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Underwater Explorer Returns, Finds Fewer Fish


March 11, 2005 –– While the reef structure still looks good, most of the big fish are gone, acclaimed oceanographer Sylvia Earle said Friday after she dove at Lameshur Bay, St. John.
"Nobody's home. I didn't even see a barracuda," she said.
Earle is in the Virgin Islands to help the Ocean Conservancy launch its book, "The State of the Coral Reefs of the U.S. Virgin Islands."
Roger T. Rufe Jr., Ocean Conservancy director, said the organization decided to publish the book to focus on the problems and solutions.
"Things are not desperate, but in a crisis," he said.
He said that 50 to 80 percent of the world's coral reefs are dead or under significant threat.
Rufe said that the Virgin Islands can serve as a model for the rest of the country when it comes to preserving reefs because it still has some that can recover.
"The State of the Coral Reefs of the U.S. Virgin Islands" was written principally by Nicholas Drayton, who is the Ocean Conservancy's program manager in the Virgin Islands, Caroline Rogers, who directs the U.S. Geological Survey's field station on St. John, and Barry Devine. He is the chief scientist at the University of the Virgin Islands' Eastern Caribbean Center.
Nineteen other people from agencies located in the Virgin Islands also contributed.
Earle, 69, is the explorer in residence at the National Geographic Society. During her career, she has led expeditions, written books and formed her own company to build deep-water exploration vehicles.
Earle first visited St. John in 1970 when she led an all-woman mission in Tektite, the underwater habitat then located at Lameshur Bay.
Thirty-six people –– the media, scientists from St. John based federal agencies, Ocean Conservancy staff, Sen. Craig Barshinger, as well as other divers –– accompanied Earle on her return journey. Many dove with her.
While Earle noted the loss of fish, she said she sees hope in that people are now paying attention to the problem.
"Right now we've got a chance," she said.
She said that worldwide, 90 percent of the big fish are gone.
Earle called for protection of breeding habitats and a reduction in the number of fish caught.
"There were seven species of grouper in 1970. Today I saw none of those big guys," she said.
And she said staghorn and elkhorn coral are gone, but the brain coral is in good shape.
However, she said she saw a big school of surgeon fish, which she found encouraging.
She said she saw three lobsters, which pale in comparison to the 20 she'd see when diving 35 years ago.
Earle's affiliation with Tektite began when Earle saw a notice that NASA was looking for underwater project proposals. She said she found the thought of living under water "really cool," and submitted an idea that included four men and herself.
Alas, NASA could not stomach the idea of men and women working in such close proximity, so Earle followed up with a proposal concerning an all-women team.
"They called us aquababes, aquachicks, even aquanaughties," she said, laughing.
She said there was a lot of interest in astronauts and aquanauts in those days, so the project and its scientists got lots of publicity.
Earle said she worried that her credentials as a scientist might be compromised by the media attention, but now sees that in order to save the ocean, it's up to her and others like her to get the word out.
Rufe agreed. He said that he hopes to someday see "little old ladies from the middle of the country" exploring the area that was once the domain of only specialists like Earle and Jacques Costeau.
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