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The Blind Cavefish
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Sea Stories: Protect What You Love
By Jonathan Bird
In August of 1494, Columbus landed on an island somewhere south of Haiti and killed eight "sea wolves" which were sleeping on the sand. And so began the destruction of the West Indian Monk seal (Monachus tropicalis). From the 1700’s to the 1900’s, the West Indian Monk seal was slaughtered for its meager fat. Unlike most other marine mammals which thrive in cooler areas, the warm habitat of the West Indian Monk seal meant that it had little blubber from which to render oil. But it was free for the taking and relatively abundant, with colonies of these animals all around the Caribbean. We can only infer its former range of habitat today from all the different islands and atolls named "seal island" or "Lobos Cay" ("Lobos" is Spanish for wolf). But we’ll never know how many West Indian Monk seals once lived. We will never know what they ate, or how they mated. We will never get to see them give birth to a new pup, or swim through the clear waters of the shallows, or investigate a diver’s camera, because they’re all dead.
Humans killed every single Monk seal in the Caribbean. When you think about it, that’s quite an achievement. After all, killing every single one of something--anything--is fairly difficult. But we managed to do it. We will never know what the West Indian Monk seal might have taught us about the sea, about mammals, about science, or about ourselves. Did a cure for cancer or AIDS die with the seals? Who knows?
Protecting the environment goes further than not killing the animal life. It goes further than not dumping sewage into the oceans. It’s about respect. We cannot escape the fact that we, as humans, are predators and must kill to live. But managing our impact on natural ecosystems is the only way we will continue to survive. As the human population continues to explode well beyond what this planet was designed to accommodate, the nutritional needs of our species will only continue to grow. Yet, we’re already taxing the ocean food webs to the breaking point. All around the world, entire marine ecosystems are collapsing. The Codfish have been fished from most of the North Atlantic. Reefs in the Philippines have been dynamited for fish that don’t exist any more. We have turned to eating sharks and skates when we can’t find tuna and swordfish. We treat the ocean as a dumping ground for wastes that cause toxic algae blooms called red tides. These in turn poison the filter feeders, like clams, mussels and tunicates. We eat the clams and die from paralytic shellfish poisoning. Manatees eat the tunicates growing on the sea grasses they eat, and they die by the hundreds.
We treat the oceans as both garbage can and grocery store. But we’re only now starting to pay for our purchases. We drag immense nets through the oceans to scrape up all living things, and we discard what we don’t want--dead. Imagine a giant net soaring through the sky, collecting all the wild birds in our neighborhoods, parks, and forests. Imagine serving this "harvest" at your local restaurant and the supermarket. It seems ridiculous and unthinkable, but we do it in the oceans every minute of every day. It’s no different... just underwater, and out of sight. We remove animals from the oceans as if we own them, and we never stop to think what will happen when they’re all gone. We even fool ourselves into believing that they will never be gone. We think we’re harvesting a "crop" which rejuvenates itself. But it doesn’t because we don’t give it the chance. We don’t do anything to help replenish this "crop." We don’t even give it time to recover. We just keep fishing.
Managing and caring for our marine resources means not allowing fishermen to have a free reign on the oceans. But it’s so easy to blame the fishermen. If people weren’t so willing to buy seafood caught by unsustainable methods, the fishing industry wouldn’t exist in it’s present form. People have to make sacrifices. It’s easy to lament the destruction of marine life. It’s a lot harder to do something about it. I can’t believe the number of divers I meet who truly seem to have an appreciation for the importance of the oceans, and yet they eat commercially caught fish. If you want to protect rainforests, you don’t import exotic woods to build your house. If you want to protect the ocean from overfishing, you don’t buy unsustainably caught fish! This means sacrifice. As much as I love tuna, I refuse to buy it because I believe that commercial tuna fishing is harmful to the environment. I sit at a table with diving friends in the Caribbean and they order grilled snapper or grouper for dinner. Three hours earlier they were amazed at an incredible underwater experience with a friendly grouper, and at dinner they order it. Where do they think it comes from? The next year they complain that the reefs don’t have as many fish as the last time they were there. The solution? They search the internet for the next "unspoiled" island paradise for their next vacation--and go eat the fish somewhere else.
Many different kinds of seafoods are farmed now, from salmon to shrimp to mussels. And if more people demanded it, farming would become much more prevalent. It is possible to eat seafood, but we need to farm it, not hunt it. Or at least hunt it sustainably.
On a dive boat in the Florida Keys I spoke with a tourist on his first trip to the tropics. He spoke with appreciation for the clear water and beautiful reefs and how much nicer it was than diving in quarries back home. Staring thoughtfully across the water, he took one last drag on his cigarette... and then flicked it into the ocean.
Maybe these are small things in the big picture, but all the small things add up to big things. If all the environmentalists in the world stopped eating unsustainably-caught seafood and made an effort to convert their friends, it would be enough to make a difference. Eventually, it’s going to happen whether we like it or not, because we’re going to destroy all the natural populations of fish. It’s not a matter of if but when. We can develop and utilize aquaculture technologies now and save the oceans, or we can wait until we have destroyed the oceans and there’s nothing left. Maybe it’s hard to believe that we will run out of fish. Nobody ever thought we would run out of West Indian Monk seals either, but we did.