Bookshelf: Four Fish

Four Fish – Paul Greenberg

Four Fish
Four Fish

This is a big idea book – perhaps best to compare it to a TED talk, only more substantial. It is structured around four types of fish: salmon, tuna, sea bass and cod. The history of humans’ engagement with these archetypal families of fish enables Paul Greenberg to plot the trajectory of the possible futures we face, feeding ourselves from the ocean.

All four fish – salmon, tuna, sea bass and cod – have been fished to within a hair’s breadth of extinction. The story of cod is perhaps best known, from its original exploitation in the North Atlantic – beginning 1,000 years ago – to the catastrophic failure of the fisheries on the eastern seaboard of North America in the last several decades of the 20th century. Greenberg repeatedly cites and pays homage to Mark Kurlansky’s deceptively slim volume on the subject of cod (Cod), and to some extent this book capitalises on Cod‘s popularity.

Greenberg’s interest, however, is not primarily with the failure of the cod, tuna and salmon fisheries (largely as a result of failing to follow scientific advice in setting quotas – read: rampant greed). He is concerned more with the possibility of farming fish in a commercially viable, sustainable manner. There are lots of problems with fish farming, such as parasites and diseases spread from farmed fish to their wild counterparts, and Greenberg visits a number of aquaculture operations to discover whether sustainable practices that do not harm wild fish are possible.

Ultimately, Greenberg urges us to view fish as wildlife. As scuba divers we are accustomed to thinking about fish this way. We venture into their territory in order to experience them in the wild, and many of us feel outrage when certain types of fish (I have in mind sharks and perhaps tuna) are caught – albeit in perfectly legal fisheries. Greenberg wants us to extend this outrage, or at least recognition that fish are perhaps “the last wild food”, to all kinds of fish. The implications of thinking about fish this way would be that we eat less wild fish, saving it for special occasions, or do not eat it at all. (Perhaps, like Sylvia Earle, those of us who have the luxury of choice in the matter should stop eating fish entirely.) We have managed to execute this mind shift with whales in the last 100 years. The challenge is to extend it to the rest of the ocean’s finned inhabitants.

Greenberg suggests that the sustainable way for fisheries to continue into the future is for fishermen to assume the role of herders – custodians as well as harvesters of the fish. He further contends that we should not try to domesticate (farm) tuna, salmon and most other species that are already considered food fish. These fish have such a high feed conversion ratio (the number of kilograms of food – mostly comprising smaller fish – they need to eat to produce one kilogram of body weight) that farming them results in a net loss to the fish biomass in the ocean. Similarly, tuna ranching (capturing young tuna and raising them to maturity in pens) is also not a viable “farming” technique, as not only are wild fish being removed from the ocean, but they are denied the opportunity to breed. We need to start considering compliant, easily cultivated fish such as tilapia, kona kampachi (Almaco jack) and barramundi as menu options.

There’s a New York Times review of Four Fish here, and a Huffington Post review here. A Time Magazine story on fish also borrows heavily from Greenberg’s work.

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. If you have a SASSI card in your wallet or even the slightest concern about food security, personal ethics and ocean conservation, you ought to read this book.

Documentary: Ice Patrol

Ice Patrol
Ice Patrol

Ice Patrol is a four part BBC documentary featuring the British naval ice breaking ship HMS Endurance, named for Sir Ernest Shackleton’s polar exploration ship that set sail in 1914. Endurance is much like our SA Agulhas II, except the South African polar research ship is run by the department of fisheries, whereas the British entrust theirs to the navy. The producers of the BBC series Frozen Planet made use of Endurance as a platform for filming in the polar regions – ships with ice breaking capabilities and high tech steering systems are relatively uncommon.

The series starts with Endurance docked in the Falkland Islands, and follows her and her crew through a couple of Antarctic missions during a period of several months in late 2008. They land at South Georgia Island, where Shackleton sought rescue for his crew from Norwegian whalers based there, and visit the old whaling station (as an aside, strangely, we don’t see a single live whale throughout the ship’s time at sea). A group of marines re-enact Shackleton’s trek across the island as a training exercise, which proves to be a tough proposition even with modern camping and climbing equipment, skis, high quality outerwear, and the support of a helicopter for part of the trip. Scientists take sediment cores in order to study climate change, and others conduct an aerial survey of seal populations. We meet a variety of penguins, and members of the crew even pay a visit to a US Antarctic base (Palmer Station) – which has a gift shop!

