by Raju Peddada
"For most of history, man has had to fight nature to survive; in this century he is beginning to realize that, in order to survive, he must protect it."
"The Sea, once it casts its spell, holds one in its net of wonder forever."
—Jacques-Yves Cousteau, Oceanographer & conservationist, 1910-1997
(Swans - April 22, 2013) I lived in St. Lucia, a Caribbean paradise in the early 1980s. One day, exactly a month after that royal wedding of Charles and Diana, I was invited on a trip aboard my friend's boat, who on the side sold sport fishing packages to the tourists out of Vieux Fort, about an hour south of Castries. To a "fresh fish" like me, this portended nothing but excitement. A little after 1 p.m., a few breezy minutes out on the benignly heaving SW Atlantic-East Caribbean Ocean, the island disappeared behind us in the blue haze. Even with four men aboard, two of them Britons, a strange disquiet gurgled in me -- they bathed in Guinness, in those 89 degrees, swinging a cricket bat my friend brought onto the boat.
I couldn't understand the word taxidermist, in our conversation dominated by cricket. Within an hour-and-a-half, somewhere between the southeastern tip of St. Lucia and Barbados, we dropped the anchor to my delusional relief. The line was cast, in what was considered the "region" for blue marlins. At about 3:45 p.m., suddenly we heard this "krrr... kr... krrrrrrrrrrrr" as the fishing line came alive, exactly like in that movie "Jaws." We all sprang to our feet from under the shade. Both the Britons positioned themselves automatically: one holding the thick graphite rod in its cup at a 45 degree angle, the other, in the chair behind it, reeling the line in. And while my friend doused the reel with water, sweat poured from us in that commotion. They had hooked a marlin.
It thrashed and crashed against the hull, pulled around, and under the boat. In one instance the nylon line flashed towards me as I dove to the deck. This battle ensued for almost 50 minutes, then abruptly, everything went limp. "It's tired... it's tired... get ready... let's pull him up!" My friend exhorted "watch out sir... watch for its point-beak... it can kill you!" What happened next is something I can never erase, nor rationalize. The flailing and shuddering marlin, big by any standard, was slowly pulled up by the two men, so its head came over the edge of the deck wall, then my friend bludgeoned its head, with the cricket bat three times till its eye popped out and hung by its vein. The gleaming marlin, about 6 feet in length, was pulled aboard. It lay almost still on the deck, with only its tail quivering. The sunrays from the west hit the magnificent shimmering blue-gray body with its collapsed sail, producing a holographic splash of color, draining my own, as we turned around for the island. It was terrifying, and not even remotely entertaining. The men celebrated their "sport-fishing" all the way back, and I too joined in, hiding my "sissy" misery. In the three years there, I never again stepped onto a boat.
We are a burden, the bane of our planet. We are the parasitic plunderers that infest our planet. Other complex organisms are far more efficient in survival than humanity. For the average 2.4lbs of brain we are equipped with, we display far less awareness and competency than other organisms that depend on their instincts. They use instincts for survival, while we use ours to entertain our senses and feed our impudent and voracious pride. Our awareness and instincts have been enervated, rendered ineffective and impotent in the slavery to our senses, especially our taste buds. If Dr. Samuel Johnson and Charles Darwin somehow manifested atavistically among us again, they would assign the face of humanity, as the synonym for three words: 1. Pathetic, 2. Plunderers, and 3. Devolution (not evolution), in that order. We have indeed devolved to pathetic plunderers! Here's why.
For every fish that ends up on your plate, about a 100 marine animals are collaterally killed and discarded. Do you realize that you eat only one-third of the fish, as its head (one-third) and its tail/fins (one-third), a total two-thirds are discarded? When humanity likes the taste of some poor creature, its extinction becomes imminent. Take the case of the amazing orange roughy (Hoplostethus Atlanticus). This is a beautiful deep-sea fish in eponymous colors, inhabiting the freezing black depths of the eastern-western Pacific and eastern Atlantic, that has been fished to near extinction. The Marine Conservation Society has issued an impotent endangered status to it. What makes this fish special is its lifespan of up to 149 years, ascertained by measuring a bone from its head, using scientific methods. Its longevity also renders it extremely vulnerable. It grows very slowly, and is late to mature, which translates to its low resilience, especially in population recovery.
