Lenses of Change

Environmental activism seen through a lens has the ability to speak louder than words.

Mass extinction – two powerful words. Earth has dealt with five historically, with the last dating back 66 million years and the end of the dinosaurs. While many learned in grade school about this Cretaceous period, people still aren’t familiar with our current Anthropocene era, or Age of Man, where humanity has triggered what is seen by many as the beginning of the end. Fortunately, there is hope and an undeniable drive by many environmental activists, including Louie Psihoyos who explains, “We’re at the tipping point now, where it’s either too late or just the beginning of a movement.” He, among a multitude of others, is pushing movement. This potential Anthropogenic mass extinction where humans cause adverse environmental change and pollution needs a major reversal, and the only way is reaching out to society and evoking change. Change is the only thing that can save the Earth, and it happens one person at a time.

Environmental activists come from a wide range of backgrounds, agendas, personality types, methods, goal sizes, intentions, and intensity levels. It’s probably best that such a variety of data resources exist, seeing that our Earth is so diverse with its inhabitants and how they perceive information provided to them. Whether it’s reading, listening to speeches, following instructions, or learning through visual images, people respond differently. Visuals could be considered the most universal and easiest to follow, which is why so much effective environmental education is taught through a lens.

Whether photography or videography, images have the ability to speak louder than words. From a videography basis, the aforementioned Louie Psihoyos is a pinnacle in the field, using his talents to lead society down a new path of improved decision making through environmental awareness. Meanwhile, from a photography point of view, Mike Coots is a leader through his eyes and ironic life story that helped solidify him as a benchmark in environmental education and awareness. There is no better or worse; the stories told through their different lenses show how two contrasting mediums can collectively change people for the better. Psihoyos and Coots both dramatically improve the world’s awareness, attitudes, and perspectives… and most importantly the daily life choices, behavior, and decision-making for the benefit of our environment.

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Camera 1: Mike Coots

Mike Coots consistently introduces himself as a surfer, photographer, shark attack survivor, and shark advocate. A near-death experience at age 18 compelled him to understand more. In the fall after high school graduation, Coots paddled out with his friends at one of his favorite home breaks in Kauai, Hawaii. Just five minutes into his surf session, he spun and paddled for his first wave when a Tiger shark latched onto his leg and thrashed, twisted and rag-dolled him until he was able to punch the shark in the head several times. When it finally released and Coots was able to catch a wave to shore, he looked back only to see his leg perfectly amputated below the knee. Battling shock, he narrowly escaped death (thanks to a quick leg tourniquet on the beach from his friend) and settled in with the reality of living the remainder of his life as an amputee.

After the attack, Coots spent many of his hours at the library researching why. He learned about sharks, shark attacks, odds, and eventually what humans were doing to sharks. In a Costa/OCEARCH clip he admitted, “I had no idea what was going on in our oceans with overfishing, illegal fishing, shark fishing.” That’s when things shifted.

Statistics shook Coots to his core, especially reading that roughly 73 million sharks are killed for shark fins in the global shark finning trade each year, and 100 million overall in commercial fisheries (PADI). In an ironic twist, he chose to accept a unique situation where he doubled as a shark attack survivor AND a shark advocate. So, when Coots combined his photography skills with his newfound purpose to protect sharks and the ocean as a whole, everything came to fruition.

“I know that strong, visual storytelling can change people. That’s the beauty of photography. You can inspire people to do something that they might not ordinarily do. I wanted to change people’s perception of sharks… and make a difference. I wanted to prove that the Tiger shark that attacked me wasn’t a monster, but instead was worth protecting.” (PADI)

Why Are Sharks So Important?

Looking at our vast oceans and all the creatures within them, it’d be easy to think that one less species wouldn’t make a difference. But the thing about sharks is that they are apex predators, and as such, they are considered a keystone species. Because they are at the top of the food chain, they keep populations of their prey in check and clean out both the sick and the weak to keep levels stable. A “cause and effect” example of declining shark populations would be the potential abundance of mid-level predators consuming the algae-eating species that keep the reef clean, healthy, and able to fight back against other occurrences, such as bleaching.

Sharks also help keep carbon out of the atmosphere. With increasing climate change in everybody’s hands, this is a big one. Seeing that it is driven largely in part to carbon emissions in the atmosphere… the less carbon, the slower the climate change. While sharks can’t eliminate carbon, they can recycle it. As scavengers of the sea, they eat the dead animals on the bottom of the ocean, in which the carbon would otherwise rise to the surface. Per Ocean’s Research, it’s estimated that sharks remove up to half of the manufactured carbon in the atmosphere.

