At 73 years old, it seems as though Jean-Michel Cousteau has only begun. After four decades, the renowned ocean explorer, environmentalist, educator and film producer is still leading expeditions around the world in search for answers that could shed light on the environmental dangers befalling humanity. Much as his father, Jacques, inspired a new generation to don scuba gear and explore the water planet, Cousteau is, in turn, inspiring a worldwide ecological awakening as “a voice for the ocean” with his Santa Barbara-based nonprofit marine conservation and education organization, Ocean Futures Society. On Sunday, April 29, at Cate School Theater in Carpinteria, Cousteau will be giving a presentation about the importance of oceans and of preserving underwater ecosystems, with a book signing to follow. On his recent visit to the Ocean Futures office, Cousteau spoke passionately about recent expeditions, fish farming and the controversy surrounding marine protected areas.   

VCReporter: Tell me about a recent expedition.

Jean-Michel Cousteau: We did a great expedition which was taking us all the way around the U.S. It was all about the national marine sanctuaries. When we had interviews with people about how many sanctuaries are there, who is paying for it, who managed them, who is in charge, I realized to what extent the American public doesn’t know where those sanctuaries are. We’re really out of touch with very nice things that are taking place to protect certain parts of the ocean. It really bothered me so much that we decided at Ocean Futures that we need to have books be made about marine sanctuaries with low enough cost that can be put in every school in the country. So the publisher decided to publish four different categories based on region. … We’re working on other issues, which, to me, are fascinating, like the fact that we have big industry of fishing in Alaska, like pollock, being sold all over the place. Meat is removed, guts are being made into balls sent into Japan to feed eels, and you have all these bones left behind. There is this scientist who has now come up with the concept — and it works — to take those fish bones, make them into powders and inject it in the ground where there is lead, in order to neutralize the effect of lead on people. That, to me, is fascinating.

There is a debate between marine protected areas and the local fishing industry. About 350 miles of coast between Point Conception and Mexico were recently affected with new protected areas. Some fishermen contend these protected areas aren’t needed and it will hurt the economy. How do you create a fair balance?

I’m on the side of the fishermen. We’re doing everything we can so they don’t lose their jobs but what we have done is, we have added another 100 million people to the planet every year and the demand is increasing. I compare that to what we have done on land. When we were hunters and gatherers on land, one day we found out there wasn’t enough to hunt and gather anymore, so we became farmers. When it comes to ocean, we’ve reached a point we’re taking more from the ocean than what the ocean can produce, and that is putting out of business thousands of fishermen. We are lucky on the West Coast compared to the Northeast where 20,000 fishermen in Maine were put out of business. I believe that having protected areas along the coastline, where you have 20 percent or so of marine sanctuary protected from fishing, we have had a lot of opposition from commercial fishermen and sport fishermen. Like I said, I am on their side and I don’t want them to be out of business. But the only way to do that is to have protected areas where these species can multiply and reproduce, and then it will come to a point where they (the fish) have to go somewhere because there is an overpopulation within the sanctuary and they have to go out. … As difficult as it is for fishermen to reorganize themselves and go further in open ocean — I understand all of that — but if they are going to keep making a living, that is the only way to do it other than having them and their children become farmers.

What do you mean by farmers?

There are now opportunities that are going to become available to farm different species of fish on land so you can control your investment. … We’re speaking to different people involved in that field. If you look at people who are thinking business, who want a profit on their investment, there are a lot of people that will make a lot of money on fish farms. If you raise that right kind of fish, make sure nothing goes into the environment, and the waste becomes a resource like the fish bone, in this case it can help plants to grow and help feed some of the fish. The point today, after decades of research, is that you can have completely self-sustained farms that can be built at the size of the local demand market. You can be at Topeka, Kansas, and you can offer to the local community fresh fish that they’ve never had from $5 to $8 a pound. Nobody has ever had that. And by the way, no transportation, no emission of CO2 to get that fish to those people in Topeka, Kansas. We need to offer future generations an opportunity to see a way to continue having the same privilege we have today.

But there are clearly issues with ocean fish farming, right?

Open-ocean fish farms are a big problem. I would never have a fish farm in ocean. You are at mercy to bad weather, and you will have species that will escape. Atlantic salmon grown in Canada! They could escape and they mate and they interbreed with other species, so we’ve lost control. And that is happening. Is this helping the fish industry? No it’s not. … Even the open-ocean normal system of reproduction is affected by fish farms. There is huge opposition, now that the public is being informed. We need to evolve to where we can continue feeding people with the right species and not affecting the environment. This means education, speaking to decision makers and educating young people.

There is the quote, “Going in the ocean is like diving into the history of life on Earth.” You first dove into the ocean at the age of 7. If you were to dive in today, what would history tell you?

That we need to communicate better to the majority of the human species. There are very few divers, and we’re the only ones who can share with other people what is happening below the surface. Fortunately today, we are finding out that a much bigger family is surfers. Though most are not scuba divers, many are becoming scuba divers. Before, they were just having a good old time. Now they see the ocean is being polluted, that it’s being used as a universal garbage can, and it’s affecting them and they are becoming concerned. We made a marriage with surfers and divers with Body Glove. Ocean Futures and Body Glove are working together to try and have a stronger voice when it comes to decision makers.

How do you explain the critical bond between people and the sea to people who don’t have the sea in their everyday life?

I was in Kalamazoo, (Mich.,) and for two days, I spoke to adults, young people, children and tiny kids. I had, for the first time in my life, probably 250 4- and 5-year-olds sitting on floor of theater, motionless and speechless. They were mesmerized by images we were showing. You try to do that here, forget it. They will eat you alive. You know why? They already know. The curiosity of these kids went up to the adults, the enthusiasm of discovery. The majority of these people have never seen the ocean. You tell them, “See the little river behind your school? It goes all the way to the ocean, and if you put a bottle top on it, it’s going to drift all the way to ocean and it’s going to kill a fish.”

Jean-Michel Cousteau will be speaking Sunday, April 29, at Cate School Theater, 1960 Cate Mesa Road, Carpinteria at 6 p.m. He will be signing copies of his books My Father, the Captain: My Life With Jacques Cousteau, and Explore the West Coast National Marine Sanctuaries With Jean-Michel Cousteau. Admission is $25, and all proceeds benefit Carpinteria Family School Green Initiatives. To purchase tickets, go to www.cfsfamily.com. To learn more, visit www.oceanfutures.org