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'State of Planet's Oceans' Explores Ecosystems in Dire Straights

Click to view audio slideshow of images from film

A new documentary film narrated by actor Matt Damon that explores the health of the world's complex ocean ecosystems debuted on public television in the United States this week. It portrays stories of hope and courage in the face of dire threats to human and aquatic life.

The State of the Planet's Oceans opens in Aveiro, Portugal, a coastal town where 400 years ago fishing fleets first set out across the Atlantic. These fertile waters have fed generations. At their peak at the end of the 20th century, the fishing grounds yielded 1.4 billion kilos of Atlantic cod each year.

Eventually, fishermen were catching fish faster than the fish could reproduce. The cod industry's collapse came as no surprise to Carl Safina with the Blue Ocean Institute, who is a commentator in the film.

"It's human nature to kind of overdo a good thing, and fisheries have done that repeatedly. The history of fisheries is pretty much boom and bust. You find one thing and you drive it down, deplete it and find some new thing, drive it down and deplete."

Fishing industry collapse decimates communities

But filmmakers Hal and Marilyn Weiner say the fishing industry collapse is more than an economic disaster. It also destroys the fabric of a community like Aveiro. The couple went with a cod fisherman who dragged his nets "for hours and hours."

"And they pulled up their nets, and there was nothing. There was nothing," says Hal Weiner.

What interested the filmmakers, besides the fact that a species had been decimated, is the culture.

"It's not only the loss of culture, but it is also a connection to a fishing way of life that is being lost, the basis of existence," adds Marilyn Weiner.

One sign of hope is a chain of islands off the coast of Florida called the Dry Tortugas. As the largest reef barrier in North America, its grasses and corals nurture 250 species of fish.

Marilyn Weiner says the area's designation as an ecological reserve will help to protect it from human encroachment and overfishing.

"It is a start in regenerating, but what they don't realize is that you can't leave a reserve. You have to patrol a reserve, and fishermen go after fish."

The Weiners follow the story as a high-speed boat of law enforcement officers pulls alongside a potential violator of the restricted fishing codes. Over a loudspeaker, they notify the vessel that they are coming on board to conduct a marine fisheries inspection.

Melting Greenland ice sheet threatens world's coastal regions

The cinematic ocean journey continues to the great arctic island of Greenland, where we join a research expedition. Scientists find that the glacial ice covering much of the Danish island territory is moving quickly, about 40 meters a day - an ominous sign, says Gordon Hamilton, research associate professor at the University of Maine.

"That would start to collapse the ice sheet very rapidly in ways we don't yet appreciate, and that could remove a large amount of the Greenland ice sheet quite quickly," he says.

The ice melt in Greenland will eventually raise ocean sea levels and impact coastal regions of the world, says filmmaker Hal Weiner, who took his crew to Bangladesh in monsoon season to document the problem.

"Every year, monsoons flood Bangladesh, and sometimes as many as 10 million people are displaced for a finite period of time, and then waters go down, and they are used to this."

The problem, he says, is that sea level rise could displace up to 70 million people.

Film aims to inspire action

But the documentary shows that people, applying the right policies, can address these looming problems. Local officials in Belize established a coastal reserve in partnership with the environmental group Friends of Nature to bring back an underwater celebrity: the whale shark, the world's largest fish at nearly 20 meters long.

The shark had left the habitat because its food supplies had been overfished. Marilyn Weiner says the measures now in place employ former fishermen in a new industry: ecotourism.

"If you just modify behavior a little bit and give the fish a chance, there is a huge payback. You can make a huge difference."

Marilyn and Hal Weiner hope The State of the Planet's Oceans will educate and inspire people to take action to protect the marine environment, a message that resonates with moviegoers at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington.

"I don't think that it is an exaggeration to say that the environment and in particular the health of the oceans is the critical issue of our time," says one man.

A woman standing close by adds, "Unless people are educated, they don't know and can't make decisions."

Another man nods in agreement, saying, "I think that a film like this can make a difference by raising people's awareness of not only the problems that are out there, because a lot of films are gloom, but solutions that are out there."

The State of the Planet's Oceans will be distributed as part of a popular public television series now being used in schools and broadcast in major television markets around the world.