Interview of Isabelle Autissier

© Yann Arthus Bertrand Planet Ocean

Interview of Isabelle Autissier, sailor and chair of WWF-France
“We must rethink our approach to the sea”

In 1991 she was the first woman to sailaround the world in a yacht race. Today Isabelle Autissier isa writer and commentator on French radio. She maintains an enthusiastic interest in sailing and the oceans and isa respected authority on the subject in France. Chair of WWF-France since 2009 and fan of the Tara, Isabelle sharesher thoughts with us. Interview.

You spent twenty years sailing racing yachts across the world’s oceans and continue to spend a lot of time at sea. In your role as chair of WWF-France, you must be aware of the worsening situation of the oceans. Could you describe it for us?

It is worse on several levels, unfortunately. Without ranking the issues in order of importance, I’ll start with overfishing. This affects in varying degrees of seriousness about 80 % of commercial species. Forty per cent of the world’s population relies on these commercial species for protein. In addition, the eradication of higher species and large marine carnivores decreases the number of trophic levels in the sea. This encourages the proliferation of species such as jellyfish which in turn has an adverse effect on the reproduction rates of higher species. In fact the entire balance of the marine environment is affected.
Global warming is also provoking changes in the plankton flora and fauna. The scientists aboard the Tara can undoubtedly teach us much about these phenomena but the risk is clear: the destruction of plankton not only has a detrimental effect on marine species that feed on it but it also makes global warming worse because plankton absorb carbon from the atmosphere.
Other phenomena include pollution, endocrine disrupters, PCBs* and heavy metals. These affect both coastal zones, and therefore juvenile species, and the wider ocean. Even in the remotest Antarctic seas scientists aboard the Tara have found plastic particles that disrupt organisms.

In your view do the countries of the world, their populations and medias, and the great international organizations fully understand the risks that accompany the gradual destabilization of life in the oceans?

Despite calls from scientists and the reports of numerous committees, nation states are finding it difficult to take adequate measures. They need, for example, to limit fishing in accordance with nature’s ability to reproduce stocks. In other words we need to “fish the interest and not the capital?. We also need to limit sources of pollution and organize the reprocessing of waste. In conclusion, yes, there is a real risk of ocean life being destabilized in local areas and the phenomenon will undoubtedly spread.

What environmental issues do you think we should be worrying about over the next five to ten years? Melting glaciers? The increasing acidification of the oceans? Overfishing?

All of them! In the short term the most noticeable of these issues will be the decline in fish stocks which will lead to food and employment crises.
Eating fish may become the priviledge of the rich. The melting of the glaciers will be a local problem, affecting water supplies, but on the wider issue of rising sea levels it will not be as important a phenomenon as the swelling of the oceans caused by global warming (thermal expansion). The prospect of a one meter rise in the level of the sea by the end of the century is no longer just a theory. And yet more than half of the world’s population lives next to the sea.

The tsunami that devastated Japan on 11 March 2011 was a reminder of the risks of excessive construction along the coast, and not just in developing countries. Nearly everyone agrees that we must rethink our approach to the sea. What do you think we should do?

Of course, any ill-considered construction along the shore is a crisis waiting to happen. We saw the terrible damaged caused by the storm Xynthia in my region of Poitou Charentes (France). We should, right now, be planning for a withdrawal of human activities. Some places should be defended whatever the cost while others should be left for the sea to reclaim. If we start now, it will still be expensive but it will not degenerate into a crisis and, in the long term, will cost less than if we wait for the catastrophes to happen. We must rethink our approach to the sea as well as the planet. We cannot continue to be simple predators of natural resources and use the environment as a garbage dump for carbon and chemical products. That said there is hope because we will be developing techniques, knowledge, and jobs in a responsible manner. Establishing a harmony between human activities and nature is not an option, it is the only future open to us.

You appear to be following the Tara Oceans Expedition and its results with great interest. What attracts you to the project?

Yes, I have always held the Tara team dear and I salute the efforts of the crews aboard and the directors of agnès b. who made the expedition possible. A sailing ship has greater potential than a motor-ship because it is less intrusive and can remain at sea for a long time. I think it is wonderful that science is reviving the old French tradition of voyages of world discovery, with scientists and sailors working together.

Your 2009 book “Seule la mer s’en souviendra? seems to define your view of the sea’s role, that it is both the living record of our planet but also its future and salvation. Is that correct?

My novel tells the story of a sailor who is not honest with himself. And yet the sea, especially when sailing solo, does not suffer dishonesty; it exposes the truth. It is perhaps a kind of parable for human behaviour. Fortunately, contrary to the anti-hero of my book, many sailors acquire this truth and harmony.
Sometimes the conditions at sea give you the impression that you are experiencing what it must have been like at the beginning of the world. It is a beautiful and powerful feeling that I find very constructive. It is part of what I enjoy about sailing.


*Polychlorinated biphenyl (PCB) is a complex molecule that, since the 1930s, has been used to a huge extent by industry. It is classed among the persistent organic pollutants (as are dioxins).