"All surface life depends on life inside and beneath the oceans. Sea life provides half of our oxygen and a lot of our food and regulates climate. We are all citizens of the sea."
~ Ian Poiner, chairman of the Census of Marine Life Steering Committee
Image source: Census of Marine Life
Bluefin tuna from the Mediterranean at the Tsukiji fish market in Tokyo.
(Image credit: Toru Hanai/Reuters)
Some of the marine life discovered is so exotic, so lushly beautiful, that it takes your breath away. You can see some of the images at the Census gallery. Some of the creatures are mysterious and truly bizarre-looking. And some live in conditions as inhospitable as any on this planet. The report, the galleries, and some of the perspectives that have been offered on the Census are truly enthralling to anyone who loves the sea, or loves interesting creatures.
My excitement is, however, tempered by the fact that several months ago, one the Comtesses sent me some info about Paul Greenberg's forthcoming book, Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, which I then devoured, and if you'll excuse a further pun, stewed on. Greenberg is a regular contributor about marine life, seafood and marine environmentalism at the New York Times. This book, along with a harrowing series of articles in the Times, gives me serious pause for thought about the riches and diversity that are revealed in the Census of Marine Life report.
When you consider Greenberg's op-ed piece on menhaden, published last December, you can get a feel for how very fragile our understanding is of the collective marine ecosystem. Menhaden, a very small forage fish, are filter feeders. They keep our oceans clean and provide food for larger predatory fish. At least one author, H. Bruce Franklin Ph.D., has called menhaden The Most Important Fish in the Sea. Drastically overfished for use as lubricants, and ironically as food for farmed fish, the menhaden is rapidly disappearing from the Eastern seaboard, and as a result, the bass population in Chesapeake Bay has been heavily impacted. Other impacts include the fouling of water and creation of large dead zones.
"The muddy brown color of the Long Island Sound and the growing dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay are the direct result of inadequate water filtration — a job that was once carried out by menhaden."
~ Paul Greenberg, A Fish Oil Story, New York Times
On the other end of the size spectrum, we can look at endangered bluefin tuna, a huge fish. Bluefin is one of the Four Fish. (The other three are sea bass, cod and salmon) In a long article in the NY Times Magazine, Greenberg talks about Tuna's End. Overfishing of tuna, and lack of a consistent international approach to tuna fishing, has devastated most of the bluefin population. And yet, the market still demands and receives wild caught bluefin.
Bluefin tuna can reach a length of more than ten feet and weigh in at more than a thousand pounds, though tuna of that maturity and size are almost never seen now in the wild. Swimming in the frigid arctic, the Northern Bluefin tuna, uses thermoregulation to prevent heat loss and permit more efficient muscle functioning. That's right, we're talking effectively warm-blooded. Their countercurrent exchange of blood provides them with the ability to swim and feed in ice cold water, in a fashion relatively unique in the fish world. This magnificent fish is now critically endangered.
I don't know about you, but I'm a big lover of sushi. My diet, as many of you know, is rather limited by intolerance and auto-immune problems. Pure protein, like that in sashimi, is always a pretty safe bet for me. And I love(d) toro. But I won't eat a critically endangered fish like bluefin. As Treehugger.com says, "you wouldn't eat a tiger, so why would you eat endangered bluefin tuna?"
But here's the thing. You know those little charts that you can get from the Monterey Aquarium people that tell you what's environmentally moral to eat (I mean, that's what they're really trying to tell you, right?) and what's not? Do you ever wonder if they, or the principles on which they are based, really work? I even have the Bay Aquarium's neat little app on my iPhone (which I still shudder to think about in light of the whole Congo business, let me tell you). It has recommendations for seafood and sushi. Most everything that I used to eat is on the avoid list. But what does it mean when we then switch to new fish to decimate? Because if we all start eating tilapia instead of tilefish, we'll soon end up with the same problem we had with tilefish. Our human numbers on this planet, and the first world's wherewithal to purchase wild fish, will soon knock down any species numbers. Look at what we've done with menhaden, which had been the most plentiful fish in the world. The global catch of wild fish in 2009 was estimated to be 170 billion pounds a year. (As Greenberg says, it's equivalent to the net weight of the entire population of China...)
So should we eat wild fish at all?
If you listen to Paul Greenberg, the disequilibrium in our oceans is getting to the point where really, in good conscience, we probably shouldn't eat wild-caught fish, especially not caught in any mass fishery kind of way like with purse-seining.1 And, of course, we shouldn't be fishing menhaden into extinction, for lipstick and fish oil, either. Farmed fish is it's own kind of problem, of course. From pollution to antibiotic use, to the potential escape of farmed fish into the ecosystem, farmed fish are not a facile solution by any means. But they may be our only solution.
Of course, fishing is not the only thing that impacts marine life. There are all the dams that affect salmon, and oil spills like the Deepwater Horizon. You have only to read the little horror story of the BP coverup over at Mother Jones, to see the devastating long-term effects of oil plumes on marine life in the deep scattering layer (oil has spread down into the even the abyssopelagic zone, of which there are a few areas in the Gulf of Mexico). I seriously considered blogging about that article last month. It is so depressing (and that's compared to what I normally blog about, so you think about that, people...) and so complex, that I really didn't know if my readers would want to hear about it. There's so much land drama can we take more marine drama now that the spill is supposed to be capped?
But today's article and the release of the census stirred me to write about the issue of fish and marine life. Or more precisely, it was Ian Poiner's quote at the top of this article. Most of my readers know Rachel Carson's sentinel book The Silent Spring. We now hover on the 60th anniversary of her National Book Award winning The Sea Around Us. (In some respects, Greenberg, with his reverence for the oceans and marine life, seems almost to be channeling Carson with his temperate warning of impending environmental disaster.) Our oceans are in such a state of crisis. It is so very sad.
Scientists have spent ten years cataloguing such magnificence.
How on eaarth2 are we going to save it?
1Purse-seining, by Bryan Christie, from the New York Times article Tuna's End: