Alexandra Cousteau: Charting a Course for Ocean Restoration

March 19, 2024
 Alexandra Cousteau_Creative Development Podcast Banner Image _Podcast Banner Image - 1

Season 4 | Episode 2

Join Makhtar Diop and prominent ocean advocate Alexandra Cousteau in a captivating conversation that is both a reckoning with the damage done to our oceans, and a solutions-driven call to action around how we can save them. The granddaughter of legendary oceanographer and explorer Jacques Cousteau, Alexandra shares how she is continuing the family legacy with a focus on rebuilding and restoring ocean abundance through innovative strategies and solutions. 

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Makhtar Diop: Welcome to Creative Development with IFC. I’m Makhtar Diop the Managing Director of the International Finance Corporation. Today, I'm delighted to welcome Alexandra Cousteau to my podcast. Alexandra is a filmmaker and environmental activist. While continuing the legacy of her grandfather, Jacques-Yves Cousteau and father, Philippe Cousteau - both distinguished oceanographers, and environmentalist - Alexandra has emerged as a global advocate for ocean issues. She has led expeditions, produced films and launched initiatives that are changing the way we think about our oceans, and inspiring action for us to protect them. It's a pleasure to have you on my podcast. Alexandra, welcome to Creative Development with IFC.

Alexandra Cousteau:  Thank you.

Makhtar: Personally, as many people who spent time in France when they were in their formative years, and in my own country in Senegal, I saw a lot of documentaries from your grandfather. But you know you have made a name on your own, while carrying that tradition at the same time. Tell us a little bit about how it happened? How did you decide to follow the family tradition, your grandfather’s  tradition, and be also an activist in protecting the ocean, but also teaching us a little bit more about what is happening in the sea.

Alexandra: You know, I went on my first expedition when I was just four months old, and traveled with my parents through Africa and Latin America and between our home bases in Paris and Los Angeles. And so being on expedition and that sense of adventure, and that sense of camaraderie with the crew, really is what feels like home to me. And when my grandfather taught me to scuba dive when I was seven in the Mediterranean in the south of France, that opened up a whole new world for me, and I really understood what they were doing, why they were doing it, what they were trying to protect and how important it was. And that really set me on my path. There was really no looking back after that. And throughout my childhood, I did things to try to support my grandfather and the Cousteau Society. And sometimes that was collecting signatures for his Antarctic petition back when he was trying to protect Antarctica from mining and drilling, which was ultimately successful. But I also supported him in lots of lots of childish ways when I was young. And then when I got older, it just took off. And I started finding ways to be involved in many things. I was an apprentice, you know. I would go and learn from scientists and I would learn from explorers and I would just do as much as I could in the ocean space to learn for myself, what was happening, whether it was dolphin research and rescue or studying bioluminescence, or aquaculture, coral reef restoration, I was doing film and photography. And I think those initial formative years was just learning as much as I could, both with my family, but actually, more often than not just on my own and with people that I admired and people that I met and as part of advisory boards, or volunteering. And then eventually I just kind of grew into my own space and my own priorities. And it became easier as a woman as well over time. There was more space in the exploration field for women to have big ideas and want to do big things. And I think now we take it for granted. But just 30 years ago, it wasn't that way. So it's been exciting as well, to see how this space has changed as women have become a bigger part of it.

Makhtar: That's fantastic. I'm coming from Senegal, which is a coastal country, which relies a lot on fishery. And actually, we have seen that the over-exploitation of marine resources and overfishing have led to migration. Actually, a lot of the people who are now getting on these boats and trying to reach Europe, were originally coming from fishermen and women villages. And because there was over exploitation of the resources, they had to leave the country and try to get a better life somewhere else. So, I can really understand what you are saying. So, what do you think about the way the fishery is done currently in the world.

