Biscuit skate on a night dive

We came across this small biscuit skate (Raja straeleni) while doing a night dive at the jetty in Simon’s Town, on the occasion of Diversnight 2017. They are found in the eastern Atlantic ocean all the way down to 700 metres depth, grow really slowly, and are frequent bycatch from hake trawling operations off the South African coastline. SASSI says don’t buy it. The species is data deficient on the IUCN Red List.

These skates have thorn-like stings along part of their tails, and this one seems to have a whole lot else going on in the tail region which looks as though it would help him camouflage among seaweed. (None of the biscuit skates pictured in our fish identification books have quite such fancy tail-gear.) Also watch how he flicks sand over himself for additional disguise when he stops moving.

Also, they can jump – perhaps a little known talent… Once, while Clare was on duty at the aquarium, a small one leaped right out of the shallow ray pool that used to be next to the touch pool, and landed on the floor. It was a quiet Sunday afternoon. A quick manhandle and he was replaced in his pool (and that exhibit was moved soon after)!

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.

Schooling hottentot at Photographer’s Reef

Hottentot at Photographer's Reef
Hottentot at Photographer’s Reef

We came across a relatively large (for False Bay, in the year 2014) group of schooling hottentot (Pachymetopon blochii) at Photographer’s Reef, on a day with magnificent (uncommonly so) visibility. Hottentot are relatively common and are currently on the SASSI green list, but it is believed that catches are massively under reported. They are targeted by recreational and artisanal fisheries.

 

If we’re going to see any fish in a large school while diving in Cape Town, it’s most likely to be these unassuming silver creatures that look so much like the archetypal “fish” sketched by school children and stylised in bumper stickers. We see large schools of them at Atlantis Reef, too. Unfortunately a lot of the information about them on the internet – like the alikreukel – is recipes.

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.

How you (you!) can make a difference for the environment

Here are some suggestions for things you can do at (or near) home that can have a positive impact on the environment.

Mounds of garbage
Mounds of garbage

 

The first suggestion is the most important!

Be a busybody

Keep tabs on what’s going on in your area. Are there new building projects or developments planned? Community newspapers are an excellent source of information. Attend meetings that give opportunities for public participation, register as an interested and affected party, make objections, write letters to the environmental consultants and your local council representatives. Also, tell your friends and buddies about opportunities to participate as concerned citizens.

Remember that a development doesn’t necessarily need to be in or on the ocean to affect the marine environment. For example, False Bay is where a large amount of the city’s effluent is pumped out. More people means more pressure on the ecosystem. Demand responsible solutions from municipalities and developers.

Keep tabs on proposed amendments to existing laws, and new laws and bylaws. Who is getting permission to do what? Are these decisions well thought out? Is it wise to allow whelk and octopus fisheries to operate in a bay that is visited by large numbers of whales and dolphins?

Hold the government (specifically DAFF and the Department of Environmental Affairs) to account. The environment belongs to all of us, and if it’s being mismanaged, it’s your heritage that’s being squandered.

An excellent example of the concrete results this kind of action by ordinary citizens can have is the recent flip-flop done by the authorities on the proposed diving ban in the Betty’s Bay MPA after many local divers, marshalled by Indigo Scuba and Underwater Africa, registered as interested and affected parties and submitted objections to the proposal.

Banning diving in the area would have essentially left it wide open for poaching. While the local law enforcement can’t and doesn’t do anything to stop illegal harvesting of perlemoen, eyes in the water in the form of recreational divers can at least keep tabs on what’s happening in the reserve.

You can follow the sequence of events by reading these four posts, in order: (1) proposed diving ban, (2) almost immediate initial results after responses from the diving community, (3) a revised proposal, and finally (4) a cautiously promising start to the consultation process (which is by no means finished).

Evangelise, but not like a crazy person

Wear your heart on your sleeve. Let your friends know that conservation issues and protecting the environment are important to you. Don’t be scary and wild-eyed, just be yourself. (If you’re naturally scary and wild-eyed, I can’t help you.)

When you get an opportunity to discuss an environmental issue with someone who doesn’t know or care as much as you do, stick to the facts. Point them to other sources where they can find information to back up what you’re saying, if they are interested. That way, if they want to relay your argument to someone else, they can do so. Raw outrage isn’t necessarily transmissible (and if you’re too hot under the collar, they may just think you’re a lunatic).

Don’t use jargon. Don’t use cliches (people are smarter than you think). Don’t assume that everyone knows as much as you do about your pet issue – check that you’re pitching your pitch appropriately. Don’t be boring. Show people how beautiful and wonderful and intricate the environment is.

Reef life at Roman Rock
Reef life at Roman Rock

Get your hands dirty

Participate in beach cleanups and underwater cleanups. If you see garbage on a dive (and nothing has taken it for a home), stuff it into your BCD for disposal on land. Get into the habit of picking up stuff that doesn’t belong. Keep an empty bag on the boat for collecting rubbish as you drive in and out of the harbour. Hout Bay is an excellent spot for this. Most harbours are actually filthy.

Consume less of everything

Reduce your carbon footprint. This encompasses all the obvious things: recycle, buy local, seasonal produce, eat less meat, and participate in more recreational activities that are carbon neutral. (Unfortunately diving isn’t technically one of those; even if you do a shore dive, you still need to get your cylinder filled using a compressor that consumes energy.)

Here’s a good carbon footprint calculator that’ll help you identify the areas of your lifestyle that are having the greatest negative impact on the environment. Mine is my commute to work, which produces a horrific amount of carbon dioxide each month. (If I ever needed a justification for running away to sea with Tony and the cats, this is it.)

If you eat seafood, make wise choices that are kind to the ocean. If you fish for fun, follow the regulations defining what and how much you’re allowed to catch.

Donate responsibly

If you have financial resources and want to make a donation to a conservation organisation, first do your research.

  • What will the money be spent on?
  • What is the track record of the organisation? What projects have they worked on already?
  • Do you agree with their aims, objectives and methods? (Would you be proud to have your name associated with their work?)
  • Will the money be spent on branding and advertising (some people mistake this for real action), or on observable projects that will have a direct impact on an environmental issue that’s important to you?

Remember that addressing an environmental problem may very well involve work with people. Sustainable Seas Trust (not an endorsement, just an example) addresses poverty and food security as a way to relieve pressure on the ocean’s scarce resources, thus caring for people and the sea at the same time. It’s great to take kids snorkeling, but after a while (and a lot of kids) I hope funders can demand a bit more originality and effort in that area.

Personally, I prefer to support organisations that follow scientific advice or include a research component in their activities, because I feel that conservation that isn’t based on scientific data is just marketing… But you may feel otherwise.

If your donation is a significant one, ask for feedback on how it was spent.

Don’t fool yourself

Finally, remember that writing tweets and sharing pictures on facebook doesn’t achieve anything concrete (ok here’s an exception), even though your rate of hashtagging may make you feel like your efforts are putting Greenpeace to shame. Sorry kids. Even Shonda Rhimes says so.

Want to target your tweeting for good? I suggest subscribing to Upwell’s Tide Report.

How do you make a difference for the environment? Would love to hear your suggestions.

Abalone farm tour in Hermanus

Abagold abalone farm in Hermanus
Abagold abalone farm in Hermanus

Abalone (or perlemoen, Haliotis midae) is a highly exploited marine resource in South Africa, to the extent that it is currently illegal for individuals to harvest abalone from the ocean. All fishing was suspended in early 2008. Formerly it was possible to get a permit to do so. Limited commercial fishing has been allowed since 2010.  The government acknowledged that this would cause further depletion of the wild stock of abalone, but framed the decision as one to protect the livelihood of approximately 1,000 abalone fishermen. When there is no abalone left to fish, I wonder what those fishermen will do?

Ten, twenty and forty year old abalone
Ten, twenty and forty year old abalone

The demand for this unprepossessing grey mollusc is almost limitless, primarily from the east, where it is viewed as a status symbol and is highly sought after at banquets and to prove the host’s prestige. Given the huge demand and the fact that South African waters are the natural habitat of this species, abalone farming has flourished in South Africa, with eleven farms in operation. The largest is Abagold, with four farms located in Hermanus. Abagold employs over 350 local people (it is the largest employer after the municipality). Farm tours are offered every week day at 11am (they cost R50), and Tony and I did one on our way back from De Kelders.

The Abagold farming operation is extensive, actually consisting of several separate farms all located close to the (new) harbour in Hermanus. The tanks are supplied with fresh water directly out of the ocean – the temperature (generally 15-18 degrees) and water quality is not adjusted at all, since this is the optimum natural habitat for the creatures. The animals are fed on kelp, sea lettuce, and specially manufactured abfeed, and no chemicals are added to the water. As a result, the farm can pump the water straight back out into the ocean without causing any contamination. There is a constant circulation of millions of litres of water through the farm, keeping the abalone oxygenated.

The holding pens have a beautiful sea view
The holding pens have a beautiful sea view

Breeding stock are kept separately, and range in age from three to 30 years. Pairs are retrieved from the ocean periodically, and returned after a time. Abalone are distinctively male or female, distinguishable by the colour of their gonads, which are nestled under their shell above their large fleshy foot. Abalone spawn between August and November in nature, prompted by increased oxygen levels in the water. To stimulate spawning in captivity, hydrogen peroxide (H2O2) is added to the water containing broodstock, which causes their muscles to contract and release eggs and sperm.

Three to six month old abalone
Three to six month old abalone

Eggs and sperm are mixed in the correct proportions, and fertilised eggs sink to the bottom of the tanks where they are sucked out and placed in tanks where they hatch after several hours. Algae is specially cultivated on large plastic sheets, to which the free swimming larvae attach when they are ready (after about a week). They spend about three months feeding on these algae-covered sheets of plastic. The baby abalone (spat) are beautiful, with blue and turquoise, perfectly formed little shells 3-5 millimetres in size.

In order to remove the fragile abalone from the plastic sheets, they are anaesthetised with an infusion of magnesium sulphate into their water, which enables them to be gently rubbed off the sheets. It is around the age of three months that they develop light-sensitive eyes, which prompts them to seek out darker hiding places. Black plastic cones are supplied under which the young abalone live for another three to four months.

The blue-grey colour of the gonads visible here shows this is a female
The blue-grey colour of the gonads visible here shows this is a female

At about six months of age the abalone are sorted by size and moved into simple tanks with fittings that are constructed largely of standard irrigation piping and hard plastic sheets. The abalone are quite sensitive to their environment and water has to be kept very clean. They spent the next 3-5 years growing in their tanks.

Kelp is collected to feed the abalone at various farms in the Hermanus area
Kelp is collected to feed the abalone at various farms in the Hermanus area

When the abalone are large enough (about 250 grams, I think – a bit bigger than my palm), they are removed from their shells. The gonads, mouth, eyes and other organs are discarded, and the foot is either canned in fresh water and pressure cooked in the tin, or dried, in about a 50-50 split. All the production is exported to Hong Kong, China, Malaysia, and Singapore, with a 440 gram tin of abalone in brine fetching R200 to R450 for Abagold (it obviously costs more to buy it in the shops). The farm produces nearly 500 tons of abalone per year. This is big, big business.

We were very excited to see how sustainable this aquaculture model is. Fish farming isn’t a wonderfully clean or sustainable business, but this seems to be an effective way to reduce demand for wild abalone without harming the environment. There is a long way to go, however, before supply of abalone outstrips (or even comes close to matching) demand – according to our tour guide, there are buyers for whatever quantity of abalone the farms can produce. Legally harvested and farmed abalone comprised one ton out of the seven tons of abalone that left South African shores last year. The scale of the poaching problem is massive.

Overfishing visually explained

Ocean2012 is a group focused on the 2012 review of European Union fishing practices. Their mission is

…to ensure that the 2012 reform of the EU Common Fisheries Policy stops overfishing, ends destructive fishing practices and delivers fair and equitable use of healthy fish stocks.

To this end they have created a short animated video explaining overfishing. It’s easy to understand, and charmingly done.

Via FlowingData.

(As an aside, I hate Vimeo – I can only hope users outside South Africa or with faster internet connections have a better viewing experience than I do.)

If this subject interests or concerns you, check out The End of the Line in documentary and book form. And use your SASSI cards!

Newsletter: Green, brown and blue

Hi divers

In the midst of the red tide/dirty water!
In the midst of the red tide/dirty water!

We’ve had really odd conditions in False Bay this past week – some absolutely spectacular visibility, mixed with some decidedly brown, murky water. Conditions last Saturday were good underwater, but the wind was far too strong and the surface conditions were too bad for new divers so we called off the second Open Water dive that day.

Last Sunday we did two boat dives in False Bay, the first of which featured some truly awful visibility (picture above), and the second of which (picture below) boasted some of the best visibility that one ever sees in False Bay. There’s been an extensive red tide which has been visible from Boyes Drive for over a week, and this is seriously affecting the visibility in certain areas of the bay.

Goot deploys an SMB in the crystal clear water at Caravan Reef
Goot deploys an SMB in the crystal clear water at Caravan Reef

There was a very strong surface current (and current underwater) during last weekend’s boat dives, and we were reminded of the importance of carrying a signalling device such as an SMB, and a whistle on your inflator hose to call the boat. If you need an SMB, Andre in Simon’s Town has some very good ones which are not negatively buoyant, making them much easier to inflate while you’re below the surface.

Colourful reef life at Roman Rock
Colourful reef life at Roman Rock

We had 15 metres of visibility on the Clan Stuart on Monday, which is truly unusual for this wreck as it’s quite exposed. There seems to have been some water mixing going on over the last few days, however, and today there were patches of clean water interspersed with pockets of green, milky water at Windmill and Long Beach. The wind is blowing from a favourable direction, however, so we hope it’ll clean the bay a bit more before the weekend.

Compass sea jellies and fish in the current at Caravan Reef
Compass sea jellies and fish in the current at Caravan Reef

Weekend diving

Tomorrow I have Discover Scuba divers at Long Beach, and then some time in the pool. The weekend is chock full of Open Water and Discover Scuba Diving dives, so I’ll spend most of the time at Long Beach and, conditions permitting, Windmill, A Frame and/or the Clan Stuart.

If you’d like to tag along give me a shout. A shore dive at a familiar site is the perfect opportunity to hone your skills and test new gear.

Student news & travel

Congratulations to Gerard and Goot, both of whom have just (about half an hour ago) qualified as Enriched Air and Deep divers. These two courses are a very good idea if you plan to dive a lot in Cape Town, and – as I told them this evening – after finishing them, they’re complete divers who will only benefit from further experience.

We also found this picture of Cecil that was taken on his very first Open Water dive, late last year. Compare that to his recently-acquired cave diving qualification… Time flies! This time last year Kate was also with us, finishing her Advanced course and on the way to Divemaster. She’s now a fully-fledged PADI Instructor, having qualified in June in Sodwana.

A root mouth jellyfish eating a compass sea jelly at Caravan Reef
A root mouth jellyfish eating a compass sea jelly at Caravan Reef

While on the subject of current and former students, Tami, Keren and Nils have just finshed some (apparently wonderful) dives in the Red Sea as part of a family holiday to Israel. We’re looking forward to hearing about their trip when they get home.

Peter Southwood swimming a shallow contour at Caravan Reef (south)
Peter Southwood swimming a shallow contour at Caravan Reef (south)

If word of all this dive travel is giving you itchy feet, fear not: we have not forgotten about a dive trip for early next year, and will keep you posted as the plan emerges!

Clare and I visited OMSAC in Pinelands last Thursday evening for a talk on SASSI, and plan to visit again on Thursday 24 November to listen to Alistair Downing from Underwater Explorers talking about West Coast wrecks. OMSAC is a friendly, vibrant little club and we felt very welcome there even though technically we are members of their rivals FBUC! I will remind you of Alistair’s talk closer to the time – it’s a good opportunity to visit the club.

Regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog

Diving is addictive!

Newsletter: Spring diving

Hi divers

The spring conditions have been living up to expectations with some really good diving. We explored a new dive site last weekend and many people are calling this the best dive site in Cape Town. Personally I think the title of best dive site in Cape Town will always be tightly contested as there are just too many stunning sites to choose from. This new site, Atlantis, most certainly has more fish than I have ever seen in Cape Town, but the Fleur – when dived in clean water – still tops the leader board in my mind. Atlantis is however a stunning site with pinnacles, small swim-throughs and overhangs, nice walls and the tops of the pinnacles are at 5-6 metres so a safety stop can be done while cruising around the top of the reef where there is lots to see. The site also drops off to 29 metres on the sand so it is suitable for both Open Water divers and Advanced divers.

One of the pinnacles of Atlantis Reef rises to near the surface
One of the pinnacles of Atlantis Reef rises to near the surface

Very few would rate Long Beach very high but I have yet to dive a site that has surprised me as often as Long Beach has, with wonderful and weird creatures. I have seen devil rays, sharks, a John Dory, giant short tail stingrays, a snakelet, pipefish, cuttlefish, bobtail squid, toadfish, horsefish, seals, whales and dolphins to name but a few and sure I have seen many of these creatures elsewhere, but never all of them in one place. Then again I do dive there more often than other sites…

A knobbly anemone among sea fans, sea cucumbers and other invertebrate bounty
A knobbly anemone among sea fans, sea cucumbers and other invertebrate bounty

Last weekend we dived at Windmill Beach and had really good conditions, so we want to return there this weekend if the conditions hold. After the Atlantis and Windmill dives we went to Long Beach to complete Marc’s first ocean dive – well done Marc on a good dive exploring the barge wreck and fishing boat wreck! Congratulations are also due to Cecil, who successfully completed his Cavern and Introduction to Cave Diving courses with Buks Potgieter at Komati Springs.

Massive school of hottentot, fransmadam and other fish
Massive school of hottentot, fransmadam and other fish

Weekend diving

A cold front cruises in this weekend, late Saturday, bringing with it some swell. Saturday will be better for shore dives as the wind is more a northwester but too strong for boating. Sunday looks better for the boat and Grant plans to explore two new sites he has found. Please let me know if you’d like to join any of the dives.

Box sea jellies at Windmill Beach
Box sea jellies at Windmill Beach

Talks and stuff

Clare and I attended two talks last week at the Save Our Seas Shark Centre. One was by Sarah Fowler, on the challenges of shark conservation, and the other was by Mark Meekan and was about whale sharks. Both talks were fascinating and we are so enjoying expanding our minds this way. Tonight we are attending a talk at OMSAC about the WWF South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) program. The SASSI program empowers consumers to make responsible choices about the seafood they eat – there’s a bit more information here.

Setting off in good visibility at Windmill
Setting off in good visibility at Windmill

We all like to know what dive conditions are like when planning to go in the water – sometimes it’s a no-brainer, based on the weather, but other times it helps if someone actually gets in the water to have a look! With this in mind, two divers from the Somerset West/Gordon’s Bay area established a facebook group called Scuba Diving the Cape Peninsula, to promote diving in the Cape and provide a forum for sharing news and updates on current dive conditions. Clare is now helping them administer the group, and they’d appreciate some help getting off the ground! A moment’s thought (or, even less spent time reading facebook updates from dive operators!) will convince you that claims about dive conditions from someone who has a financial interest in you getting in the water should be taken with a pinch of salt. Please go and visit the group on facebook, click “Like”, and, when you’ve been diving, let everyone know where and what it was like! This can benefit all local divers and hopefully squeeze out some of the fairy tales about 10 metre visibility after a raging southeaster and 5 metre swell that get circulated daily!

Kelp forest at Windmill Beach
Kelp forest at Windmill Beach

See you in the water!

regards

Tony Lindeque
076 817 1099
www.learntodivetoday.co.za
www.learntodivetoday.co.za/blog

Diving is addictive!

Documentary: The End of the Line

The End of the Line
The End of the Line

It’s been almost a year since I finished reading journalist Charles Clover’s book The End of the Line, and the DVD of the documentary based on his book has been lying in our living room for I don’t know how long, waiting to be watched. Tony and I finally got around to viewing it recently – we were spurred on somewhat by the knowledge that some of the documentary was filmed in Malta. While we were in Malta in August we met a beautiful bluefin tuna on a dive, and also saw lots of tuna farms along the Maltese coast.

The End of the Line is about fishing, and how we’ve reduced the ocean’s fish stocks by something like 90% during the last half century. Where have all those fish gone, you ask? Well, we ate them. Incredible improvements in fishing technology – massive, factory-sized vessels that flash-freeze the fish while still at sea, huge nets, bottom trawlers – and insatiable demand for fish have conspired to produce what is literally an extinction event for many fish species. Having exhausted the stocks of continental shelf-dwelling fish such as codfish (do yourself a favour and read about the Grand Banks cod fishery in Canada and weep), fishing pressure has moved to deep water species. These species live in oxygen and light-poor environments, so they grow very slowly, live for up to 100 years, and only start reproducing in middle age. They simply cannot withstand the fishing pressure that we are able to exert on their populations, and soon they will be gone too.

The film’s director, Rupert Murray, had this to say on the DVD sleeve (an environmentally friendly cardboard folder):

Many natural history films about the oceans contain incredible footage and inspire passion for the natural world but we felt angry that more often than not they perpetuate a myth about the seas, that they exist in a perfect pristine bubble untouched by humankind. Now man’s destructive influence extends to every previously hidden canyon and crevice. Fishing has even induced evolutionary changes in fish. We are consuming every level of the food chain and the future looks deeply uncertain. We wanted to tell the true story of what is happening to our oceans by focusing on the most efficient predator operating in the system, man. It’s a fascinating and intriguing story that many people haven’t heard before and we felt it needed to be told because ocean issues are not on the agenda as much as they need to be. This problem affects 70% of our planet and the livelihoods of a billion people but The End of the Line is ultimately a story of hope because there is light at the end of the tunnel. Thankfully the solutions to such a seemingly massive and universal problem are stunningly simple. All we have to do now is make them happen.

There is more here than destruction of species and alteration of ocean ecosystems. One of the things that has struck me and Tony as we’ve watched several seasons of Deadliest Catch, about crab fishermen in Alaska, is that in many communities fishing is a family business that has been passed from father to son for generations. These “artisanal” fishermen (even though in the first world many of them use big boats now) are standing to lose their livelihood, but also a part of their identity. That loss of a heritage can’t be quantified. The End of the Line highlighted foreign fishing boats stripping the coast of Senegal while local fishermen using traditional methods struggle to find any more fish, but this problem is not unique to Senegal, or even to Africa. (As an aside, our suspicions about how well-regulated the Alaskan crab fishery is – it’s a shining example of attempts at sustainability – and the role of the US Coastguard in policing the fishing grounds and chasing out illegal fishing vessels, were confirmed. Nice job, Alaska!)

Dietary recommendations are that we consume fish at least one to three times per week. It’s important to balance the health benefits of a seafood-rich diet with an approach that preserves ocean resources so that we can still eat fish in the future. I firmly believe that by moving responsibility for making good seafood choices up the supply chain, to retailers and restauranteurs, a very significant difference can be made to the future of fishing.

Some restaurants are already ensuring that the only options they offer to consumers are environmentally friendly ones, but Charles Clover (author of The End of the Line and featured in this documentary) found in an informal survey of the world’s most influential seafood chefs that the industry is divided, with many restaurants continuing to serve juvenile fish or endangered species (and sometimes both). The fact remains that, until we can be sure that the seafood on offer in restaurants isn’t from a species that we wouldn’t, in good conscience, want to eat, the responsibility for making right choices lies with us, as final consumers of seafood.

The solutions that you can apply are these:

  • only buy seafood that is not from an endangered species, that is caught in a responsible manner, and that is sustainably fished. A list of retailers stocking only seafood from the SASSI green and orange list can be found here. Boycott the rest.
  • only eat at restaurants that serve food from the SASSI green and orange list, and choose to eat from the green list (I know, it means forgoing sole and prawns… very hard to say no!) Boycott the rest. In Europe there is a campaign called Fish2Fork which rates restaurants that serve sustainable seafood.
  • get hold of a SASSI information card, keep it in your wallet, and evangelise on its use to your dining companions. Read and understand the charter that seafood retailers who affiliate with SASSI must adhere to. There’s also a smartphone app from the Monterey Bay Aquarium called Seafood Watch but my concern with it is that regional names for fish and availability of species can differ between the US and South Africa, so take care.
  • be educated about the issues and take responsiblity for the future health of our oceans – as an inhabitant of planet earth, they belong to you, and you shouldn’t be cool with governments allowing them to be plundered in the name of short-term financial gain. Don’t pretend it’s not your problem. It is. Do some googling – this article and this article are a good start. Watch this documentary – local foodie Dax was appalled by how empty the cinema was when he watched it on circuit, but rent or buy the DVD (or just watch all the videos on this page) and expand your mind.
  • eat smaller fish: herring, sardines, mackerel. These fish are used in fish farming – they are fed to the tuna and salmon at the farms. Estimates are that it takes 5 kilograms of wild fish to raise 1 kilogram of farmed fish. This doesn’t make sense, and it’s wasteful. Besides, the omega 3’s and 6’s are abundant in those little chaps, and they are low on the food chain meaning there’s no danger of mercury poisoning as there is with tuna, which has absorbed the mercury from the entire food pyramid below it.
  • come diving, see fish in the wild, and appreciate that they are not just food… They are beautiful living creatures in their own right, and deserve our respect and protection.

The DVD release of The End of the Line contains several short films as bonus features. You can see some of that material here. You can get the DVD here if you’re in South Africa, and here if you’re not.

Here’s the trailer to whet your appetite…