Happy Anniversary, Planet Earth! Episode 9: Shallow Seas

The 9th installment of the series, “Shallow Seas” opens with the statistic that 8% of world’s ocean volume contains a majority of its marine life.

I’m in the middle of reading Hope Jahren’s “Lab Girl right now (a fantastic, inspiring book about her life as a scientist that I highly recommend). In the opening paragraph of the Prologue, she mentions a reason why she is not interested in studying the ocean: there is six hundred times more life on land than there is in the ocean. This is true! I don’t think I’ve ever read someone’s reason for not being interested in studying the ocean, having studied and worked for marine-focused institutions for the past 10 years while also living in beach and island cultures with students clamoring to be marine biologists. While Dr. Jahren’s point has more to do with her own interests in land plants, in the broader sense I agree that there is much to be studied and managed on land because terrestrial ecosystems have indeed produced more life than in the ocean. As a result, activities on land have the ability to negatively affect the diverse ecosystems of the “shallow seas”.

Over half of the world’s human population lives within 60 km of a coastline. These are remarkable ecosystem areas surrounding coastlines, separating the land from the ocean.

I lived on Yap Island in the Federated States of Micronesia as a Peace Corps Volunteer from 2004-2006, working with counterparts at the Yap State Environmental Protection Agency. I learned so much from my hard-working colleagues, far more than they probably gleaned from me.

(Left to right, top to bottom) Me (2006), view returning to the MicroSpirit ship with coconuts from an outer island (2004), traditional Yapese dance (2005), lunch on the boat (2004).

DSCN4257 coconuts DSCN3853Elato Ship Wrec

Small island nations are deeply connected to their environmental resources, in both cultural and economic senses. Future climate change and accompanying sea level rise is affecting island societies more than other societies. The President of Palau has spoken prolifically on this topic, and was at the International Coral Reef Society meeting in Palau last month (June 2016).

Regina and Larry Raigetal, of Waa’gey.org recognize this in their efforts to confront challenges: “Extreme isolation, limited economic opportunity and climate change are big problems for the small atolls of Micronesia’s outer islands.” Waa’gey focuses on fostering pride in traditional culture, which has worked to sustain the population in the past, including traditional sailing navigation. Small island nations like Micronesia have populations less then a fraction of some developed countries, yet live entirely in coastal areas.

On the mainland of the U.S., Florida has over 1,000 miles of coastline and is becoming more and more affected by land-based activities. Beginning in the 1900s, land use changes were abundant in the state of FL. Miami was built out by developers and the sugar cane industry moved into the Everglades, a natural wetland area. Originally, water from Lake Okeechobee at the center of the state would naturally drain through wetland areas in south Florida eventually reaching the Gulf. Today, the Army Corps of Engineers has diverted the water out through a series of canals to the east and west, with significant freshwater discharge into estuarine areas and onto sensitive coral reefs causing an ecological disaster.

Economic benefits of the Indian River Lagoon resources were valued at more than $3.7 billion in 2007.

There is a lesson that Floridians and coastal US citizens can learn from the efforts of Waa’gey and other small coastal nations. (Teamwork in Ulithi atoll, outer islands of Yap):


We can team together to place renewed value on practices that were common before development. This means supporting efforts to restore water flow in wetland ecosystems back to their original state. Buying undeveloped land to prevent further land use changes and damage. Lawmakers should encourage sustainable lifestyles by requiring homeowners near and on coastal areas to preserve and restore their shoreline vegetation, slow development and not use fertilizers. Provide more sustainable funding to long-term scientific studies, such as those in Dr. Joshua Voss’ lab at Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute at Florida Atlantic University, investigating the effects of discharge on near-shore coral reefs.

A well-balanced ecosystem brings long-term benefits. 

The Planet Earth episode ends by focusing on the charismatic macrofauna that depend on the shallow seas: the octopus mimics a moving/rolling rock, a gurnard fish with pectoral fins camouflaging its shape, a jawfish hides underground. Plants manage to take root, which are then pruned by sea turtles. Marine mammals such as dugongs and manatees are the largest herbivores in sea, eating nothing but fleshy rhizomes of sea grass. Dolphins discover a shoal of bait and are shown surfing, riding a wave. Fish refuge close to shore water only few cm deep. Sea birds, cormorants. Shallow temperate seas contain greatest concentration of fish on planet. Huge shoals migrate to feed in rich waters. Cruising back and forth between equator and poles, humpback whales – among the largest inhabitants of the ocean – are shown migrating between the shallow seas where life proliferates so abundantly on our planet.

Sunset in Micronesia: