Pure Genius

Alexandra Cousteau: Tuna is not a sustainable alternative

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The granddaughter of Jacques Cousteau is following in the explorer and filmmaker's footsteps--with a modern focus on sustainability and much lighter camera equipment.

In many ways, Alexandra Cousteau is following in her grandfather’s footsteps. But unlike Jacques Cousteau, Alexandra has the benefit of super-light and portable filmmaking equipment, and a worldwide audience on the Internet.

Through her Washington-based Blue Legacy International, Cousteau is visiting areas from the Mekong in Cambodia to the Anacostia here in D.C., spreading the word about the crisis facing the natural resource she has been exploring since she was a toddler: water.

Last year you went on a 100-day expedition exploring water on five continents. How did that trip influence your direction at Blue Legacy?

We looked at all different aspects of how our water resources are interconnected and touch human lives in so many ways. We produced films and blogs and distributed that online to a whole network of media partners. The idea was to look at the different stories, whether it’s water and conflict, farmers and fisherman, or water as a vehicle for peace. These really short stories help people to think about water in a different way. When we came back and gave some thought to what we’d learned, we realized that so many of these stories we talk about globally are happening here in our backyard. It’s not an issue that just impacts poor people over there. It very much impacts the quality of life of people here in the U.S.

And you’re taking a similar trip in July around North America?

We decided 2010 would be North American water stories, to help people connect to water here. Our hope is by going on this expedition for 135 days and producing short films and blogs, and engaging social media, we can bring the focus back here.

Was there anything that surprised you on last year’s expedition?

What that journey really drove home for me is the idea that water really is not only our most important life support system but the vehicle through which you’ll feel the impact of climate change. It’s the thing we all share, whether we live in India or Indiana. We’re connected to water through our watershed, through our community, but also at a global level, at a level of the hydrosphere. What we put into the Hudson will end up in the Mediterranean. There is acid raid falling over the continental United States because of emissions in China that crossed the Pacific.

What countries or regions are doing a good job with their water management?

In Botswana we saw a great model for water conservation. It’s a partnership between Botswana, Namibia and Angola. The rain falls in Angola, goes under the sands of the desert and bubbles up in Botswana. The watershed spans the three countries, and they’ve come together to manage that watershed and to keep it intact. There are many examples where governments are coming together across borders. Communities are coming together to restore the watershed and reduce the negative impact. It needs to happen at the local level, because that’s where we are either polluting it, overusing it or building too much on it.

Overfishing is a serious problem in the world’s oceans. What will it take for big fish--like the bluefin tuna--to be listed as endangered?

It’s a frustrating issue for me. I think we need a lot of public outcry on the tuna issue. Nonprofit groups have done an amazing job at working to try to get this pushed through. But as long as there’s demand and as long as a tuna carcass is worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, I don’t see the political will kicking in to save these animals. I think we need to educate people that tuna isn’t a sustainable alternative. It’s not just the tuna; it’s all of the big fish. We’ve overfished big fish to the point where there’s only 10 percent left, and that may be optimistic. We have to give people sustainable alternatives. People have got to stop eating them.

Do you eat fish?

Rarely. And only if it’s sustainable.

Where does the U.S. fall on the spectrum of countries that take water for granted? Are we the worst?

Not the worst. Every country has its own water issues, and it just gets worse with climate change. Places that are wet will get wetter; places that are dry will get drier. I think there’s going to be huge challenges ahead to continue to provide water to parts of the West and Midwest. Places like Las Vegas will have a harder time providing the amount of water its residents are accustomed to. I think there are very real water issues in the U.S., just as real as anywhere else in the world.

Tell me about some of the equipment you use that makes exploring and filmmaking so much easier than it was for your grandfather.

The equipment today definitely makes my life easier. We have cameras that have better imagery and high definition. They’re lighter and mobile, and my crew can carry them around all day. Then they record all of that onto hard drives, and we can upload all our B-roll to an online library. When my grandfather and father were making films they had a crew of 30, a huge camera, film they had to change in and out, canisters they had to fly back to editing suites so people could splice the film together. I remember watching this as a child. They would spend six to nine months in one location because they didn’t know what they had in the can until the editors looked at the film. Now, we can just look in the viewfinder and put it on the Internet, which gives us a much quicker turnaround and enables us to reach a lot more people than we would with one documentary on TV.

What’s the most important lesson you learned from your grandfather?

He always told me you have to go and see. I would bombard him with a million questions. He said, “Alexandra, you will have to go see for yourself. That’s how you will understand our world, love our world and protect our world.” He told me that when I was 8. And I guess that’s what I’ve been doing ever since.

Images: Blue Legacy

Click here to read my post about watersheds.

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Melanie D.G. Kaplan

Contributing Editor

Melanie D.G. Kaplan is a Washington, D.C.- based journalist. She is a regular contributor to The Washington Post and National Parks Magazine. Her website is www.melaniedgkaplan.com. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure