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Oceans Under Threat

Covering 70% of Earth’s surface and containing 97% of its water, seas and oceans are vital to our planet. The exhibition Planète Océan, held at Bercy Village, in Paris, France from October 7, 2023, to January 6, 2024, embarks visitors on “journey between sky and sea.” Through the lens of Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Brian Skerry, the exhibition showcases the oceans’ beauty and mystery, and highlights their vulnerability.

As Yann Arthus-Bertrand, a French aerial photographer, notes, “two billion people’s livelihoods are directly tied to the seas and oceans.” He emphasizes the integral connection between humanity and the sea, underscoring our reliance not just for food resources such as fish and seafood, but also for essential raw materials and fossil fuels.

However, this dependency has led to rampant exploitation, precipitating a catastrophic mass extinction of both marine and terrestrial fauna. Scientists recognize this as the sixth extinction event, and the first driven by human activity. Arthus-Bertrand stresses the alarming apathy towards this crisis, with most people unaware of the profound negative impact this extinction could have on humanity.

Compounding this indifference is the apparent ignorance among political leaders. Arthus-Bertrand attributes this to a “lack of courage” and an inability to deviate from electoral interests. He criticizes some politicians for their reluctance to be adequately informed or to implement necessary measures, thereby jeopardizing the lives and future of people worldwide.

Ocean Planet © Brian Skerry

“Do we truly cherish life?”

“We often console ourselves, thinking: ‘we’ll see what happens’ or ‘it’s not our fault,’” laments Arthus-Bertrand. But this sort of thinking does no good to anyone. The photographer highlights the puzzling duality of the human mind: “one side, rational and proactive, urges us to act responsibly, while the other inhibits us from taking the necessary positive actions.”

“Do we truly cherish life?,” he wonders. The simplicity of the question belies its complexity. An earnest affirmation would necessitate transformative changes—in how we live, perceive nature, and interact with it; in our production and consumption patterns. Such a change would demand genuine, climate-focused political actions, “reflecting the collective will of humanity.”

“While capturing landscapes and environments, photographers inherently become advocates, as we document the changes and impacts on nature.”

Yann Arthus-Bertrand

In his continued exploration of the world’s oceans, building on the documentary Planet Ocean, Arthus-Bertrand, known for his aerial photography, partnered with Brian Skerry, an American underwater photographer. Their collaboration aims to reveal the ocean’s beauty and fragility. “From above, we see only a fraction of the ocean’s expanse. Diving into its depths, even for the fortunate few, reveals just a glimpse of its vast, incredible world,” he explains. Despite his limited experience in underwater photography and diving, Arthus-Bertrand embraced this partnership as a meaningful venture.

“I don’t know if photography is the right medium, but everyone has a role to play, and I am doing my part,” explains Arthus-Bertrand. There is one thing he is sure of: “While capturing landscapes and environments, photographers inherently become advocates, as we document the changes and impacts on nature.” He admits that during the creative process, his focus isn’t on how his work might influence public engagement, yet he remains confident in its power to inspire action.

Raja Ampat Islands: Waigeo Island, Kabui Bay, West Papua province, Indonesia (0°19’ S, 130°37’ E). © Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Men and the sea

The conversation about the impact of human activity and climate change on our oceans often begins with the alarming reality of melting ice caps and glaciers, leading to rising sea levels. Sylvie Dufour, Director of Research at CNRS and Sea Mission Officer at the National Museum of Natural History, highlights a less obvious yet equally critical aspect: the warming of the oceans themselves. As she points out, “When ocean waters warm, they expand,” emphasizing the direct correlation between rising temperatures and increasing sea levels.

The scientist draws attention to coastal erosion as a primary and immediate consequence: “In time, entire islands may vanish under rising waters,” she warns. This phenomenon is evident in France, where the English Channel and the Atlantic Ocean are steadily eroding coastlines, resulting in the evacuation of communities, destruction of property, and soil subsidence. Dufour stresses the global scale of this issue, noting that 60% of the world’s population resides in coastal areas, with 3.8 billion people living within 150 km of a shoreline.

