The Urala coast is a landscape of burnt orange earth that meets bright blue water, near Minderoo Station, where I grew up. I remember camping on the beach when I was 10 or 11, looking out of the dark waters of the Indian Ocean and noticing that for every star I could see in the sky, there was a light twinkling on the ocean. I remember asking Dad what all the lights were. He said they were prawn trawlers, a relatively new industry in the area. Dad explained that the reason the clear, coral-rich waters near our station were turning murky was because they were dragging dredge-nets over the pristine ocean floor. This was a defining point in my life.
The ocean, I've learned more and more since that day, is far from the pure untouched wilderness I had imagined as a child. And the scale of the problems facing our oceans is not limited to a handful of trawlers. I say 'ocean' in the singular. Our planet is one interconnected ocean that doesn't care about political borders or indeed political leaders.
Over the last few years, struggling between philanthropy and business, I've completed a PhD in marine science. When I started the PhD I had a number of common misconceptions. I saw pollution in our rivers and on our beaches, and assumed this problem was limited to waters near our shore. It's not. Our trash is now at the bottom of the deepest ocean trenches and on the most remote tropical beaches.
I thought over-fishing was a local problem. It's not. Subsidised fishing fleets now menace every corner of our own policed waters. I thought the ocean was known. It's not. We know less about the depths of our oceans than the surface of the Moon. The problems facing our ocean are utterly enormous and, at the same time, completely heartbreaking.
We have a relatively clear picture of the amount of carbon emitted into the atmosphere. But we have virtually no idea how many fish are in the sea, how many are caught, or what decades of treating our ocean as a rubbish dump means for these ecosystems. The ocean didn't create these problems, they are all due to us, and it's we who must fix it.
If business holds the key to climate change and therefore ocean deoxygenation, as argued in my first lecture, it's philanthropic and government interventions at a scale not yet seen that will save our seas. To put it simply, all the problems of the ocean can be distilled into three simple areas; the deoxygenation of our oceans, overfishing, and plastic pollution. These problems are fixable.
Humans have been fishing, largely sustainably, for an unbelievably long time, almost 100,000 years. And we have been pretty good at it for a long time too. Like the prawn trawlers I saw as a child, humans have used bonfires, torches and other forms of light to lure prey into the shallows for thousands of years. We invented the fishing hook almost 10,000 years ago, and by the 1600s the Dutch were using drift nets, vast nets that float through the ocean, catching and killing everything in their path.
Today, the global fishing industry is worth well over $200 billion, with more than 4.5 million boats fishing our oceans. Nations that have exhausted their own supplies of seafood now subsidise vast fishing fleets that roam the ocean, with the capacity to decimate entire populations of ocean wildlife, like they have done in their own seas, in just a few years. Everyone is in on the act.
The spotlights illegal fishing fleets use are so powerful, they can be detected from space. The EU, the world's champion of sustainability, takes home almost a quarter of the yellowfin tuna court in our Indian Ocean, a species that has been overfished for years and is on the brink of collapse. Iran's fishing fleet illegally plunders the water of Yemen and Somalia, where millions of children are on the brink of starvation. And our own Australian trawlers fished out 90% of the population of orange roughy, a deep-sea perch, before we realised that this fish grows incredibly slowly and lives for up to 200 years.
In 2017, I was sitting in the audience of a lecture hall, listening to a talk by one of my PhD supervisors, the very famous Professor Daniel Pauly from the University of British Columbia. At the end, someone in the audience asked, 'Do we know what caused all the big fish to disappear from the Caribbean?' I'll never forget his reply, he just shrugged, 'Nothing remarkable or noteworthy happened, they simply got eaten.'
Fishing is, at least, something we regulate, even if rather badly. But our oceans are not only our food bowl, they have also become our garbage bin. For decades, the petrochemical companies that manufacture plastic from fossil fuel have peddled the myth that it's okay to keep churning out huge quantities of the stuff, as long as we make token efforts to recycle. But you have been lied to. The reality is that these companies have been knowingly overselling and underfunding the recycling system. Why? Because recycling reduces demand for new plastic products, the ones they make. These companies are dinosaurs. They don't like change, but if they don't change, they are going to take the planet down with them. As a result, plastic is piling up in our landfills, on our beaches, in our rivers, in our oceans, and in ourselves, certainly in the stomachs of our sea life.
If a fish or seabird is lucky, the plastic it eats pierces its insides and kills it quickly. But it's more likely that it will die slowly, from unrelenting hunger, its belly full of plastic junk. It will die of starvation without even realising it was starving.
Plastic is such a wonder material, that it never truly disappears, it just gets smaller and smaller, and that's where it is most dangerous. It becomes so tiny that it can enter your bloodstream, it can enter your brain. It enters through the air that you breathe, through the seafood you eat, the water you drink. You, me, unborn babies, we are all accumulating these tiny plastic particles in our bodies and the toxic chemicals they release. And it's not a question of if plastics are making us sick, it's a question of how much. The chemicals in plastic are reducing our fertility, it's reducing our birth weights, and increasing cancer risk in all of us, not to mention lung disease, heart disease and diabetes.
My foundation, Minderoo, is taking this research one step further. We are starting to look at whether plastic particles are also entering our brains, crossing the biological blood-brain barrier that normally keeps all the bad stuff out. With micro-nano-plastic, it's not working. Once it is in there, it will wreak havoc to your brain. And these early warning signs will only get worse the more plastic we produce because it doesn't go away, it accumulates.
Only about 100 companies produce the vast majority of polymers, the building blocks to all plastic, and they are responsible for inflicting this slow violence on human health and the ocean. Don't tell me we can't change the behaviour of just 100 companies, I know we can. They are quite comfortable producing plastic from oil and creating plastic products that are very hard, if not impossible to recycle.
Modern plastics are designed to be cheap and easy to produce, not cheap and easy to recycle. And so they aren't recycled. Instead, they are dumped or burned. Pressure from multiple directions can change this. Companies that use plastic must demand recycled plastic from the major petrochemical producers. Consumers need to boycott products that aren't recycled. Governments need to step in and ban (many have) the worst products, including those with toxic additives. Chemists need to design new plastics that are engineered right from the beginning for reuse. Plastics that can be cheaply recycled back to clean, pure polymer and reused responsibly.
We need a circular economy that isn't a myth or a green-washing exercise but a genuine and fully functioning economic system. This needs to be led by the big petrochemical and plastic companies of the world. They must dump their old model and vigorously adopt a new one, supporting reuse and recycling all the way through the chain. The honourable path is through voluntary action, but the likely path for many of the worst actors will be through regulation.
We have used light to draw out creatures from the sea for thousands of years, to catch them in our nets, on our hooks and spears. But it's now time to shine a different light on our oceans, one of knowledge and of care. We face a major inflection point and it's time to make a major course correction. See, 99% of the liveable space that organisms can survive in isn't the atmosphere or the surface of the Earth, it's the ocean. It's time to make a major course correction because if we help destroy 99% of the liveable space of our planet, what chance do you think we have?
The fishing industry has been light years ahead of marine science for way too long, efficiently finding and annihilating what was in the oceans before researchers even knew it was there, or indeed policymakers could protect it. We have to flip that situation. The sea life in our oceans is priceless. It is being destroyed before we even know what is there. We need a massive scalable and automated system that tells us if a species, if a fish stock, or a critical ecosystem is spiralling out of control and we could destroy it, before we destroy it. And this includes tracking pollution and revealing the true toll of our immense plastic consumption on ocean ecology.
For me, coming from a background in industry, tempered by a humbling education in science, the answer lies in genomics, big data approaches, and meaningful collaboration across governments. Most surveys of sea life, if not drawn from the fishing industry, are done at a tediously small scale, with small research vessels deploying cameras that drift through tiny areas of the ocean. Someone then literally has to count the fish by watching hours and hours of video. Usually this is a humble PhD student. I know because I was one. Eventually that data gets published in a journal and is read by just a handful of people. That's about a two-year process. And we don't have time for this.