Another benefit of (living) sharks is the support of global economies. According to Conservation.org, shark tourism generates more than $300 million annually. With shark destinations from the Bahamas to South Africa to the Pacific Rim to the Galapagos Islands, figures show that there are over 10,000 shark ecotourism jobs in 29 countries, with those numbers on the rise.

Per Ocean’s Research, it’s estimated that sharks remove up to half of the manufactured carbon in the atmosphere.

Interestingly enough, Coots made a great point on the Storytellers Stage at the 2022 Ohana Fest when he made it clear that sharks can potentially be worth more alive from a tourism and diving standpoint than dead for soup. Tourists pay premium prices to dive with sharks so, when properly done, countries killing sharks for soup could make more through proper eco-tourism. 

“I think as the younger generations realize that sharks are beautiful that there’s a lot of incredible places to dive with sharks in the world. There’s actually a good economy based around keeping sharks alive. Shark diving is a huge economy and people are finding value that they’re better off having sharks alive than they are being killed for shark fin soup… killed for really no reason at all.” 

His very own descriptions highlight why shark diving is and would be intriguing to tourists worldwide. “There’s something about looking into its pupil and you see a soul. I think if we did one collective worldwide dive, and everybody got to see… I think our perceptions of the oceans, our perceptions of sharks, would completely change and be completely flipped 180.” (PADI)

One of his most impactful milestones early on was traveling to Washington DC with scientists to push for shark protection. He used his ironic story and post-attack discoveries (alongside the scientists), and the Shark Conservation Act of 2010 was passed. The act prohibits any person from cutting the fins of a shark out at sea and from having any connection with sharks where their fins are not naturally attached to the carcass (i.e., possessing, transferring, landing). Shark fin soup, a “delicacy” in Asia, carries virtually no nutritional value and can be toxic, yet is still a source of almost single handedly crushing shark populations. 

As Coots says, “Most of the conversation around sharks is what sharks are doing to humans; I think we need to change that and start talking about what humans are doing to sharks.” (Broken Jaws)

Coots and his drive to use his photographic stories to protect the species that is imperative to the ocean’s survival goes beyond just sharks. His travels, his dives, his discoveries, and his findings have highlighted more problems than just the decimation of the shark population.

“I think we’re at a critical juncture right now - ocean acidification, coral reef bleaching… there’s all these things, and if I can do one little part of one little aspect of that and inspire that one person that is able to do something that helps save a species – to me, my life’s mission has been complete.” (PADI)

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Camera 2: Louie Psihoyos

Louie Psihoyos is an environmental activist that can’t be labeled. It’s not possible to assign him just one branch of activism; he is the entire tree. Psihoyos encompasses all that is directed toward protecting and saving what’s sacred – Earth. He brings a bit of everything to the table: aggression, compassion, education, creativity, deviation, complexity, motivation, leadership, and fire. Like Camera 1 (Mike Coots), he also brings a stunning photography and videography résumé to the table. Born in Iowa in the late ‘50s, Psihoyos took a quick liking to photography, which drove him to study photojournalism at the University of Missouri. He was quickly scooped up by National Geographic where he remained a staff photographer for 18 years. He’s worked with many other prestigious publications – Smithsonian, Time, Newsweek, Discover, Sports Illustrated, etc.– but his true calling surfaced a few years after the turn of the century, and the creation of OPS.

Psihoyos encompasses all that is directed toward protecting and saving what’s sacred – Earth.

Psihoyos co-founded the non-profit organization, Ocean Preservation Society (OPS), in 2005. The objective was to educate the public on the Earth's oceans and encourage people to make a difference so that future generations could exist in a stable environment. “OPS” promotes marine conservation and environmental protection by staving off illegal wildlife trading, deforestation, climate change, unsustainable fishing, and biodiversity loss through the lenses of Psihoyos and his colleagues. Their mission is to inspire, empower, and connect a global community of activists by using film and visual displays to expose the most critical issues facing our planet.

Looking back at Camera 1, it’s easy to see parallels through the lenses of environmental activists… in this case, Coots and Psihoyos.

“OPS uses film, photography, and social media - one “exposure” at a time - to inspire, empower, and connect a global community of activists fighting to protect our fragile planet. By documenting humankind's formidable impact on the environment, we inspire action and motivate change. Combining state-of-the-art technology, courage, and covert operations, OPS harnesses the power of the camera to expose crimes against nature and illuminate solutions.” (OPSociety.org)

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The Cove

Psihoyos and OPS broke the first barrier in 2009 with The Cove. This film was one of the first to really use the art of videography meshed with a premeditated plan to expose evil, from an environmental perspective. An Academy Award winner for Best Documentary, the film followed a team of activists, filmmakers, and free divers on a secret mission to infiltrate a secret cove in Taiji, Japan… unveiling a secret plot of cruelty and death of thousands of dolphins. 

Paralleling the irony of the story of Mike Coots, this all began with the dolphin trainer of “Flipper” seeking redemption for undeserved deaths of dolphins he personally trained. Ric O’Barry worked closely with five dolphins on the popular ‘60s TV show and eventually realized that these intelligent, sensitive, and self-aware creatures were never meant to be in captivity. In Taiji, Japan, what seemed to be a destination of free marine life activity ended up a horrific reality in more ways than one. The first, a quick money-grab operation through the sale of dolphins for human entertainment; the second, local brutality and murder of the remaining dolphins for the sake of harvesting their mercury-laced meat. The local fishermen (with the Government in their pocket) would do anything to prevent the information from being leaked, Psihoyos, O’Barry, and their team made it happen. This inaugural OPS project demonstrated how videography and social media can kickstart a movement worldwide.

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What’s So Special About Dolphins?

According to some basic facts from The Cove, dolphins (and whales from the Cetacea family) have been on Earth for about 55 million years. Their brains are larger than humans and they have sophisticated sonar that lets them see without hearing. They are highly intelligent and have been proven to help humans in distress. Dolphins understand almost 100 sign language commands and have the ability to feel compassion. Unfortunately, these amazing traits are the draw and reasoning behind the Taiji fishermen and local government. A dolphin in a marine park show can rake in as much as $150,000.

Ric O’Barry simply said, “In a world where so much that is wild and free has already been lost to us, we must leave these beautiful animals free to swim as they will and must. They do us no harm and wish us none, and we should leave them alone.”

Dolphins understand almost 100 sign language commands and have the ability to feel compassion.

It’s hard to believe that dolphin meat is still on menus overseas, but a key reason that it shouldn’t be is that mercury poisoning can damage the brain, kidneys, and central nervous system. Atmospheric emissions from industrial plants and groundwater contamination are two main sources of mercury in our oceans. Ocean life increases in mercury content through bioaccumulation (slow increase of toxins in organisms over time), so with dolphins being larger creatures, they carry five times the mercury deemed acceptable. This again parallels the story of Mike Coots and his plea for sharks, in that they carry toxic levels of mercury based on their size and lifespan.

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Racing Extinction

Years passed, and Louie Psihoyos continued to self-educate. He expanded his scope and embraced a much greater problem, which sadly to say, was just about everything. From human carbon footprint to the state of the ocean to the slaughter of marine life to wildlife trade… he had his work cut out for him more than ever. So, in 2015, he released his second documentary. Racing Extinction focused on the ongoing Anthropogenic mass extinction of species and the efforts from scientists, activists, and journalists to document it and protect our interconnected world. The goal? Raise awareness and encourage people to change habits to ensure the survival of species for future generations. While The Cove was about one species in one location, Racing Extinction posed problems on a much larger scale where humanity was causing the loss of half the species on the planet. There are four components to mass extinction – habitat destruction, pollution, invasive species, and overconsumption – and the documentary addressed them all.

“The best thing that you can hope to happen when you’re doing a film,” Psihoyos said, “is to get death threats, because then you know you’re creating change. We got death threats on The Cove, but Racing Extinction was a much more difficult film to make in terms of risk because we were directly confronting the perpetrators, posing as buyers of endangered species.” 

It’s well apparent that he and his team of activists were fully committed, as they exposed two massive threats to endangered species globally – climate change and the international wildlife trade. Like The Cove, they put themselves in incredibly risky and even dangerous situations in pursuit of their story and went as far as going undercover to expose a ring of illegal wildlife traffickers in China. But equally important to the problem is the solution, and they provided that, as well.