Ocean Planet © Brian Skerry

The continued warming of the oceans, driven by ongoing atmospheric temperature increases and the melting of ice caps, triggers a “positive feedback loop,” a vicious cycle of warming and melting. Catherine Jeandel, a geochemist oceanographer, Director of Research at CNRS, nd member of the Laboratory for Studies in Geophysics and Space Oceanography, explains: “The dark surface of the oceans, replacing the reflective ice, absorbs more of the sun’s heat.” This effect has contributed to a significant reduction in the Arctic’s ice coverage which decreased by 20% this year alone.

The ocean’s role as a heat and carbon sink cannot be overstated. Absorbing 90% of the excess heat from greenhouse gases and 30% of carbon dioxide emissions since the industrial era, the ocean is undergoing profound changes, including desalination and alterations in ocean currents, with profound ecological implications.

“We must also take into account other anthropogenic factors,” emphasizes Sylvie Dufour. “Foremost among these is overfishing, primarily driven by industrial practices, which results in the significant reduction of fish populations.” This overexploitation has led to the critical endangerment of certain species, such as the North Atlantic cod. Another example is the vaquita, a marine mammal on the brink of extinction, with only about ten individuals remaining worldwide.

“Fishing, but also many commercial, tourist activities, require the construction of infrastructures such as ports, marinas, factories, and industrial zones,” she explains, noting how these developments contribute to coastal destruction. This issue is compounded by various forms of pollution: plastics and hormones, which disrupt the endocrine systems of marine species, leading to sex changes in some fish; noise pollution; and gas emissions, contributing to ocean acidification. These factors collectively inflict substantial harm on marine life, disrupting reproductive cycles and causing certain species to be supplanted by others.

Jeandel remarks: “We are aware of these changes, yet the full extent of their consequences remains elusive, with the effects of climate change more perceptibly felt on land.” 

Safeguarding our oceans

Yann Arthus-Bertrand reflects on his transition from helicopters to drones for aerial photography, a change driven by environmental concerns. His 1999 publication, La Terre vue du ciel [The Earth from Above], though visually striking, was criticized for its environmental impact. Recognizing this, the photographer adapted his methods to minimize his ecological footprint, now using “less polluting” drones.

Alongside personal commitment, collective approaches like artisanal fishing offer sustainable solutions. Dufour notes its less harmful nature: it avoids damaging the seabed and reduces accidental catches of protected species, while also “promoting local economy and job creation in the sector.” Positive outcomes of such methods are evident: “The overfishing of scallops nearly led to their depletion from French coasts,” she recalls. “Fishermen, in coordination with authorities, implemented regulatory measures such as quotas and designated fishing periods, alongside reproduction initiatives. Now, the scallop populations have rebounded, allowing sustainable fishing practices.”

Dufour also addresses the detrimental effects of industrial-scale fishing. Used primarily for producing fishmeal, an ingredient in fish farming, it forms a substantial portion of global fishing. She mentions ongoing research into alternatives like “insect flour” to replace current fishmeal.

Ocean Planet © Brian Skerry

The establishment of marine protected areas is another key strategy, with France aiming for 30% coverage. However, Dufour expresses concerns about the effectiveness of such areas if they don’t lead to a decrease in harmful activities. She points out: “An international project is being considered in the Antarctic’s South Polar regions.”

But greenhouse gases remain the public enemy number one in the fight against climate change. “The best form of carbon is the one that remains underground,” Jeandel asserts, highlighting that reducing greenhouse gas emissions is crucial. She references the IPCC reports, which advise against new oil and gas projects, underscoring the need for global political commitment. Jeandel also warns against the “savior syndrome,” reminding us that our actions are ultimately about self-preservation: “We’re not just saving the planet; we’re saving ourselves.”

Jeandel and Dufour both value the role of artists and photographers in raising environmental awareness. “Their work conveys emotions and insights that data alone cannot,” Jeandel observes. This sentiment is echoed by Dufour, who believes in the necessity of public support for political decisions related to environmental issues. She emphasizes the importance of disseminating information and fostering understanding, especially for those who haven’t experienced the sea firsthand. “To truly appreciate the ocean’s significance,” Dufour adds, “it’s essential for everyone, particularly children, to experience it directly, not just through images.”

Barracuda Keys, Florida, United States (24°43′ N – 81°38′ W). © Yann Arthus-Bertrand

Planète Océan is a free exhibition installed in the covered passages of Bercy Village, and open Monday through Sunday, from 10 am to 2 am, until January 6, 2024.

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