World Oceans Day: What else died so you could eat seafood?

Shark bycatch in Ecuador

Shark bycatch in Ecuador

In 2010, I was standing on a beach in Ecuador watching all manner of sea creatures get dragged ashore, sacrificed for the targeted catches of high-value prawns and tunas (mostly for export).

Sharks, rays, even a turtle, all killed in the process. Some of them would end up in local ceviche as non-descript fish, but others (like the turtle, a protected species) would simply be left to rot.

I certainly don’t advocate an end to fishing. I work with fishers of shark, sardines, mackerel, crabs, shrimp, oysters and more. I believe small- and medium-scale fishing has a role to play in livelihoods and food across the globe.

But the sight of Ecuador’s illicit bycatch, which led to the photo above, left me asking what kinds of pernicious forces — political, economic, ecological or other — could lead to such wanton sacrifice.

I’m still asking that question. As June 8 is World Oceans Day, maybe we all should be asking it.

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Lost at sea

Lost photo: Tortuga Bay

I’m powering down the blog for a week or so. I’m touring in Costa Rica and Panama, getting a good dose of sun and salt water.

This is from my files from an afternoon at Tortuga Bay, Galapagos.

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Is shark finning the answer to shark finning?

Cruising behind him

Global shark catch is staggering. As many as 73 million sharks are taken from the ocean each year; most are relieved of their fins and dumped back in the water while still alive. These beautiful and important predators now face serious threats from our wanton harvesting, mostly to satisfy the demand for shark fin soup.

First and foremost this is tragic simply in terms of human decimation of biodiversity. Excepting that ecological concern, there are real reasons to worry from an entirely anthropocentric standpoint. For one, sharks provide ecotourism benefits to many coastal economies, as divers pay substantially to see them. Also, as apex predators, a decline in shark populations can lead to explosions of other species on lower trophic levels, which can threaten ecosystems of commercial importance For example, fewer sharks lead to more rays which lead to less scallops for us to sell for dipping in butter.

Is there an answer? Shark sanctuaries are fantastic; they represent the ideal of conservation (get more info on how they’re made). However, given problems with enforcement and the potential for bans to simply displace degradation rather than curtail it, national prohibitions don’t seem realistic as a complete solution.

I argue, rather, that we need to recognize — at least in the interim — the reality that shark finning will likely continue. We would do well then to incentivize conservation and better management so that fishermen and fleets develop an interest in preserving rather than over-harvesting. In this class paper, I lay out the economic reasoning for a nation-by-nation transferable shark fishing quota system.

This would push harvests toward social and biological optimums; in conjunction with marine protected areas and fishing best practice standards, a quota system might actually slow the destruction of shark populations worldwide.

It’s not a particularly palatable option for shark lovers (myself included). Under a quota system, some number of sharks like the one above will still be killed for an overpriced, elitist broth. But it also might do better to ensure that a sustainable population of sharks sticks around.

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The most beautiful creature I’ve ever seen…

Mantarraya gigante

The Giant Manta Ray. This one — and a couple others — cruised past Daphne on my last day of diving in the Galapagos Islands. A fitting final dive.

These guys are near threatened according to the International Union for Conservation of Nature, making them actually one of the less endangered of the charismatic mega fauna of the sea. That said, they face serious pressure from overfishing and destructive catch tactics and are often killed as incidental bycatch. I’ve seen juveniles, which are less able to avoid nets, tossed dead in the back of trucks beach side to be sold as “trash fish.”

But having dived with these giants — the largest one on record was more than 25 feet across and weighed two and a half tons — I now plead: Please source your seafood.

The photos (above and below) are in black and white, because of the poor color reproduction. Between the distance, the grain of low-light and the poor underwater visibility, the camera captured little more than wondrous shadows.

Continue reading this entry » » »

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Ghosts of hammerheads


Scalloped hammerheads off Kicker Rock, San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands.

With low light, poor visibility and nothing but blue sea beyond, they were little more than ghosts as they slipped by us on a dive site. I’ve reproduced in black and white to maintain image quality.

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Happy napping sea lion

Sloth defined

Sea lions will nap just about anywhere. This one chose a ledge just above the surf on Kicker Rock off San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands.

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An underwater rocket of blubber and teeth


A sea lion off Kicker Rock shoots past me on a dive near San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands.

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King of angels

Angel King

Hello, King Angelfish. More properly known as the Passer Angelfish. They grow more than 15 inches long and are ubiquitous at dive sites in the Galapagos Islands. This one comes from Gordon Rocks, during a dive that was otherwise interrupted by the presence of thousands of little jellyfish.

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Kickin’ rocks

Kicker rock

The Kicker Rock dive site, also known as Leon Dormido, off San Cristobal, Galapagos Islands.

Probably the single best site of my Galapagos adventures. We dropped into the channel between the two pinnacles and — after a bit of trouble with another diver’s weight — we swam beneath a school of about 40 juvenile Galapagos sharks.

We circled the smaller pinnacle for a bit; I ended up finishing the dive “alone” as I was the only tourist left with air. For the record, diving alone is incredibly unsafe. I wasn’t really; I was only down about six meters, with the divemaster on the surface above me, keeping an eye on both the spent divers and me.

(That’s still not the best way to go, but everyone else had burned their tanks just 30 minutes in. I’m a bit better on air and wanted to enjoy. Plus, six meters is a depth from which I could easily ascend on a single breath if need be.)

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Cave sharks

Napping sharks

As soon as we dropped down in some choppy water off Daphne, Galapagos Islands, we found this cave with three resting white tip reef sharks. Absolutely arresting.

The photo is black and white because in addition to shooting blind, I was in low-light, so the colors don’t reproduce so well.

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