The final episode is concerned with a catastrophic flood in the engine room that occurred in the Strait of Magellan off Chile (fortunately close enough to help that the civilians on board – the cameramen and producers for the documentary, one assumes – could be airlifted to safety). The ship was nearly lost. The documentary series presents this incident (and other minor whoopsies) in an embarrassingly dramatic light, but it seems that the flooding of Endurance was really that serious. She is going out of service in 2015, the damage she sustained being too costly to repair properly.

After reading Alfred Lansing’s book on Shackleton’s original expedition to the Antarctic, I have been obsessed with the icebound regions of the planet, and this is why we ended up watching Ice Patrol. Perhaps it’s not what everyone would consider gripping television, but we found it very enjoyable. The scenery is beautiful, and the glimpses of shipboard life and navy formality (sitting around on the bridge wearing hats, extreme formality mixed with corporate jargon when addressing one another…) are quite entertaining.

You might be able to get a copy here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise go here.

Bookshelf: Endurance

Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage – Alfred Lansing


Sir Ernest Shackleton was a British explorer who mounted an expedition to the Antarctic in 1914. The intention was for a group of men to traverse the Antarctic continent from sea to sea: the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. The expedition did not go as planned; before landing on the continent the expedition’s ship, Endurance, became trapped between ice floes and could not be moved. I’m going to tell you practically the entire story here, but since it’s a historical event it’s not as if I’m spoilering it. Furthermore, if you read one book this year, you should read Endurance. Even foreknowledge of the events it recounts won’t dim your enjoyment.

The men spent six months on board their ship as she drifted with the ice, and when it became apparent that it was about to be completely destroyed by the ice, they decamped – along with their sled dogs – to an ice floe. The floe drifted still further, and when it in turn started to break up – after about five months had passed – the men took to the small boats that they had brought with them from Endurance, and headed for the closest attainable land. Their voyage to uninhabited Elephant Island took a week, during which time the men did not sleep and had very little to eat. They were exposed to the full force of the Southern Ocean, but managed to land on the island and establish a camp.

Shackleton selected a small subgroup of the men, and in the James Caird, a 6.85 metre wooden boat (for scale, just a bit longer than our rubber duck) they set out on the 1,300 kilometre trip to South Georgia Island, where there was a whaling station and contact with civilisation. This voyage took two weeks of herculean effort. Shackleton and his men then crossed South Georgia Island on foot – scaling incredible elevations with no appropriate mountaineering tools and clothing that was threadbare and unsuitable for the environment by dint of its prior length of service as part of their wardrobes. After wrangling to obtain a vessel and attempts thwarted by ice and weather, a boat was able to rescue the remainder of the crew, who had been waiting on Elephant Island for over three months, eating seals and penguins.

I spoke so incessantly about this book while I was reading (actually listening to) it, and afterwards, that it must have driven Tony mad. The courage and resourcefulness of the expedition members astonished me. They entered a hostile environment, one hundred years ago (compare modern preparations for a trip across the Antarctic), and existed in harmony together, in a range of bitterly perilous situations, without loss of good temper or – incredibly – of life. They took photographs and many of the crew kept meticulous diaries, enabling a detailed reconstruction of the events. I suspect that a large part of my enjoyment was related to the fact that I listened to the audiobook version, narrated by Simon Prebble, who has a beautiful, expressive voice and was able to bring the diary entries of the crew to life using their various accents.

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. I cannot recommend it strongly enough.

There’s a magnificent photo essay about the Endurance (with the expedition photographer Frank Hurley’s original pictures) here.

Series: Saving the Ocean

Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina
Saving the Ocean with Carl Safina

I know Carl Safina as the author of several wonderful books about the ocean – The View from Lazy Point being the most recent one. I was surprised to discover that he has also ventured into television presenting, and this PBS series (so far a one-off) is the result.

Saving the Ocean showcases, in half hour segments, communities and initiatives that are successfully making a positive difference to ocean environments. Safina visits Baja in Mexico (grey whales are thriving there), Washington State (rivers are being rehabilitated there, for wild salmon), and Trinidad (where leatherback turtles are being protected). An episode where the leaders of the Muslim community on a Tanzanian island are taking the lead in advocating for environmental protection was particularly moving. Tony and I both found it immensely encouraging, and relieving, to see places where a balance is being struck between human requirements – for fish, protein, survival – and the need to take care of the sea.

A few times I felt that an excessive amount of enthusiasm was being displayed for a recovery that isn’t that spectacular – particularly in the episodes on New England cod. After hours of fishing, two or three tiny fish are caught. This in an area where you could lower a bucket and raise it up full of fish a couple of hundred years ago. The cod are still gone – no matter how much you smile about it.

Safina is an enthusiastic fisherman, and devotes two episodes to an artisanal sword fishery on Georges Bank. The fishermen harpoon the swordfish, collecting no bycatch. While I understand that this is a good way in which to target the species, I wasn’t convinced that there were enough swordfish to justify catching them at all, and I think the thrill of the hunt got in the way of telling the real story here.

The final episode in the series is about lionfish, and describes some of the innovative ways that the dive industry in the Atlantic is helping to control numbers of this native Pacific interloper.

Safina is an engaging host, refreshingly natural, like a slightly rumpled professor of an outdoorsy subject. The production values in this series aren’t fantastic, but this is made up for by the sheer good news of the stories told in each episode.

You can get the DVDs here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here. Read a bit more about the show here, if you’re not convinced.

Bookshelf: The Death and Life of Monterey Bay

The Death and Life of Monterey Bay
The Death and Life of Monterey Bay

I had high hopes for The Death and Life of Monterey Bay, for reasons that will be revealed (I hope) in the course of the next few years. Monterey Bay is in California, and opens onto the Pacific Ocean. It has approximately the same surface area as False Bay but is shallower and less square. Filled with diverse marine life, it was formerly bounded by a row of sardine canneries (setting for John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row) which were responsible for massive pollution in the area. Tons of stinking sardine guts fouled up the bay, which had been stripped of much of its marine life by aggressive fishing practices and cascading effects in the ecosystem.

In 1892 the Hopkins Marine Station was founded, a research laboratory of Stanford University. In 1931, the area of ocean in front of the lab was designated the Hopkins Marine Life Refuge (now Reserve). The bay’s populations of abalone, sea otters, killer whales, kelp forests, whales, and other life gradually recovered, and the sea urchin barrens were overgrown and once again supported a variety of life.

In this book Palumbi and Sotka trace the decline and recovery of the bay, lingering on colourful local characters such as Monterey mayor Julia Platt, whose no-nonsense attitude ensured access to the ocean for all the residents of the area. I expected the book to be more about marine biology, with information about how the various species recovered in the ecosystem once the polluting and overfishing forces were removed, but it is definitely more of a human history, with a strong focus on Platt, John Steinbeck, and his friend Ed Ricketts, with whom he travelled to the Sea of Cortez.

The establishment of the Monterey Bay Aquarium on Cannery Row effectively redeemed an area that was the source of seemingly limitless pollution. The aquarium was opened in 1984 after years of planning. It is a sister aquarium to Cape Town’s Two Oceans Aquarium, and also has the distinction of being the first aquarium to attempt to exhibit a (juvenile) great white shark, an enterprise that (fortunately) seems doomed to failure.

There’s an excellent article on Palumbi and the book here.

Here’s Stephen Palumbi giving a TEDx talk on how Monterey Bay came back to life:


You can get the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Bookshelf: The Story of Sushi

The Story of Sushi: An Unlikely Saga of Raw Fish and Rice – Trevor Corson

The Story of Sushi
The Story of Sushi

I didn’t really know what to expect from this book – I admit that I tried it out because it had a fish on the cover, and because I’d previously enjoyed Trevor Corson’s The Secret Life of Lobsters. I was pleasantly surprised. Showing the same narrative flair as he exhibits in his lobster book, Corson interweaves science and history with a present-day story with novel-like characteristics.

Formerly titled The Zen of FishThe Story of Sushi takes place at the California Sushi Academy, tracing a (real and) diverse group of students as they spend several months learning to be sushi chefs. The principal character, the weakest student in the class, is squeamish about handling raw fish, and scared of her sushi knives – one wonders if she had done any research about what being a sushi chef entails. Despite this drag on the overall mood of the classroom scenes (one can only read about someone being berated for their incompetence, or deliberately shirking tasks that they find unappealing, so many times) Corson manages to invest the reader in the lives of the chefs and students that he profiles. As the students learn about sushi, so do we.

The history parts of the book deal with the development of sushi as a cultural and culinary phenomenon, first in Japan and then spreading to the rest of the world. Corson also delves into food science, explaining why things taste the way they do, and the microbial processes that give us vinegar and other fermented foods (essential in the development and preparation of sushi), and marine biology. Make no mistake – bluefin tuna, abalone, urchins, eels and octopus play only bit parts in this book, and appear more frequently as sushi toppings than as vibrant life forms populating the world’s oceans. Corson talks about the biology of the animals only insofar as it enables development of his main – food related – themes.

I found this a surprisingly good read, and a helpful informer on the subject of an aspect of Japanese culture other than their well known penchant for whale hunting and general disingenuousness around ethical fishing practices. It has made me a more informed sushi consumer but not as regards what fish are best to eat (use SASSI for that). There is hardly a mention of whether one can ethically consume all sushi toppings with gay abandon, or whether the environmentally conscious consumer should think twice about eating certain seafoods. I do feel that I have more understanding of the construction and serving of sushi, and am able to watch the chefs at my local sushi bar with a bit more awareness.

There’s a New York Times review (and another book recommendation).

You can get a copy of the book here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Series: Whale Wars, Season 4

Whale Wars, Season 4
Whale Wars, Season 4

Whale Wars is definitely winter viewing, even though the Antarctic whaling season takes place in the southern hemisphere summer. The weather is often quite intense, with large storms rolling through the southern ocean, and when we can’t get out in winter it makes for wonderful imaginary travel through spectacular landscapes.

After the sinking of the fast, carbon fibre racing boat Ady Gil in Season 3, Sea Shepherd obtains the Gojira, a larger and faster vessel that they used to search for the whaling fleet. The Gojira is incapable of travelling through ice fields, which limited its usefulness in the very southernmost reaches of the whaling grounds.

The helicopter and small boats are used extensively in this season. For those who have watched Season 3 already, or plan to watch it, Tony would like to point out that a rubber duck’s pontoon can be temporarily secured to its proper place with a rope slung under the hull and tied together over the top. This may even make it possible to get underway. As usual, a small amount of training in seamanship and how to handle ropes on a moving boat would have gone a long way to prevent some of the mishaps that occur.

This is a short season of only ten episodes, as the Japanese stopped whaling early, citing excessive pressure and increased danger from Sea Shepherd’s harrassment. I found this strange as the nine episodes preceding the halt did not entail much pressure on the Japanese at all. The Sea Shepherds only located the whaling factory ship Nisshin Maru right at the end of their time in the Antarctic, and although they were occasionally tailed by one of the harpoon ships, one or two other harpoon ships were free to continue whaling despite their presence. To my eyes this was one of the least effective campaigns ever, and yet somehow it culminated in the worst whaling year that the Japanese had experienced to date. Whatever works, as one of my former colleagues used to say (usually before doing something statistically questionable).

You can get the DVD here if you’re in South Africa, otherwise here or here.

Series: Whale Wars, Season 3

Whale Wars, Season 3
Whale Wars, Season 3

It was interesting to watch this series, which was filmed in 2010, in the light of the March 2014 International Court of Justice (ICJ) ruling that Japan’s so-called scientific whaling program (which entails killing 900 whales per year) is a thinly disguised commercial whaling venture and ordered the Japanese to stop. Southern Fried Science has demystified the ruling for us. This would remove the need for Sea Shepherd to send ships down to the Southern Ocean (so, no more Whale Wars).

(For a depressing reality-check on just how seriously the Japanese plan to take the ruling, however, check out this news item. I think we might have a few more years of Whale Wars ahead of us.)

The Sea Shepherds have three vessels at their disposal in this season of the show (we have seen Season 1 and Season 2). Their original ship, the Steve Irwin, is still running, but the fleet is strengthened by the addition of the Bob Barker (donated by the comedian of that name) and the Ady Gil, a carbon and kevlar fibre racing trimaran that was built to set speed records. We enjoyed seeing two additional captains at work, with quite different management styles to Paul Watson, who repeatedly proves that one doesn’t need to be a nice guy or a people pleaser to get results.

The additional ships enable Sea Shepherd to manoeuvre against the Japanese with more sophistication than in previous years, and the Ady Gil in particular is used to distract the Japanese vessels with close-quarters engagements. The vulnerable Ady Gil is eventually sliced in half by one of the Japanese ships, and her crew are rescued by the Bob Barker. This incident signals an escalation of the conflict between Sea Shepherd and the Japanese.

True to form, the safety awareness and basic seamanship skills of many of the Sea Shepherd crew are shown to be wanting. For example, we found the delay between the ramming of the Ady Gil and the order to launch the small boats to rescue her crew unconscionable, and one wonders if just a day or two of basic training before setting out wouldn’t markedly improve the safety record and success rate of the expeditions.

The season concludes with an audacious attempt by the Ady Gil‘s captain, Pete Bethune (a marvelously entertaining and enterprising addition to the Sea Shepherd crew), to board the Japanese ship that sunk his vessel. The story of his subsequent detention in Japan is weird – read more here.

One doesn’t see many whales – dead or alive – in this season of Whale Wars. It either means that Sea Shepherd didn’t get near enough to the action (but they did – they locate the factory processing vessel Nisshin Maru) or that they successfully prevented the Japanese from fishing in a meaningful way (this is more likely). The Antarctic scenery is magnificent, as usual. If you’ve enjoyed prior seasons of Whale Wars, I’d recommend you take a look at this one. It’s more fast paced and varied than the first two seasons, and well worth the time.

Exploding whales

When I was a university student (in the late 1990’s), my friends and I misspent much time fooling around on the internet. I distinctly remember watching (repeatedly) a video of an exploding whale: a piece of 1970 news footage showing a dead eight ton sperm whale being blown up with 500 kilograms of dynamite in order to remove its remains from a beach in Oregon. The effort was not entirely a success. Chunks of blubber were showered over a considerable radius, damaging vehicles and causing onlookers to run for cover. (I feel like part of internet history for having enjoyed this video; check out Andrew David Thaler’s piece on the relationship of exploding whales to the history of the web.)

Whales do not only explode because they’ve been seeded with half a ton of dynamite. When a whale dies of natural causes (or – more likely – from ingesting plastic, or being struck by a ship), its thick layer of blubber keeps its internal body temperature high for far longer than would normally happen when an animal (or human) expires. This allows for a decomposition process called autolysis, in which the whale’s tissues are broken down by the enzymes and chemicals inside its body, releasing gases such as ammonia and methane into the whale’s body cavity. The whale can become massively distended by these gases, and may eventually explode (as a side note, this was one of the dangers faced by flensers and the other men who dismembered whales caught during pre-industrial whaling times). Here’s a recent news report about a Canadian town facing this risk, which seems to be generally overstated.

Exploding whales have re-entered the public consciousness several times over the last few months. The engineer responsible for the 1970 exploding whale passed away in October last year prompting a wave of reminiscence, and a new generation of internet users have been able to marvel over the piece of beauty that is the KATU news broadcast showing the carcass exploding in the background. Several dead whales are washed ashore each week – a couple of blue whales in Canada caused the most excitement recently (and spawned, but a check of google news alerts shows that this is far from an unusual event.

What does all this mean for you?

No one likes to see a beached marine mammal. It’s upsetting to see a creature that is so easy and graceful in the water, out of its element on the beach. Familiarise yourself with the protocol for dealing with stranded marine mammals if you live near the coast. There are some (American) examples of what to do here and here. In South Africa, the NSRI and local law enforcement will typically handle strandings, possibly with assistance from the public. You should follow their instructions, and stay back if they ask you to. You should also remember that only very rarely is their a happy ending for a stranded marine mammal – typically animals that end up on the beach are sick, weak, or otherwise compromised, and – horrible though it may seem – euthanasia is the kindest thing that can be done for them. It is also likely that the whale will be sampled for scientific research purposes; it is rare for marine mammal researchers to be able to have such ready access to their research subjects! Whales on the beach are a boon for science.

