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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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.

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Highly evolved predator killed by highly ignorant predator


Here I go again railing against the ills of bycatch. Above is a closeup of the beautiful but dead juvenile scalloped hammerhead, a shark that has evolved over eons. Yet like most animals, it has not been prepared for the rapacious habits of man.

Becoming a diver made me appreciate the environment infinitely more, and close encounters like this, in Puerto Lopez, Ecuador, gave me the visceral push to become completely vegetarian and abhor the present trajectory of commercial fishing.

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Order the daily bycatch? Maybe you’re eating manta ray or shark

Rays accidentally caught, likely to be sold as trash

Many average restaurants in coastal Ecuador offer a fixed menu of fish dishes: pescado ceviche, pescado tortilla, pescado spaghetti, etc. What they mostly likely can’t tell you is what type of “pescado” you’re actually eating.

That’s because they might very well be using bycatch, the incidental catch of fish other than a targeted species. If a fishermen is angling for snapper or grouper, he is probably also pulling up loads of other species — from sharks to rays to sea turtles.

Bycatch is particularly bad with shrimp, where one pound of the prawns costs the lives of as much as 20 pounds of other fish.

At least the fishermen are trying to sell the bycatch and the local economy absorbs some of it. Restaurants and residents purchase bycatch sometimes as trash fish, to grind up into a generic meal.

Killing rays and sharks — animals far more valuable alive, either as tourist attractions and/or as vital parts of healthy, breathing ocean — makes little sense.

And in many other instances, other sea creatures pulled up aren’t even broad to market. They’re simply tossed — often already dead — back overboard, treated as competitors (for the record, manta rays don’t eat fish) by the fishermen themselves.

And some still wonder why fisheries are so depleted. See below to understand more.

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