One example of a long-term sustainable solution to a devastating issue was teaching Indonesian villagers about the economic benefits of conserving Manta Rays rather than killing them. Just a few years ago, there was a struggle to get Manta Rays on the endangered species list, but it finally happened. Previously, Indonesia was killing more Manta Rays than any other place in the world, and now it is home to the largest marine sanctuary in the world. This again parallels Camera 1, Mike Coots and his message– creating an ecotourism business through shark diving could be financially viable in lieu of killing sharks.

Despite the previous example, unfortunately, the global picture isn’t as positive. Worldwide shark and ray populations are getting taken out by certain fisheries and their incidental take, also known as bycatch. Sharks, dolphins, whales, and other marine species (including species not targeted for the marketplace) get tangled and die. Almost half of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch consists of lost, stray nets.

Psihoyos pointed out, “The Blue Whale is the biggest creature on the planet, bigger than any dinosaur ever. Just like dinosaurs, they're going extinct.” This isn’t to say we need to stop fishing entirely; we simply need to fish on a safer and more sustainable level with less invasive techniques and more practices of moderation. The world will always consume fish, but only if it fishes for all species properly/sustainably, minimizes bycatch, monitors and enforces catch limits, and only keeps what is really needed.

Per OPS, more than 300 species of sharks and rays are now listed as either endangered or critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature, and at least 75% of oceanic shark species are at risk of extinction. Psihoyos exclaimed, “Sharks predate dinosaurs. They survived four mass extinction events. And in just this one generation that I've been alive, we've cut down their numbers by about 90%.” This is yet another reason he made Racing Extinction and spread the urgent message.

Another factor of this mass extinction is the elimination of natural habitats to grow food for animals that society will consume. By lowering meat consumption, we can create an impact on the extinction of wildlife. Like fishing, it does not have to be 100%; simply doing individual parts to make a difference, on the whole, makes a difference. If everyone in America adopted a plant-based diet just one day a week – without meat, eggs and cheese – that would be the equivalent of taking 7.6 million cars off the road permanently. The raising of beef for consumption creates more greenhouse gasses than all of the transportation system’s emissions combined. If we reduce our consumption, it will help.

Linking back to our oceans and their inhabitants, the amount of carbon dioxide we’re creating is acidifying the oceans’ reefs at an alarming rate that wasn’t didn’t comprehended until 2003. Roughly half of the carbon dioxide that humans create is absorbed by the ocean. While at one point, it was thought to be a good thing, it’s now apparent that with the current rate of acidification, all coral reefs will be gone by the year 2100. When you lose the coral reefs, you lose about 25% of the species in the ocean. And if sharks are part of that equation, that could be detrimental to our entire ecosystem and planet.

Now What?

The Sixth Mass Extinction is underway, primarily due to our own decisions, actions and refusal to change. It's not our “inability” to change – it’s our refusal. Earth’s life support systems are starting to collapse, so there’s not much room or time for discussion. Now is the time for protecting our oceans, and discussions around sustainable seafood have never been more important. Now is the time to consider what we eat and how often, so less reliance on the meat industry takes the foot off the gas on greenhouse emissions, and therefore our carbon footprint. Less carbon means less pollution and less pollution means the survival of our planet. The word “interconnected” has never been as clear as it shows right now. 

“The fact that this huge concentration of wildlife could be gone in just a couple of generations is unconscionable to me. So, we want people to realize that there’s a large-scale planetary disaster going on. We’re losing more wildlife at a greater pace than we have since the comet hit Earth 66 million years ago, but this time humans are the asteroid.” - Louie Psihoyos 

As disturbing as some of these numbers, percentages, and facts appear to be, at least there are solutions that leave people with hope. Everyone can make a difference and see that change can happen quickly with the slightest compromise. Looking at our collective effort, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Key Takeaways
  • Research where your seafood comes from every time. Make sure that it was caught from a sustainable source, using sustainable methods. As any legitimate fishmonger will say, “There’s no such thing as good cheap seafood.” And under no circumstances should you support any entity selling or supporting the sale of shark fin soup.
  • Support alternative fuels that will reduce our use of coal, a main source of mercury contamination in our waters.
  • Do your best to have at least one meat-free day a week and, like seafood, source the meat and poultry when you purchase or trade for it. A local Farmer’s Market is typically a great place to start.
  • Don’t be afraid to grow your own food and/or co-op with neighbors. Raised planter beds are easier than they seem, and an easy way to enjoy the best organic food possible.