Review: The State of the Planet’s Oceans

On Friday I saw The State of the Planet's Oceans as part of the Environmental Film Festival. This one-hour film is the 11th part of the PBS series Journey to Planet Earth.

It starts off in the Portuguese town of Aveiro, which for centuries thrived by sending its men to the waters off Newfoundland to harvest the abundant cod there. This fishery supplied the world with more than 3 billion pounds of fish per year before it collapsed at the end of the 20th century. And when the fishery collapsed, so did Aveiro and many other fishing towns, including one that Portuguese fisherman had settled, New Bedford, Massachusetts. How did this happen? A University of Massachusetts scientist provides the answer: the fishermen were too good. The film asks if we would allow such a thing to happen on land, noting that the water hides what we're doing in the ocean. We're now consuming the final 10 percent of the world's large fish, which is rather scary to think of.

The next section takes the viewer to a marine reserve off the Tortugas Islands. It is a successful marine sanctuary, but only because it is well-patrolled. The film follows law enforcement on the water as they board some boats. While interesting, this part seems to not have much of a point, but it passes quickly and I guess viewers will like the crime aspect.

It's on to Greenland where scientists are measuring glacial movement. The glaciers are moving towards the sea faster than ever—nine miles per year in this location, three times faster than ten years before. If Greenland melts, sea level would rise by 23 feet. (note: That's just an average. As I wrote last month, sea level rise won't be the same everywhere.) While that won't happen for a long time, a rise of just a few feet will devastate those regions that are close to sea level, such as...

Bangladesh, our next stop. Sea level is predicted to rise five feet in this century. Just three feet, and half of Bangladesh's rice fields will be underwater. People will flood into the cities by the tens of millions. They will riot over food. Some will flee into India. "Poverty does not recognize boundaries," the movie notes. (The CIA is paying attention to this, right?)

The more immediate threat from climate change is the melting of glaciers in the Andes. Glaciers in Peru could be gone in just a year or two and with them goes much of the country's fresh water. The connection to the ocean is through a few steps: When the water is gone, the farmers will leave their land and move to the cities along the coast. The major source of inexpensive protein for coastal Peruvians is fish. The fisheries off the Peruvian coast are currently sustainable, but they won't be if there's a huge influx of population. In addition, all those extra people will mean an increase in the sewage dumped into the ocean, more pollution and resulting dead zones.

It was about this time in the movie when I wrote the following question in my notes: Why are all the scientists white men? This is my peeve, I warn, but it seems somewhat unlikely that the filmmakers were lacking in female marine scientists to use in their movie. And while scientists from minority groups may be rare, they do exist. The only women in the film to this point were a few locals in Portugal and Peru.

To give the filmmakers credit, in the last section—after we're treated to one success story, Laughing Bird Key off Belize—famed oceanographer Sylvia Earle closes the movie by sharing her views about the magic of the ocean, complete with beautiful photography. However, the lack of women throughout the film soured it for me. That said, the movie managed to cover an immense array of problems facing the world's oceans in just an hour.

Watch The State of the Planet's Oceans Wednesday, March 18th at 8pm on PBS.

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