Seafood tonight? Don’t order the grouper

What I believe is a blacktip grouper off the coast of North Seymour, Galapagos. Though this fish might earn a reprieve from heavy fishing because it lives in national park waters, groupers the world over are under threat from catches. They’re valued as a tasty meal leading to over-fishing and habitat destruction.

Source your seafood, people. Yes, fishing is a livelihood for coastal people in developing and developed countries a like, but we need better measures to conserve fish and, more importantly, their ocean ecosystem. That’s a major reason why I’m applying even now to marine conservation and sustainable development graduate school programs.

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Sea lions and fishmongers

Begging for scraps

The small-scale fish market in Puerto Ayora draws a crowd every day as fishermen bring, gut and hawk in their catch. And that’s not just a crowd of people.

Sea lions and pelicans also gather to pilfer and pinch scraps and sometimes whole fish. It’s a comical scene, as the fishermen are not technically allowed — National Park rules — to swat or otherwise harm the pesky-but-cute critters.

This is small-scale fishing that is generally far more sustainable (and in the Galapgos, more regulated) than elsewhere in the developing world. It’s also a significant part of the local economy, one affected by tourism, as restaurants and, at least, boats buy locally.

But having been underwater for many hours in the islands and having talked to a number of activists, it seems clear that the ocean flora and fauna remain under significant pressure.

More photos of the fishmongers below.

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Now that might be sustainable fishing

Old man and the sea

This old man was fresh from his dinghy, which bobbed at anchor in the Puerto Lopez bay. As much as I think widespread fishing remains unsustainable, I’m supportive of small-scale local catches, particularly since the lives of so many poor depend on the sea.

The trick — and what I intend to devote graduate school study to — is finding that appropriate balance between commerce and conserving the planet’s cardiovascular system (i.e., the oceans).

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Highly evolved predator killed by highly ignorant predator

Bycatch

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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For the record, shrimp fishing is hyper-destructive

Hauling it in

Puerto Lopez, that wonderfully sleepy fishing town, unfortunately sees its fair share of shrimp trawlers taking advantage of its rich, cold waters. Sadly, shrimp fishing is routinely harmful to the environment — ripping up vast amounts of reef-supporting life along the bottom of the ocean and catching (and mostly killing) up to 20 kilograms of “bycatch” for one kilo of shrimp.

As tasty as the shrimp are — Lord knows I’ve been a giant fan over the years — they are not fished sustainably. Please, please do not eat shrimp.

Equally unfortunate: the mass destruction of coastal mangroves and estuaries for shrimp farms. There are some alternative versions of shrimp farms that are considered sustainable — multi-species growth ponds like those used for centuries in Asia or modern, high-tech closed-loop systems — but the practice of grinding up other fish to eat shrimp is still a questionable practice at best.

Of course, shrimp fishermen (and dependent people and businesses) are a large block of the poor coastal economies worldwide. This is a huge challenge for the development and conservation sectors to answer: how can we keep these people sustained while also sustaining the environments they’re destroying?

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Sleepy fishing town

Morning catch

I spent a couple weeks in Puerto Lopez, a sleepy fishing town on the coast of Ecuador known to tourists primarily as a destination for whale watching in July, August and September. I did some diving coursework — and then some more diving for fun — and also explored the coast a bit. It was welcome change after weeks in the rural jungle.

Almost daily — either on the way to a dive boat or just on an amble by the shore — I visited the local fishermen’s landing. Here they haul their catch ashore amid people buying seafood and seabirds hankering for scraps.

I also spent a good bit of time taking photos of fishermen — who I am fond of — and talking with them and others about the sustainability of fishing, diving, tourism and other marine exploits. More on that in the coming days.

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Published: What lies beneath… India’s nascent dive industry?

Vibrant waters, ripe for conservation or destruction

My latest reporting: a magazine-style, travelogue/environmental essay published by my favorite Indian magazine, Caravan.

The piece focuses on my various experiences diving in India and asks in general whether the Indian government, environmental movement and people are in a position to conserve or consume this great underwater natural resource.

Many thanks to Dave, my editor, who gave me leeway to experiment in form and content. And to think it all started with a giddy, roof-top conversation over small cups of tea.

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Se vende pescado

Jungle protein

Fish, both caught in rivers and brought in from the coast, is a primary protein source in the jungle. Though local people also eat chicken and to a lesser extent pork and beef, fish is cheaper and easier to procure. These photos come from the main market in Puyo.

That’s, of course, because it is wild caught and therefore the true cost is not factored in to the price. I’m a convert to the “fish are friends, not food” crowd because of the destructive and unsustainable nature of most fishing operations above the level of one-human, one-rod.

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Nature 1, fish trap 0

Giant clams

An old fish trap that nature decided to reclaim. Giant embedded clams are nestled in the sea floor beneath the crusted bars.

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