I believe there is another way, and it's as simple as collecting cells from the water. Already scientists have started playing with eDNA, the fragments of genetic material floating in the ocean, to try and better understand the diversity of life in our seas. eDNA are the tiny scraps of genetic information left behind by sea creatures as they feed, shed their scales, and decompose. These clues give us a highly accurate picture of what fish are in a specific area and how many of them. We don't do this on land because cells break down so quickly in a terrestrial dry environment. Applying these genomic tools at scale across our oceans will allow us to take large-scale snapshots of the health of fish stocks or entire marine ecosystems, using nothing more than samples of seawater.
The team at Minderoo Foundation is launching a program to do just this. It's called OceanOmics, and it will help identify where there are endangered species and the feeding and breeding grounds of species, like the shortfin mako. And we will be able to sequence entire cells, as well as these snippets of DNA. Today, we have only sequenced the genomes of 20 of Australia's 4,000-odd marine fish species. But, using these technologies, we could feasibly sequence the genome of every marine species on Earth. It's a technique that has been around for some time in medicine and cancer research, but it needs to be adapted and fine-tuned in the ocean, then massively scaled. A fast boat with a single genomic sequencing machine, and a dozen technicians aboard, could learn more about fish stocks in a week than we would traditionally discover using fishing data or video cameras in a decade.
PhD students could spend 99% of their time sifting through real live data to uncover the secrets of the ocean, rather than compiling data from a fishing trawler or counting fish on a computer screen. Artificial intelligence will do the identification for us, allowing researchers to get on with the job of determining the health of the ocean.
A global fleet of these boats, supported by a small army of steadfast marine scientists could shine a light on the whole ocean so we can know it and we can protect it. It is no use protecting a species once it has already been destroyed by the fishing industry. We must work out what is there before it's destroyed by overfishing.
Approaches like OceanOmics will also help governments decide which bits of the planet's 360 million square kilometres of ocean to protect. Currently, just 2% of the ocean is protected from commercial fishing. Scientists across the world agree that figure needs to rise to 30%, and the communities that rely on unsustainable fishing need our support to transition to new industries, like agriculture and sustainable fishing.
Through the Blue Nature Alliance, Pew, Conservation International, and the Minderoo Foundation have made huge strides in establishing this network of global marine reserves. Our foundation has committed US$25 million, and by 2025 we aim to establish or grow 50 marine parks. But we all know laws must be policed to have any effect. Even on the Great Barrier Reef, which has dedicated air and water patrols, there are 600 cases of illegal fishing detected every year, both by holidaymakers and the commercial fishing industry. Just imagine how bad the problem is elsewhere.
On best estimate, 20% of the world's fish catch is illegal, unregulated and unreported, and it costs the industry more than $40 billion a year. Yet, it is becoming possible to detect illegal fishing efficiently. Like planes, most big boats automatically send out location pings, largely to avoid smashing into other boats. Fishing vessels that want to sneak into a marine park can simply turn these pingers off or 'go dark', to use the lingo. This is where innovations in satellite technology and artificial intelligence step in.
Satellite images used to cost thousands of dollars, and even then we had to wait days for them, assuming the military didn't just jump the queue. By the time you had your image, the guy doing the illegal fishing had long gone. But satellite data is increasingly lower cost, quick to access, and much higher resolution. Some satellite technologies can find illegal fishing boats based simply on the brightness of their lights, and other satellites that measure the roughness of the planet's surface can detect the presence of any ship, 24 hours a day, regardless of the weather and regardless of whether or not its location pinger is on.
Merging these diverse satellite technologies with powerful algorithms is how we will develop a single, scalable fabric of surveillance, one that will allow us to automate the process of detecting illegal activity. The beauty of such a system is that law-abiding fishers, the trusted travellers, can be rewarded, ushered into ports, fast-tracked through inspections, whereas dodgy vessels can be rejected. Indeed, ports are the ultimate leverage, as Japan found out in 1998 when we banned them from our ports for fishing our depleted stocks of southern bluefin tuna. To make this happen, we must work together at the country level to share our vessel data. Currently, only a handful of countries, including Indonesia, have taken this step, yet we all must step up.
Perhaps all of these problems seem very far away to you. Maybe you are thinking; illegal fishing is sad, but what does that have to do with me? But guess what? Australia imports around 70% of the seafood it eats, and most of that comes from countries like Vietnam and Thailand, where illegal fishing and modern slavery are rife. For a nation girt by sea, with the third-largest exclusive economic zone in the world, it's a pretty embarrassing state of affairs.
While we love to brag about where our local seafood comes from, oysters from Coffin Bay, blue swimmer crab from Mandurah, and hold our own fisheries to the highest standards, we are quite happy to throw those standards out the window when it comes to the canned tuna or the ready to eat prawns we import. In fact, Australia is currently one of the most backward of the developed countries in the world when it comes to the laxness of our own import laws. The EU and the US are leaders in this space, but not us. Even Japan, the long-time wild child of the seafood industry, is taking action.
But without import laws, how do we stop illegal seafood from ending up on our plates? We need to make sure that little children, or adults like Tin Nyo Win, a Burmese migrant enslaved by a Thai factory, didn't peel our prawns. Often these children are woken up at 2am, made to stand with aching hands in icy water for 16 hours a day, captured if they try to escape, and kids so small they have to stand on stools to reach the prawns. Is this an Australia we are proud of?
We need an import law that rejects illegal seafood products at our border, and we need to clearly label what we do import. What species is it? Where was it caught or farmed? Is it slavery free? Right now, most of our imported seafood is basically anonymous, and frankly we should be ashamed of ourselves. When it's anonymous you'd likely know it's illegal and modern slavery is involved, otherwise label it. Australia can and we must do so much better.
To conclude I want to share the plot of a science-fiction story. This is a sci-fi plot that marine researchers recently put together to attempt to visualise possible futures for our oceans. A company bioengineers and copyrights a new species called Super Tuna. Underwater drones act as sheepdogs, herding the fish along their migration routes, and artificially fertilising prey supplies as they go. This might sound utterly ludicrous, but the way we produce seafood is already verging on dystopia.
In Australia, we lasso schools of wild baby bluefin tuna in huge nets and toe them to floating farms where we fatten them to precise Japanese eating standards. Humans are starving across the planet, yet we feed almost every single fish caught by the largest fishery in the world, the Peruvian anchovy fishery, to cattle and farmed salmon. And more than 70% of the plastic that washes up on Australia's beaches comes from Indonesia. And ironically a lot of it has Australian labels because we shipped it there in the first place because we didn't have the factories to recycle it. It has come boomerang right back to us.
Millennia of innovation have landed us here at the absolute nadir of ocean exploitation. We've thrown every last scrap of technology and intellect at the ocean to dredge up its last remaining prizes. We have almost lured that last sea creature from the deep. Soon we may turn to the ocean for more of its bounty, just to find there's nothing left.
Now is the moment to stop, now is the moment to think. The super predator must become the super defender.
I discuss climate change in my last essay. Now we must address overfishing and plastics. We defeat these two giants, we win the oceans forever. The accountability, transparency and governance which we expect from every company on the Australian stock exchange must apply to our oceans. We need to figure out the rhythms and movements of our sea life and then carve out serious large-scale marine reserves that enables these species to both recover and flourish. We need to protect these areas with the same diligence we protect our own borders. We need to be sharing economic and satellite data, sharing science and sharing enforcement resources. We need to understand the immense value of our oceans and its tremendous resources.
It's time to light up our seas, to heal our ocean environment, to stop the destruction of our ocean, to light it up, and this time for good.