Cousteau Announces Large Decline in Ocean Life

Jacques Cousteau, a famous explorer and popular writer, warned that the world’s coral reefs were in danger from pollution, which had caused a significant decline in the population of Earth’s oceans.

Summary of Event

In the 1960’s, Jacques Cousteau rose to international recognition and popularity as an underwater explorer. Through books, articles, films, and especially through television, Cousteau brought undersea life into the homes of millions of people in North America and Europe. Using first goggles and then the aqualung, which he coinvented with Émile Gagnan while in the French Navy in 1943, Cousteau became fascinated with what he saw in the ocean depths. When he left the navy after being decorated by the French government for his espionage activities during World War II, Cousteau devoted his life to observing and cataloging the flora and fauna in seas around the world. Ecology
Marine life
[kw]Cousteau Announces Large Decline in Ocean Life (Sept., 1970)
[kw]Decline in Ocean Life, Cousteau Announces Large (Sept., 1970)
[kw]Ocean Life, Cousteau Announces Large Decline in (Sept., 1970)
Marine life
[g]Europe;Sept., 1970: Cousteau Announces Large Decline in Ocean Life[10880]
[g]France;Sept., 1970: Cousteau Announces Large Decline in Ocean Life[10880]
[c]Environmental issues;Sept., 1970: Cousteau Announces Large Decline in Ocean Life[10880]
Cousteau, Jacques
Cousteau, Philippe
Wolper, David
Heyerdahl, Thor

Beginning in 1951 and continuing to 1970, Cousteau traveled more than 155,000 miles, making observations in the Mediterranean, Red, and Caribbean seas, and in the Pacific, Indian, and South Atlantic oceans. His voyages were made in a converted French minesweeper, which he renamed Calypso. Calypso (ship) These efforts were supported by, among others, the French Navy, the National Geographic Society, and the French Academy of Sciences. The Calypso was the best equipped research ship on the high seas. One commentator compared Cousteau’s work during this time to that of the famed eighteenth century Swedish naturalist Carolus Linnaeus (1707-1778), who cataloged and classified life on land. Some of Cousteau’s work, however, was anticipated by Edwin Link, who was president of the Marine Science Center in Florida during the 1950’s.

By 1970, Cousteau had become a familiar name in much of Europe and North America. His first book, The Silent World (1953), sold more than 5 million copies, and The Living Sea (1963) was also a huge success. During this period, he wrote many articles for the immensely popular National Geographic magazine. In 1956, a documentary film Cousteau produced won the Cannes Film Festival Grand Prize, and in 1965 his “World Without Sun” won an Oscar. It was television, however, that established his international fame. Cousteau was aware of this phenomenon and remarked that the thrill of knowing that millions of people watched these programs provided constant inspiration.

In 1966, the National Geographic television special The World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau
World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, The (television program)[World of Jacques Yves Cousteau] was warmly received. Also in 1966, Philippe Cousteau, who assisted his father in a variety of ways, worked out an arrangement with Hollywood producer David Wolper, whereby Wolper agreed to support several television films to be made by the Calypso crew. Wolper took a gamble, and it proved to be a successful one. Two years later, four specials per year entitled The Undersea World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau
Undersea World of Jacques-Yves Cousteau, The (television program)[Undersea World of Jacques Yves Cousteau] began to be televised by the American Broadcasting Corporation (ABC). These specials, beautifully photographed, were among the most popular programs ever aired on American television, and they continued to be televised until 1976.

When Cousteau ended his first long expedition in 1970, he made the startling announcement that, during the time of his research, marine life had declined by about 40 percent. He first presented these views in September, 1970, to the Council of Europe meeting in Strasbourg, Vienna. In subsequent months, he restated and published his contentions in a number of forums, most notably in the journal Biological Conservation and before a United Nations (U.N.) seminar in New York. His conclusions were also a major part of his 1971 book Life and Death in a Coral Sea. Life and Death in a Coral Sea (Cousteau)

Cousteau explained that his analysis was derived from global undersea observation of fauna, plankton, edible and nonedible fish, and corals. He pointed out that there had been severe shrinking of the coral reefs in the Red Sea. The same could be said, Cousteau believed, for coral reefs in the Indian Ocean. The reason for the dying reefs and the overall decline in marine life was principally pollution. He cited evidence provided by adventurer Thor Heyerdahl, who in 1969 and 1970 had crossed the South Atlantic Ocean on papyrus rafts. Heyerdahl had witnessed large amounts of asphalt-like material which, according to Cousteau, reduced photosynthesis so vital to ocean life. Cousteau also reported that, when his team explored a remote point off the lower California coast, crew members were shocked at what they saw: Diving to a depth of more than two thousand feet in a miniature submarine, the Calypso crew discovered mounds of debris deposited by ships, yachts, and strong currents.

Pollution, however, was not the only reason for the diminution of marine life. Cousteau noted that overfishing was having a profound impact on marine life. Wherever the Calypso traveled, no matter the latitude, the ship’s propellers cut through hundreds of fishing lines that stretched like a great spider’s web through all the world’s oceans. Besides overfishing, there were detrimental changes in the environment caused by human intervention. As an example, he cited the taking of gravel from seabeds, which resulted in the collapse of shorelines, causing marine animals to relocate and disrupting the ecology of the area into which the alienated creatures ventured.

For these “crimes” of pollution, overfishing, and spurious alteration of marine environment, as Cousteau put it, there were three explanations. The first explanation was overpopulation, which created unacceptable levels of pollution. Cousteau argued that population expansion had to be brought under control. The second reason was economic competition. This competition led producers to ignore safe methods of disposal of pollutants. It was expensive, said Cousteau, for any manufacturer to show consideration for nature. He believed that there had to be restrictions placed on all producers so that none would have an unfair advantage. The third explanation was the human tendency to ignore troubling evidence. People simply did not want to know how serious the situation had become. They were satisfied with applying superficial remedies, not with making the required fundamental changes in behavior.