Alexandra: I think that without getting too technical, our focus on achieving the maximum sustainable yield of a fish stock, whatever it is, has been incredibly damaging. We have traditionally focused on exploiting and extracting as much fish as we can, within a limit that will just prevent collapse. We don't manage our fish stocks for abundance, we don't manage them for future generations, we manage to take as much as we can without destroying it, basically. And we've seen our fish stocks collapse time after time after time. Some collapses are just catastrophic, like the collapse of the cod fishery in New England in the 70s. Cod, which is not just something that people like to eat, but it's also connected to history and culture and cuisine and a sense of identity and sense of self and intergenerational professions. And losing that cod stock in the 70s was catastrophic for people's mental and emotional welfare, not just for their economic welfare. And personally, I visited the Gulf of Mexico after the oil spill. And the loss of that fishing resource was devastating to those communities. After catastrophic marine events like the Exxon Valdez, which isn't overfishing, but it led to a loss of Fisheries and a loss of that resource. And it led to a real collapse of the social capital that existed in those communities in Alaska. After the Exxon Valdez, there was an increase in mental health issues, suicide, drug abuse, domestic violence. And so it's a mistake to think that we are not connected to the ocean and that we're not connected to our resources in a way that goes beyond just having food on our plate, although that is one of the most important things that the ocean provides. But it's also very much connected to our sense of self. And when we manage our fisheries to avoid collapse, rather than to manage them to secure abundance of the resource, then we create a system like you just described in Senegal, where foreign fleets come, they wipe out the local fisheries, the local fishermen no longer have their way of life that is built into their community and has been passed on from father to son to son to son, and it's devastating. The good news with fisheries is that we know how to rebuild them, and we have rebuilt fish stock after fish stock after fish stock. We can do it quickly, especially with small fish like sardines or anchovies. It can take longer with larger fish that reproduce more slowly, but we know how to do it. And I think we need to look at subsidies for fisheries, look at how we insure fishing boats, look at new technologies, especially ways that AI and satellite imagery and other things can help us track illegal and unregulated and unreported fisheries, fishing activities around the world with tools like Global Fishing Watch, securing better policies that are science based and not politically motivated. There's all these tools that we know how to use and, and more that are being developed every day. And I think fisheries is an opportunity to secure food security for vulnerable communities.

Makhtar: Alexandra, you are perfectly right, and I think that is great to see your voice added to the voice of the people who want to read to make sure that little bits of governance of managing fish stocks in countries is an appropriate one and the proper one because otherwise, the consequences, as you mentioned, socially, economically, on sustainability are huge. A topic that we are working on now and also trying to help companies, to incentivize them to stop polluting the sea is marine plastic. And we saw the impact that it's having, and we are not even measuring the whole impact it is having on the ecosystem. Another issue that you alluded to is mining. More and more countries and companies are looking at offshore mining. So what is your take on these two questions?

Alexandra: So, I think that with regard to marine plastics, there is a focus on recycling, and not enough on reducing and replacing a material that was designed to last for all intents and purposes forever, but only be used momentarily. So that's a design flaw. And we need to redesign that whole process. And so, the plastic industry has a vested interest in the recycling narrative. I prefer the replacing and reducing narrative. And I think that that's been very effective. And that's what people want. Here in France, they've basically banned single use plastic, and you can't get a plastic cup, or a plastic plate or plastic silverware at the supermarket or in a restaurant. Single use plastic is gone, and nobody misses it. It's fantastic. And I think it's an example that a lot of other countries can follow in letting go of the fear that there'll be some kind of awful public backlash or corporate backlash. And with mining, I think we need to take a precautionary approach. A lot of places where companies want to go and mine is unexplored, there's value there and resources there and creatures and biodiversity live there that we don't know about. And so going and destroying it before we've even had a chance to really understand what's there, I think it's irresponsible at best, and potentially criminal at worst. And so, again, I support France’s position, and many others have followed, that we need to have a moratorium on mining until we better understand the consequences, because that's something that we can't go back from.

But I also want to mention the fact that there are new ways of creating blue economy, especially in coastal countries, that has been big in Asia for 1000s of years, and is now starting to expand to the North Atlantic and other parts of the world - and that is seaweed farming. We've been studying the carbon sequestration of seaweed farms around the world for the past three years, with 27,000 different farmers represented by about 30 Farms, 60% of which are women. And the interesting thing is that when you look at the combined potential of seaweed farming, we actually have an Amazon rainforest in the ocean, and that can grow. And so, seaweed farming is something that not only can be the cornerstone of a regenerative blue economy around the world. It supports coastal communities, it supports women, it sequesters carbon in a beautiful way. And it also provides us with industrial feedstock that can help us replace plastic. It can help us do all sorts of things from fuel to nutraceuticals, cosmetics and so many other things. And so I think that as we look at the oceans of tomorrow, and rebuilding what we've lost -  because don't forget that we have lost 50% of the life in the ocean since my grandfather first started making his films in the 1950s. Half of the life that you would have seen in those films that he made is gone. And so we are past the point of just conserving what we have left. That's not ambitious enough anymore. We need to rebuild what we've lost and the ocean is incredibly resilient when you give it a chance to come back. So I think that the approach of rebuilding and restoring abundance gives us a fundamentally different pathway to choose solutions like seaweed farming, and it also gives us key performance indicators and important milestones by which to measure our progress towards net positive outcomes in the ocean rather than simply trying to focus on preventing loss, which is, in truth, a slippery slope to a dead ocean. So I'm actually pretty excited about some of the recent international agreements, like what we saw in Montreal recently, where all the countries came together and agreed to not just prevent loss, but to rebuild degraded landscapes and to restore oceans and create marine protected areas and, and put money behind it. And that's, that's new. And that's exciting. And so I think we're starting to see this narrative of rebuilding and looking at how rebuilding can help not just nature, but also the people that depend on it - and how we do those two things in harmony.

Makhtar: That’s great, I think that what you just described fits very much with your initiative, Oceans 2050 that you have launched and the work that you're doing in this context. We are working on the Amazon Earth as a way to try to preserve the biodiversity by giving incentive to companies. We are doing a lot of thematic bonds around these questions of ocean protection, or nature based solutions. Because we think thats what will bring real sustainability. We're doing it in the Philippines, in Romania, in Thailand, in Brazil. So this is the kind of thing that we are doing very much -  thematic bonds. So tell us a little bit about Oceans 2050. And then we’ll come back to you as a young kid, and many millions of young kids in the world, watching your grandfather and your family diving in the ocean and making us discover the beauty of the sea.

Alexandra: You know, oceans 2050 was something that we started in 2018. And for a long time, I worked really on conservation, you know, that was part of the ethic that my father and my grandfather brought to the world. And they started this idea that the oceans have intrinsic value, they're important for communities, we should protect them, we should conserve them, we should minimize loss. And that created a huge wave of change. But we are still creeping forward towards a time when our oceans will not be there anymore. And so there was a period of time where I got really depressed about this. All of the places that I knew as a child are gone or severely degraded. And then I had my own children, and I wondered what would be left for them. Or would they be the generation of my family to write the obituary for the world's oceans? And I called a friend of mine, who is one of the world's greatest marine ecologists of this moment. He's written over 1000 scientific papers. He's just incredible. And I asked him, I said, you know, ‘is it inevitable that our oceans will die within my lifetime or my children's? Or is there any chance that we could rebuild them to the abundance that my grandfather once knew - is that even scientifically possible.’ And I expected him to say, you know, we can stop the loss, or we could improve it incrementally. I did not expect him to tell me that we can restore abundance to our oceans. But that is what he told me. And he was in the midst of writing a paper which was later published in Nature, and became one of the top five climate papers of that year. And in that paper, he outlines a roadmap for rebuilding oceans and explains exactly what the key ecosystems are, what we need to do. It was an incredible scientific achievement. His name is Carlos Duarte, and he is a scientist to follow in this space, because there is no one who talks about how we can rebuild our oceans the way he does. And that was so inspiring to me, because it fundamentally shifted the paradigm in my mind of what's possible.

Makhtar: Maybe for us who don't know him, and we'll be discovering him after this podcast. Do you want to repeat for the people who are listening to us the name of this scientist Carlos Duarte.

Alexandra: Yes, the paper is called Rebuilding Marine Life and it was published in Nature. And that really became the inspiration for my work from that moment forward. And I realized that focusing on preventing loss is like focusing on the fear of losing rather than the opportunity of building and it's much more hopeful and much more exciting to focus on the opportunities of building and so that's what oceans 2050 is all about. That's what we focus on. We did this scientific study to understand the carbon sequestration potential of seaweed farming as the potential cornerstone of a regenerative blue economy. We're about to publish a voluntary carbon protocol for seaweed farming, we're starting to build a mission control for oceans that will use data and AI and all of these different new technologies to really help us understand the state of the world's oceans in real time and where we need to focus to be able to rebuild them. So, we're looking at technology, we're looking at science we're looking at how do we engage more people, more investors, more financial institutions to be part of rebuilding our oceans, because our oceans are the least funded of the Sustainable Development Goals. And philanthropy alone cannot bridge that gap for what we need to be able to rebuild them. So, we need to create new tools for new sectors to be involved and be able to participate in the rebuilding. And we believe there's a huge potential that we can unlock there.

Makhtar: You know, when we talk about you, about your grandfather, we have to talk about narrative, about storytelling, about film making. This is one of the things that your family has done, which is quite unique, and you are really, yourself doing a lot in this area. Tell us what next, what are you working on? What are the things that you are doing in filmmaking right now to increase the awareness of what is happening in the ocean?

Alexandra: What is really interesting to me from a storytelling perspective is focusing on what we can do and where we can go. There's so much hopelessness, especially from our young people, young women who are afraid to have children. Our youth is suffering from eco anxiety and climate anxiety. We have things like ‘Friday's for the Future’, we have young people that are becoming superstars on social media, because they're protesting against the status quo, and looking for solutions, looking for a new pathway forward. And so I think what's interesting in terms of storytelling is giving people a sense of what's possible, and how they can have a meaningful contribution to rebuilding our world. And we haven't typically given them those solutions. The media focuses on what's going wrong, a lot of documentaries focus on what's going wrong. And nonprofits often give you solutions, like donate $20, or take a shorter shower and things that frankly, don't make us feel that much better about everything that's going on in the world and our ability to have a meaningful contribution to solving it. And I think that's what people need. And so when you look at storytelling, I think it's how do you blend storytelling with actually being able to have an impact, have a measurable outcome on the issue that you care about.

Makhtar: Alexandra, sorry to interrupt you, but I think you’ve said something very powerful, and I just wanted us to take two minutes to talk about it. It's true that we have never seen this level of anxiety among adolescent children and young adults, that we have seen right now. And a lot of the anxieties that they have is coming from what will happen to the planet during their lifetime. And I think giving a sense of hope, not just abstract hope, but hope that you can fix it by taking very concrete actions, particularly in restoration, I think is a very powerful message. Because as you rightly say, the main message that we are hearing is a message of hopelessness, you know, it's a disaster, nobody can do anything, or sometimes some solution which are not really appealing or realistic. So, it seems that in the ocean space, there is something which is matching a little bit realistic solution, acceptable solution with addressing the trend. Is it what you're telling me and what I'm hearing?

Alexandra: Yes, I think there's an opportunity now for a lot of innovation and storytelling to combine storytelling, whether it's like documentary filmmaking, or more recently online in real life, storytelling on social media, but also the kind of storytelling that people love to experience in gaming. Gaming is something that people spend a lot of time on, they spend a lot of money in, in game purchases. So we're looking at how can we combine storytelling in whatever form it takes with real life outcomes in the world, whether it's on land or in the ocean? How can we quantify that and combine it with the experience of what people are having through storytelling? And that's, that's really exciting. And we're getting very close to being able to present this to the world. So I'll let you know when we do. I mean, everybody's telling stories now. Everybody's telling stories online. You know, my grandfather, he was the premier storyteller for oceans around the world because he was the only one. And he was amazing at it, of course. And he was also an inventor and an innovator and he invented scuba diving. He invented the underwater flash, the underwater sound, he had his Calypso, he designed submersibles. He had to imagine and build all of the things that he used because they didn't exist. And so that was his time and his story. And I think now we have a different time and a different story. And we have, we have different issues. We have climate change, we have the collapse of the oceans, we have huge losses and biodiversity, we have real risks that systems will collapse within the lifetime of our children. Making documentaries about that isn't going to change the outcome. Connecting people to solutions will, and giving them meaningful actions to take that are measurable will. I believe, but it is possible now. And only recently did it become possible. So I think that always pushing the envelope in innovating new ways to maximize the potential of our collective efforts, it's a really exciting space to look at.

Makhtar: That’s great that you contrast a little bit the context in which the storytelling of your grandfather was happening and current context, two totally different realities. Actually, we are in a different context. And I'm very happy to hear where you want to take it because this is addressing the challenge that we are facing today. So Alexandra thank you so much. It was a pleasure talking to you. And really you bringing so much light to the discussion which is quite challenging. Water and ocean for me is personally very important. I grew up seeing the ocean every day in my country. My parents home city which was the former capital of Senegal during colonial time, actually has been very much affected by coastal erosion- St Louis, in Senegal has been very much like other places in Senegal very much affected by coastal erosion, which is something that we don't talk enough about. Where I was playing in Dakar when I was a kid has now totally disappeared because of coastal erosion. So it's something that certainly we need also to talk about more forcefully as we are talking about the ocean.

Alexandra: And actually, restoring coral reefs and seagrass beds and things like that can restore coastal areas as well. It can bring sand back to places where it was lost. So it's interesting to see the restoration of different ecosystems and how it cannot just bring back fish and marine life but can also protect and restore coastal land.

Makhtar: Thank you so very much and I look forward to seeing you in DC. Good luck with your initiative, Oceans 2050. I look forward to reading some of the reports that you mentioned in the discussion. Thank you so very much.

Alexandra: Thank you, thank you.

Makhtar: Thank you for listening. Creative Development with IFC is produced by Lindy Mtongana, Aida Holly-Nambi and Maeve Francis for IFC. If you enjoyed this episode, please share it with your network and tell a friend.