Schools of orange roughys have been trawled, only to be drawn and left aboard the fishing vessel till they die, then dumped when they do not meet the size standard or are found immature. Such atrocious dumping is rather ubiquitous. Can you imagine this? The oldest orange roughy alive today would be the contemporary of Charles Darwin! We are eating ourselves out of our own history.
Industrial fishing practices are wantonly callous to delicate marine ecosystems -- particularly vital marine life feeding and breeding grounds like the coral reefs and the sea grass plains and meadows. If you are curious and concerned, you can Google each of the industrial fishing method for their devastating effects on the oceans: bottom trawling, purse seining, long lines, set nets, cyanide fishing, dynamite fishing, and ghost fishing.
How destructive and doltish is industrial fishing and the laws that govern it? Here's an excerpt from a report by Jeremy Cooke for BBC: "European Union quotas strictly limit the amount of fish that vessels can bring back to port, but there is no restriction on the amount of fish they actually catch -- boats fishing in the "mixed fishery" of the North Sea often catch a species or size of fish above the quota and have to throw the "discard" back. EU estimates 40%-60% of the fish are killed and dumped."
The Telegraph reports that 7.3 million tons of fish of the total EU catches in 2004 were killed and dumped back into the sea.
The Chinese, and some Southeast Asian cultures, with all due respect, have found a use for everything thing that flies, crawls, runs, slithers, and swims. From cockroaches to cocks, from the testicles of tigers to rhino horns, and from bird nests to shark fins, all have been tested, tasted, and designated for their ingestive benefits to humans. Shark fin soup originated during the Ming Dynasty (14th-17th century) as an elite delicacy, and as the Chinese and Southeast Asian affluence grew, the shark populations fell.
About 100 shark attacks on humans are reported worldwide every year, which get the top headlines. But according to The Humane Society of the United States, 100 million sharks are killed each year by humans -- that is about 11,000 sharks every hour of the day, and this is just the reported estimate. Shark killings are down, from 863,244 tons in 1999 to 736,491 tons in 2008. This decline is not because of a sudden conscientious enlightenment on the part of Asians and others -- this reduction is due to the plummeting populations in the oceans. Every year, 38 million sharks on average are killed for their fins alone. This cartilaginous soup must be fatty to warrant the title "delicacy."
I highly recommend "Tuna's End," an article by Paul Greenberg for The New York Times Magazine that was published on June 22, 2010. Do you have any idea why the tuna is the most sought after fish? No, it's not just for its Omega-3.You guessed it, it's for the fatty meat! Does this register at all? Pigs, cows, and tuna: fat -- your fat cells jump with anticipation, "yeaaaa!" whenever your hear beef, pork, or tuna. The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) issued its "Red List" of endangered marine life: 1,414 species of fish, of the world's known species, are at risk for extinction. Habitat loss and pollution are significant factors in the decimation of these species, but the biggest singular threat by far is indiscriminate industrial overfishing.
In the 1970s, the oceanographer Jacques-Yves Cousteau declared that the Mediterranean Sea, viewed from the plane, is a magnificent deep-blue inland waterway that hides its abuse, like a reticent and embarrassed woman -- below that shimmering blue surface, surrounded by sea-faring peoples, lies the most abused and over-fished body of water since the dawn of man. It is almost a dead sea. There are over a 100 academic-scientific reports on the abuse and degradation of our oceans, attributed to commercial fishing. I culled six of them:
Threats to macro-algal diversity: marine habitat destruction and fragmentation, pollution and introduced species -- by P. I. Walker / G. A. Kendrick, 1998.
A century of habitat destruction and overfishing, by B. Rothschild, J. Ault, P. Goulletquer & M. Heral, 1994.
Preemptive habitat destruction under the Endangered Species Act, by Dean Lueck, & Jeffrey A. Michael, 2000 (Must read, as to how profiteers subvert habitat laws).
A global map & report of human impact on marine ecosystems, by B. Halpern, S. Walbridge, K. Selkoe & others.
Extinction risk at the sea, by C. Roberts/J. Hawkins, 1999.
Environmental effects on marine fishing, by P. Dayton, S. Thrush, T. Agardy & R. Hofman, 2006.
Coral reefs are constituted of delicate layers of calcium carbonate, secreted over generations by thousands of soft-bodied animals known as coral polyps. A polyp exists in a symbiotic relationship with its host, zooxanthellae, which gives the coral its brilliant color. Zooxanthellae extract carbon dioxide, process it through photosynthesis, and release oxygen and other important nutrients essential for other marine life.
The Guardian, a major publication from the UK, along with the Nature Conservancy, sponsored 36 scientists from 18 countries; their report was essentially an indictment on industrial fishing. They also found evidence for their culpability in the rising acidity in the oceans that will destroy 95% of Southeast Asian and 70% of the world's coral reefs by the year 2050. The industrial trawling nets are dislodging and pulling off tons of thousand-year-old corals, which they dump back into the deep brine. I guess, the coral reefs don't metabolize fat... otherwise, they'd become a delicacy too.
In the late 1980s we made a big deal of second-hand tobacco smoke from our fellow humans, affecting us adversely; well, this in comparison is simply horrifying. The byproduct of that calamari, or for that matter the tuna my friend and many like him eat, sustains a rapacious industry that indiscriminately plunders our ocean life and habitat without any consideration whatsoever for anything but profit. This directly effects and deprives those who do not eat meat (from the land nor oceans) the awesome wonder, beauty, and the utter necessity of our rain forests and oceans that are being appropriated for animal feed production and indiscriminate fishing -- which my friend and others like him choose not to grasp or even dare contemplate on. But I think people do know. The steak or lobster on their plate encapsulates the inhumane process of plundering, cruelty, and slaughter in its entirety, without even addressing the impact on our environment and health. But like everything else, those who eat meat manage to hide under that force-field, a protective delusional bubble of feigned innocence or ignorance, and find escape and denial in such spurious and supercilious statements: "Oh geez... I really didn't know how they did it!" or "Aww... don't feel so guilty, they don't feel anything... enjoy it!"
I will use only one example, and it is sufficient evidence for me to stay a vegetarian till I die. Both my maternal grandparents were vegetarians. They passed away after living a full life, without ever stepping into a hospital. Can you understand this? Never once were they hospitalized. My grandmother, in a span of 26 years, spent 11 years in net pregnancy time, and delivered 13 kids, with only an illiterate midwife-friend. My grandfather remained very active till he was almost 85 -- he was over 90 when he passed on peacefully in his own bed. There was no jargon, no labels, nor hankering, like we have today, of sugars-starches, amino acids, carbohydrates or meat protein, blah-blah. They ate a simple, yet, ancient and deeply tasteful plant-based, balanced, and moderate fiber-rich diet that was entirely organic.
I don't presume to be prescient, or clairvoyant; it's simple deductive reasoning, distilled by an impotent rage and a pricking conscience: what we eat creates the industry. If you want to sacrifice your principles and health, don't do it at the expense of other life forms. I would like to reign in my acerbity, but when I think about it, my caustic disposition is infinitely milder than all that cyanide and mercury being silently dumped into the oceans, with broad impudent pecuniary grins, so you, my lovely friends, can wash your lobster and tuna salad down with the Flying-Fish ale.
Finally, this is not about our conscience anymore, it is more about the atrophying and the prostration of our common sense and natural instincts. We are afflicted with the elephant foraging syndrome -- foraging that destroys its own sustenance. Abstinence is sacrifice, which actually is a philanthropic endeavor towards your environment, but more so for your own health. I will conclude here with Wallace Stegner's lamentation from his profound book American Places that might resonate with those who possess the power of abstinence, and have a conscience:
We are the unfinished product of a long becoming. In our ignorance and hunger and rapacity, in our dream of a better material life, we laid waste the continent and diminished ourselves before any substantial number of us began to feel, little and late, an affinity with it, a dependence on it, an obligation toward it as the indispensable source of everything we hope for.
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About the Author
Raju Peddada is an industrial designer running an eponymous brand, purveyor of ultra luxury furnishings of his own design (see peddada.com). He is also a freelance correspondent/writer for several publications, specializing in commentary, essay, and opinions on architecture, design, photography, books, fashion, society, and culture. Peddada was born in Tallapudi, a small southern town in south India. He's lived in New Delhi and Bombay before migrating to the West Indies and eventually settling in Chicago, Illinois, where he worked in corporate America until he chose to set up his own designing firm. He lives with his family in Des Plaines. (back)