Cousteau concluded his survey with a five-point plan of action to correct the continuing abuse of marine resources. First, he recommended that research be intensified so that a foundation could be established to find solutions. The public had to be educated to understand the real problems that exist in the seas. He saw his primary function as that of an educator through his films, books, and television specials. Second, people had to become aggressive in demanding that industry and government respect the environment. Third, producers must be persuaded that their long-range self-interest required immediate protection of ecological systems. There existed a need for drastic national and international action through enlightened policies. Cousteau called for the inclusion of a marine-life expert on all high-level policy-making boards. Finally, he urged the enactment of legislation to limit pollution, and he made an appeal for independent regulatory bodies that would be controlled by neither governments nor private industry.


The impact of Cousteau’s announcement regarding the shocking decline in marine life, especially in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, must be viewed in context. By the time that Cousteau addressed the Council of Europe in 1970, there already had been a number of warnings about damage to the oceans from pollution. When the oil supertanker Torrey Canyon
Torrey Canyon (ship) ran aground in 1967, spilling its oil along England’s Cornish coast, there was a huge outcry from environmentalists about the threats posed to marine life from oil and other pollution. In that same year, the U.N. ambassador from Malta, Arvid Pardo, asked the U.N. General Assembly to consider pollution in the oceans.

There were many international groups and agencies urging that action be taken to preserve the world’s waters from wanton disposal of waste and careless transport of dangerous materials. Cousteau’s revelations confirmed that there was reason to be concerned and expanded those concerns to new dimensions. The credibility of his report was scarcely open to question, for he and his Calypso crew had spent twenty years studying underwater life, often returning to the same places again and again, and they had maintained careful records of their observations.

There were those who remained skeptical of Cousteau’s undersea research. His books, for example, were frequently criticized by marine scientists as folksy and generally unscientific. In spite of their popularity and their impressive photographs, Cousteau’s books were not always well written or well translated. His 1969 book Shark: Savage of the Seas, Shark (Cousteau) which he coauthored with his son and principal team member, Philippe, did not satisfy discerning reviewers. It was noted that the translation was mediocre, the text was unoriginal, and the information provided was weak. Cousteau’s considerable success on television did little to improve his reputation among marine scientists. It often seemed to them that Cousteau was overly conscious of promoting himself rather than providing sound, scientific information. These criticisms, while they cannot be totally discounted, are mitigated by the realities of the mass media. The success of his books and television programs depended upon making Cousteau, and colorful photography, the centerpieces. The writing and dialogue had to be kept simple to appeal to the vast U.S. audience.

Cousteau often said that his greatest impact was the result of his ability to reach huge numbers of ordinary people, who otherwise would have little or no knowledge of life under the sea. He wished first to gain their attention and then to educate them about the need to protect this remarkable life from the perils of human neglect. On many occasions, he tried to shock viewers by photographing gross examples of pollution discovered by his researchers. For the wide majority of those who watched his explorations, including policy makers and legislators, Cousteau spoke with the voice of authority.

His announcement in 1970, therefore, had a considerable impact. The impact was based on Cousteau’s reputation as an expert on undersea life and also on the public’s perception of him as a trustworthy celebrity. He appeared to be genuinely committed to conserving the glories of marine existence. In 1971, he took his dismal message to a U.N. symposium on the environment, and Time magazine printed extensive coverage of his speech.

Cousteau’s discoveries and the exposure he brought to them contributed significantly to the explosion of interest among the general public in protecting marine resources in the 1970’s. The fact that the pivotal 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm devoted so much time to the issue of ocean pollution was in large part a result of the work of Cousteau’s team. When the United Nations Environmental Program in Nairobi, Kenya, established the Global Environmental Monitoring System in 1975, marine observation became more systematic. In addition, many countries created their own ocean-monitoring agencies. The United States was among the leaders in the attempt to contain ocean pollution. Some observers believe that this may, in part, be attributed to Cousteau’s great popularity. In 1972, several acts were put into effect to manage coastal zones, regulate ocean dumping, and restrict oil transport. Over the next twenty years, international legislation was directed toward limiting whaling, drift-net fishing, ocean dumping, and oil pollution. Ecology
Marine life

Further Reading

  • Cousteau, Jacques-Yves, and Philippe Diole. Life and Death in a Coral Sea. Translated by J. F. Bernard. New York: Doubleday, 1971. The work in which Cousteau explores some of the possible reasons for the decline in marine life in the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. He expands here his concern about pollution, which he expressed in 1970 before the Council of Europe. Color photographs. Recommended.
  • Cushing, D. H., and J. J. Walsh, eds. Ecology of the Seas. Philadelphia: W. B. Saunders, 1976. A compendium of primarily technical articles about ocean ecology. Suitable for advanced and serious students of marine life. Extensive bibliography and index.
  • Jacques, Peter. Globalisation and the World Ocean. Lanham, Md.: AltaMira Press, 2006. Study of the effect of global development and global economies upon the marine environment, particularly marine ecology.
  • Kaiser, Michael J., et al. Marine Ecology: Processes, Systems, and Impacts. New York: Oxford University Press, 2005. Examines marine ecology from the points of view of overall macrobiological processes, specific systems that maintain and support life, and the external, human impacts upon those processes and systems. Bibliographic references, index, list of Web resources.
  • Patin, S. A. Pollution and the Biological Resources of the Oceans. Boston: Butterworth, 1982. A fairly technical discussion written by a Soviet marine-life expert. The author is one of a very few marine scientists who cite the work of Cousteau. Superb bibliography and index.

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