easier to find the funds for expeditions 50 years ago than it is today. I spend a lot of time looking for sponsors and donors to balance my foundation’s budget, I haven’t lost hope.

Jean-Michel Cousteau

Jean-Michel Cousteau, 74, the oldest son of aqualung diving pioneer Jacques-Yves Cousteau, has spent his  life exploring the seas with his family.

Explorer, environmentalist, educator and film producer, he is dedicated to communicating his passion and concern for our planet by any means possible.

In 1999, he founded the non-profit organisation Ocean Futures Society, which aims to be a “Voice for the Ocean”, to continue his father’s work.

He has made more than 80 films, for which he has won the highest accolades.