Article(s): The Longform guide to sea creatures (some holiday reading!)

Here are some holiday reading recommendations – not too taxing, not entirely insubstantial – to enjoy while lounging under an umbrella by the pool or waiting for a flight to board. You will probably enjoy them because they’re about marine life, and I assume that if you didn’t have a passing interest in the ocean, you wouldn’t be reading this blog.

Octopus at Pyramid Rock
Octopus at Pyramid Rock

Longform is a website that provides reading recommendations – usually (as the name suggests) long form stories, not restricted to a particular range of topics. I am a subscriber to the Longform newsletter, and lately a user of their iPad app.

The Longform guide to sea creatures is a short list of juicy long articles whose common thread is that they focus on marine animals. I’ve shared some of them with you already – Killer in the Pool and Moby Duck being the most notable. Others are about giant squid, octopus, tuna, whales, and the Loch Ness monster. It’s a page worth bookmarking, should you anticipate requiring a couple of hours of thoughtful, fact-checked, well researched reading on the subject of marine life.

You can find the list of Longform sea creature articles here, and a mostly overlapping but slightly different version on, here. (The advantage of the Slate list is that you can send the articles to your Kindle, to read later.)


Balancing conservation imperatives and traditional fishing rights

How can we strike a balance between scientifically-driven conservation priorities and taking care of people, South Africans, many of whom have historically not been cared for at all?

Giant roman at Photographer's Reef
Giant roman at Photographer’s Reef

Loretta Feris, in a paper called A Customary Right to Fish When Fish Are Sparse: Managing Conflicting Claims between Customary Rights and Environmental Rights (pdf), grapples with the issue of “what happens when an indigenous community attempts to exercise its customary right to fish and the nearest access to marine resources is located in a marine protected area.” This issue is not peculiar to South Africa, but has arisen in many countries that were colonised.

South African legislation has not yet addressed the conflict between customary rights to marine resources by the communities who depend(ed) on them, and environmental law that designates certain areas as reserves and forbids fishing.

The South African Bill of Rights sets out the criteria for justifiable restrictions on the rights it enshrines. Feris writes,

In essence, it lays down a proportionality requirement, in terms of which it must be shown that the law in question (the Marine Living Resources Act) serves a constitutionally acceptable purpose and that there is sufficient proportionality between the infringement and the purpose that the law is designed to achieve.

In other words, if your rights are infringed by legislation, the purpose of that legislation must be consistent with the Constitution of South Africa, and the infringement of your rights must be proportional to the benefits accruing by having such a law on the books. According to Feris, the National Environmental Management: Protected Areas Act No. 57 of 2003 (pdf), which provides for the establishment of Marine Protected Areas, places

a very clear constitutional duty on the government to ensure that natural resources such as marine resources are managed in a manner which acknowledges the economic interests in fisheries, but at the same time ensures that ecosystems and species are protected to ensure long-term viability.

Feris describes arguments for fisheries management approaches that make use of indigenous communities as custodians, assessors of the fishing stock, and managers and enforcers. The aim of such an approach would be to confer both a right (to harvest) and a duty (to protect) upon the local communities that have traditionally had access to a marine resource. Ensuring that employees at national parks and protected areas are drawn directly from the surrounding communities is one way to enact this type of philosophy.

Can I suggest Feris’s article as some Sunday afternoon reading? This is not a problem that is going to disappear in South Africa any time soon, and as a trying-to-be-compassionate human and conservation-minded ocean person it’s good to familiarise oneself with the grey areas that challenge one’s convictions.

Sustainable Seas Trust is endeavouring to strike the balance that Feris writes about in her article, and – should you be at a loss as to how to proceed – you could consider supporting them.

Article: Smithsonian on whether shark repellents really work

The Freedom7 SharkShield unit outside its neoprene case
The Freedom7 SharkShield unit outside its neoprene case

Here’s a quick read on shark repellents from While it only takes a few paragraphs to explain the different attempts humans have made to avoid encountering sharks while using the ocean, the task of actually developing technology to do this is far more complex. Testing shark repellents is also ethically difficult – in the same way that it’s hard to test medications for use during pregnancy, as one could be causing harm to human subjects.

(It’s worth reading a bit about the Shark Shield device pictured above for more on testing. Testing the efficacy of stripy wetsuits, on the other hand, is almost impossible, and for this reason they can be almost impossibly lucrative – imagine a product where you don’t have to prove whether it works, and when it fails you can (a) throw up your hands and make an excuse along the lines of “it was a freak event”/”the guy must have been wearing it incorrectly” or (b) close the company and disappear.)

The “electronic fence” mentioned at the end of the article is the shark repellent cable that the KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board tested at Glencairn last summer. You can read more about that (also from here.

To bring our attention back to the original topic: here is the article on shark repellents at, with ample links for you to pursue interesting avenues of exploration!

Article: The New Yorker on sharing the sea with sharks

You have probably all read this article, and if you haven’t you should. South African-born social anthropologist Ceridwen Dovey does an excellent job of introducing and interrogating the various shark bite mitigation measures available in the New Yorker, no less. The subject has been in and out of the news with increasing frequency for at least two years, owing largely to sensational reports of sharks repeatedly biting people in Australia and Reunion. The Western Australian response to a spate of shark bites at beaches in the state has been to fish out sharks using nets and drumlines – the same approach taken by the KZN Sharks Board here in South Africa.

Dovey speaks to Christopher Neff, who thinks deeply about the language we use to speak about shark bites, and their political and social ramifications. Cape Town’s amazing Shark Spotters program gets a mention, as does the SharkShield. There are many non-lethal measures currently in testing – not all of them as location and species dependent as Shark Spotters (which works because Cape Town’s great white sharks are a surface-swimming species and are visible from high ground close to the coast). It is a hopeful time for relations between sharks and humans, as long as the scientific impetus is not allowed to flag.

Full article here.

Article: The New Yorker on sponges

Orange wall sponge
Orange wall sponge

My favourite science writer, Ed Yong, explores sponges for the New Yorker in an article entitled “Consider the Sponge”. Sponges are deceptively simple creatures with jelly-like interiors and no symmetry. They are, however, covered in microbes which have provided treatments for leukemia, herpes, breast cancer, and a drug that fights HIV/AIDS. Consider the sponge, indeed!

Yong explains that

Last month, in the journal Trends in Ecology & Evolution, a group of scientists published a tub-thumping defense of sponges and other supposedly simple animals. In their paper, Casey Dunn, Sally Leys, and Steve Haddock argue that humans have systematically underestimated these creatures, largely because of our innate bias against organisms outside our taxonomic clique.

… But these creatures, according to Dunn, Leys, and Haddock, are not primitive relics; they are modern animals that excel at their own particular life styles. By ignoring them, we blind ourselves to a wondrous hidden biology and get a misleading view of evolution.


Sponges are wonderful, it turns out, and Yong’s article is wonderfully written. Read the full article here.

Article: Wired on mapping a sunken aircraft carrier reported on efforts by NOAA to survey and map the USS Independence, a sunken aircraft carrier lying in over 800 metres of water near the Farallon Islands. She was scuttled in 1951 about 50 kilometres off the Californian coast. Wanting to test an underwater autonomous vehicle called the Echo Ranger, the scientists deployed the five ton unmanned mini-submarine from a 25 metre catamaran, and flew her 50 metres above the wreck to take sonar readings.

This kind of technology is fantastic, and will enable the US government to get a better idea of the state all the junk that has been dumped in the region of the Farallons during the 20th century. I imagine a similar survey of parts of False Bay and south of Cape Point (in the areas marked “ammunition dump” on the hydrographic charts) would reveal similarly interesting items…

Read the full article here.

Article: The Atlantic on motion sickness

Tony checking out the fishing boat
Tony checking out the fishing boat

Travelling – by boat, car, bus – is supposed to be fun. If you suffer from motion sickness (sea sickness while on a boat), it isn’t. This feels like punishment, and Julie Beck in The Atlantic puts it better than I could:

For so long as man has attempted to tame and traverse the sea, the sea has punished him for it. With barfing.

If you are susceptible, you may have attempted to manage your motion sickness by various means, not excluding ginger biscuits. You may have settled on a gentle medical solution, which works quite well if you remember to take it before setting off on a journey.

The science of motion sickness turns out to be fairly complex and our understanding of it is not yet settled. Beck’s article explains the physical mechanisms at work when we get motion sick and the theories that explain the phenomenon, some of which are supported by the results of new genetic studies done by 23andMe. Sufferers will receive small consolation to hear that their sea sickness can be partly explained by their gender  or age, but may glean some understanding of when they are most susceptible to an uncomfortable ride.

Read the full article here.

Article: Nautilus on sea lamprey

Nautilus ran an article earlier this year about lampreys, fish that look like something out of the X Files. They are probably close relatives of hagfish; like hagfish, lampreys are jawless. They attach their round mouths to other fish and feed on their bodily fluids. They do not have a reputation as civilised dinner conversationalists.

While hagfish are marine animals, lampreys are anadromous: they return to fresh water (usually rivers) to spawn, in the same way that salmon do. When they’ve spawned, they die, fertilising the rivers and surrounding land with the nutrients from their bodies (in the same way as salmon do, but on a smaller scale).

Rehabilitation of North American rivers, along with the removal of dams, opens the way for fish such as salmon and alewives to return. Lampreys have returned too. Until recently they were viewed as invasive pests:

… the conventional American wisdom on sea lampreys was conceived following the late-19th- and early-20th-century collapse of world-renowned trout populations. The lampreys were invasive, having infiltrated the region through shipping canals; Great Lakes fish could not adapt to their ravages. Historical records describe the ease with which nets could be lowered to lake bottoms, then pulled back up with a cargo of sea lamprey-holed carcasses.

More recent research suggests that lampreys are native to at least Lake Ontario and several other lakes in the region, and were only able to colonise the rest of the Great Lakes when their native fish populations were all but destroyed by removing too many fish and modifying the ecosystem through damming, logging and agriculture.

Although they aren’t pretty, lampreys may be less of an invasive parasite and more of an essential participant in a balanced ecosystem than they were once thought to be. Read the Nautilus article here.

Article: The Guardian on a bungled tuna fishing IPO

Here’s a rare intersection of something tangentially related to my job, and this blog. An IPO, or initial public offering, is when a privately owned company lists its shares on a stock exchange. It is a capital raising exercise: shareholders pay for part-ownership in the company, and will usually expect to receive a portion of the company’s future earnings in the form of dividends. Shares in the company will trade publicly on whatever stock exchange the company has listed on. The firm receives a cash injection from the shareholders when it lists, and can use this to expand, or for other capital-intensive projects.

China Tuna Industry Group, a tuna fishing company, attempted to list on the Hong Kong stock exchange last June. The firm targets bigeye and yellowfin tuna, which are IUCN redlisted as vulnerable and near threatened respectively. In its prospectus – a document meant to entice investors to sign up to purchase shares in the IPO – the company states that it can catch more tuna than quotas allow, because there is no enforcement of catch limits. As the excellent Guardian article on the IPO states (emphasis mine):

In a series of circular arguments, the document stated that China, which presides over the world’s largest long-distance fishing fleet, would not crack down on companies engaged in illegal fishing because it never had in the past; that the catch limits set by the Regional Fisheries Management Organizations apply only to China the country, not to actual Chinese fishing boats; and that even if the catch limits did apply, the regional fisheries organizations would not enforce them because “there is no sanction for non-compliance with Bigeye catch limits.”

The IPO was cancelled because of negative publicity, which escalated when Greenpeace got involved. The Chinese government and the investment bank handling the IPO (shame on them) were, respectively, amazed (sure) and silent on the subject.

Read the Guardian article here. It’s an revealing journey through the legal loopholes, apathy, and big money that characterise so much of what is wrong with global fisheries, and China’s in particular.

Article: Phenomena on ocean calamities

The news article/paper that we read yesterday was a serious, yet hopeful assessment of the current and future state of ocean animals. Today’s article is also by Carl Zimmer, writing for Phenomena, and covers an opinion piece that appeared in Bioscience. A group of marine biologists criticises the tendency of scientists to generalise local effects into a supposed global “ocean calamities”. This breeds pessimism and inaction, as the general public is assailed by one apparent disaster scenario after another, and a point of fatigue is reached. The authors contend that

… the marine research community may not have remained sufficiently skeptical in sending and receiving information on the problems caused by human pressures in the ocean and that there is a need to revisit the process by which potential or isolated problems escalate to the status of ocean calamities.

It must be tempting, as a conservation biologist or environmental activist (two different professions) to talk up the dire threats facing coral reefs, or sharks, or whales, in order to attract attention or funding. But it is important to keep things in their proper context and perspective. Furthermore, all of us have a duty to remain skeptical, to investigate claims that seem extreme, and to do a little research beyond the headlines, tweets and facebook status updates. Make no mistake, this is not about being skeptical of science and its capacity to assist us in understanding the world around us; it is about being skeptical about how facts are presented, paraphrased, and – after enough repetition – possibly distorted.

Read Zimmer’s full article here. As an aside, he mentions his New York Times article on the Science paper concerning the health of the world’s oceans that we discussed yesterday. He asked the authors of the ocean calamities paper whether the Science paper was overstating the threats to marine life. Their response was that the paper was balanced and an accurate assessment of the current state of affairs.

I also encourage you to check out the original paper that Zimmer is writing about, which runs through several well-known “ocean calamities” (jellyfish blooms, harmful algal blooms, overfishing, invasive species, etc) and assesses the extent of the evidence for each one to qualify as a global threat to the oceans.