If a stranded marine mammal dies, you will be relieved to know that the state of the art technique for dealing with dead whales on the beach no longer involves explosives. It entails loading them on a truck and driving them to a landfill. In areas where there aren’t too many sharks inshore, they can even be buried on the beach or towed back out to sea. The risk of a whale exploding on the beach is really low, and there are actually not too many reports of this happening.

If you actually want to know more about exploding cetaceans, the Atlantic has a lovely round-up of the phenomenon of exploding whales, but be warned – it’s not for the squeamish. Simon Lewster explores the changing symbolic import of whales, as they evolve from symbols of the global conservation movement to harbingers of doom, their bodies loaded with toxic chemicals absorbed from the oceans around them. For a more general overview, here’s a good place to start: You could also visit this site, which looks as though it arrived in a time machine, and is dedicated to exploding whales.

Finally, for a reminder that marine mammals have been ending up on the shore since they started to live in the sea (and that people have never quite known what to make of the phenomenon), here’s a news report about an old Dutch painting that was recently restored to reveal a whale lying on a beach. Previous viewers of the painting had been puzzled by the small crowd gathered around an empty piece of sand; a whale had been painted over, perhaps because the subject matter was deemed too macabre.


Bookshelf: Bay Between the Mountains

Bay Between the Mountains – Arderne Tredgold

Bay Between the Mountains
Bay Between the Mountains

I have an obsession with False Bay; our lives revolve around its moods, and we spend a lot of time around, under or on the waters of the bay. Tony’s business activities are affected by conditions in False Bay, but we also pay attention to the bay because it’s interesting to us. Life lived according to the rhythms of this beautiful body of water to me feels far more authentic and significant than a life lived according to the rhythms of my alarm clock and office hours.

I’ve been reading some things about the history of False Bay, and this book seemed to be the place to start. It was published in 1985 and is written a bit like a Lawrence G. Green book, but with (I think) slightly more attention to detail and accurate sourcing. There is a list of references at the back, but a lot of it is oral history that Tredgold gleaned from interviewing (then) elderly inhabitants of the settlements on the bay’s edge.

It’s essentially a colonial history of False Bay, with a view that history only started when the Dutch arrived in the Cape. There’s a brief section on the very early geological history of the bay, but not enough for my liking, and I would have liked to know more about the Strandlopers who frequented the area before the Dutch and British started stampeding around and shooting cannonballs at each other.

Tredgold devotes most of his attention to the history of Simon’s Town, Fish Hoek, Kalk Bay, St James, Gordon’s Bay and the Strand. False Bay was a very significant fishing resource right from the time of early Dutch settlement at the Cape, and up until about 1900 a significant amount of whaling was done in the bay, most of it from Kalk Bay. By about 1900 it wasn’t economically viable (too few whales) to run a whaling business inside False Bay any more. I found this remarkably sad – that already over 100 years ago humans had practically exhausted some of the marine resources available to them – but also heartening, given the generous numbers of whales that visit False Bay between June and November in the present day.

Despite the importance of the False Bay fishing opportunities, the focus in this book is on human history. The natural history of the bay is only mentioned insofar as it illuminates the activities of the humans in the settlements on its fringes. There are only two or three mentions of the False Bay white shark population: one is made as part of an account of Simon van der Stel’s visit to Seal Island in 1679. The men caught fish around the island, but sharks took many of them before they could be landed. Little did he know what a massive economic powerhouse the False Bay cage diving industry would be over 300 years later!

There are some interesting stories of some of the many wrecks in False Bay, but for more detail on the human aspect of those I’d suggest the Michael Walker books Hard Aground, Forgotten Shipwrecks of the Western Cape and Shipwrecks of the Far South.

This isn’t an easy book to get hold of – it’s out of print – but you can probably find a copy on Bid or Buy, which is where I found mine.