Book Review: Apocalypse in the Oceans

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“Yes, climate change plays a part but it’s
marginal compared to the massive overfishing
required to supply restaurants and stores in a
world that stuffs itself on tuna sandwiches,
salmon steaks, shrimp cocktail and sashimi.

“The shallow waters off Nova Scotia used to be
full of swordfish and bluefin tuna, as well as
untold numbers of hake, halibut, and haddock. Cod
in particular were the apex predators in these
parts,’ Grescoe writes.”
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Apocalypse in the Oceans
By Anneli Rufus, AlterNet
Posted on May 30, 2008, Printed on May 30, 2008
http://www.alternet.org/story/86789/

In pictures, on CSI Miami, and to the naked eye
the sea looks the same today as it ever did:
blue, green or blue-green, rolling in glassy
crashing curls, tormented then serene. It will
look this way tomorrow, next year, arguably for
eternity. No matter what freaks us out on earth,
our species takes great comfort in knowing that
the sea always looks exactly the same.

From up here.

But not down there. Not underneath. Under the
swells and the sparkles and the froth, fathoms
down, the globe’s oceans have transformed over
the last several decades, transforming even as we
sit here into wastelands, ghost worlds, desolate
deathscapes that could be filmed in situ for
sci-fi films about the post-apocalypse. You won’t
find this out from a day at the beach. The
smiling sea captain depicted on the fish-sticks
box is keeping mum. But Canadian food journalist
Taras Grescoe tells all in his important new
book, Bottomfeeder (Bloomsbury, 2008).

“Rather quickly, the oceans are becoming
environments unlike any we have ever known,”
Grescoe agonizes, giving as his first example the
North Atlantic, where he watches Nova Scotian
fishermen exulting over a new lobster boom while
apparently neither knowing nor caring about its
probable cause: human greed.

Yes, climate change plays a part but it’s
marginal compared to the massive overfishing
required to supply restaurants and stores in a
world that stuffs itself on tuna sandwiches,
salmon steaks, shrimp cocktail and sashimi.

“The shallow waters off Nova Scotia used to be
full of swordfish and bluefin tuna, as well as
untold numbers of hake, halibut, and haddock. Cod
in particular were the apex predators in these
parts,” Grescoe writes. (Later in the book, he
quotes early observers describing “cod mountains”
off a once-rich Newfoundland coast where the
fifteenth-century navigator John Cabot reported
cod populations so thick that they actually
blocked his ships’ passage.) Cod, Grescoe writes,
once “prowled the gullies offshore in dense
shoals, using their powerful mouths to suck up
free-swimming larvae, sea urchins, and even
full-grown crustaceans. But the cod were fished
to collapse in the early 1990s. With the cod
gone, stocks of lobsters and other
low-in-the-food-chain species exploded.” By
wiping out predator species, the fishing industry
screws up ecosystems. As sea creatures high on
the food chain disappear, their populations more
than decimated in the last half-century, a
lobster boom “may just be a tiny blip on a
slippery slope to oceans filled with jellyfish,
bacteria, and slime.”

Meanwhile, overfishing has created some 150 “dead
zones” — oxygen-free patches of ocean that can
sustain no life — around the world: Some of
these patches, Grescoe tells us forebodingly,
“are now as large as Ireland.” In search of
seafloor-dwelling species such as the trendy
monkfish — long ignored, then popularized
singlehandedly by Julia Child in 1979 —
bottom-trawls weighing more than 26,000 pounds
each rake and flatten wildlife-rich undersea
peaks, leaving a paved-looking flatness in their
wake. Oh, and a large percentage of coral reefs
worldwide are dying or already dead. Oh, and
those bluefin tuna and halibut steaks you like?
Say it with me: Mercury. Those jumbo fried shrimp
battened on pesticides and antibiotics in
bacteria-riddled Chinese farms, their decomposing
flesh treated with borax? How’s your health
insurance?

It is happening right this minute but not quite
right before our eyes. This is exactly the sort
of thing our species prefers not to think about.
What kind of catastrophe is it? Take your pick.
Ecological. Medical.

And ethical: Grescoe started this project as a
diner, “a fish lover, but Š no fish hugger” who
has caught and eaten seafood eagerly all his
life. But knowing as he does “that ours might be
among the last generations in history able to
enjoy the down-to-earth luxury of freshly caught
wild fish,” his fantasies of sampling Japanese
pufferfish and Chinese “drunken shrimp” slam hard
against reality:

“I draw the line,” he resolves, “where the
pursuit or cultivation of my dinner obviously
damages the environment, where cruelty is
involved, where pollution or adulterants make it
unsafe to eat. I would get no pleasure from
eating a nearly extinct songbird, wine made from
tiger bones, or the last few grams of beluga
caviar from the Caspian. For me, a pleasure that
diminishes the experience of everybody else on
earth is no pleasure at all.”

Fair enough. So in this spirit of sad
apprehension he set out around the world to
report on the state of some of humanity’s most
celebrated seafoods and the communities
surrounding their consumption: from Chesapeake
Bay oysters to Japanese sushi to English fish and
chips and beyond. Part detective, part
adventurer, part whistleblower, he reveals
underhanded practices, such as Japan’s
“scientific” whale fishing, and outright crime,
such as tons of cod harvested illegally,
exceeding official quotas, during their spawning
season by Russian ships that offload their catch
to other ships at sea in order to evade
detection. (Greenpeace calls this “pirate
fishing.”) The results end up in myriad English
“chippies,” doused with salt and vinegar.

And we learn about “finning,” the practice of
slicing off just-caught sharks’ pectoral and
dorsal fins — destined for soup — with hot
metal blades. “Kicked back into the ocean, alive
and bleeding,” it can take the sharks days to
die. Nearly forty million are killed this way
annually. Seventeen countries, including the US
and Canada, now ban finning, but China and the EU
are among the world’s remaining avid finners;
Grescoe identifies Spain as the most avid of all.
Although shark hunting is technically forbidden
in Galpagos National Park, a vast marine reserve,
some 300,000 sharks are caught there every year.
Until the 1960s, whitetip sharks were “the most
abundant large animals on earth,” Grescoe writes.
“Forty years later they have all but disappeared
from the Gulf of Mexico,” where they once
thrived. “Up the length of the Atlantic coast,
the story is the same: since 1972, bull, dusky,
smooth, and hammerhead shark populations have all
been fished to one percent of their former
levels.” Who cares? Well, it’s all about the
ecosystems. Sharks eat skates and rays. Sans
sharks, skyrocketing skate and ray populations
are eating scallops and clams into extinction.

This book is a veritable eulogy. For ecosystems.
For the toxic, dead water. For sea creatures. And
for many of our fellow human beings, although
honestly it’s hard to care much at this point
about anyone who would eat sharkfins or whale:
“Every year, twenty thousand tons of heavy metals
and eight hundred tons of cyanide end up in
Chinese waters,” Grescoe reveals. Unsurprisingly,
two years ago cancer has been the leading cause
of death in China. Massive quantities of cheap
seafood from pesticide-suffused Chinese fish
farms is exported worldwide; only a fraction is
tested or inspected. Much is infected with
salmonella and listeria. Most has lived its life
in water thick with fecal bacteria, human and
animal: “The fish, in other words, were bathing
in shit.”

It’s also a eulogy for lifestyles, for
old-fashioned fisherfolk in those seafaring
communities that spent centuries supporting
themselves by catching, processing, selling and
eating species in the wild: scallops in North
Carolina, oysters in Chesapeake, hake in Namibia,
shrimp in Tamil Nadu, India. On one hand, you
could say, Hey, they did it to themselves: got
too greedy, maintained certain tactics that
became unsustainable. On the other hand, you
could say it’s sad — that these communities fell
victim to intrusive large-scale foreign
operations, as fishing has gone from local to
global: As an example, Grescoe visited a huge
Nova Scotia processing plant that used to handle
cod from Canadian waters but now gets its cod
from Russia, its salmon from Chile, its catfish
from Vietnam. The factory outsources
labor-intensive tasks, such as skewering salmon,
to China. The finished product is labeled
“Product of Canada.”

You could say too that the residents of these
communities are relatively powerless over such
government-controlled decisions as the 1.5
billion gallons of urban sewage that pour into
Chesapeake Bay every day. Grescoe sympathizes
with the Tamil Nadu fisherfolk who, put out of
business by industrial shrimp farms, tell him:
“Our village is going to die.” But an encounter
with a Yorkshireman who blusters angrily after
being arrested for catching more than his legal
share — and who blames declining salmon and cod
populations on “horrible, sliming, stinking,
eye-watering bloody seals” — leaves Grescoe cold:

“This kind of attitude lies at the heart of the
problems facing the oceans,” he seethes. “It is
the ongoing plunder of the seas, done in the name
of keeping a boat afloat for another season, and
multiplied a hundred thousand times in all the
ports of the world …. If this were still the
age of inexhaustible cod mountains and endless
salmon rivers, such a display of spirit might be
admirable. It is the essence of the indomitable,
short-sighted, buck-passing Atlantic fisherman:
an independent, almost lordly working-class hero,
romanticized to death in our culture. As long as
there is a single jellyfish left in the ocean, he
will be ready to go out and catch it.” And
jellyfish, down at the foot of the food chain,
will be the last edible species out there in a
not-too-distant future when our
great-grandchildren, Grescoe half-jokes, will eat
“peanut butter and jellyfish sandwiches” and
“jellyfish and chips.”

He agrees with the scientists and activists who
now advocate a “slow-fish” movement. It would
entail banning destructive fishing methods such
as bottom-trawling; “revalorizing” earlier
techniques such as hook-and-line; protecting
overfished species; and drastically reducing
aquaculture — that is, fish farming — as well
as government subsidies to fishing fleets. And
while Grescoe doesn’t suggest never eating any
seafood again, he now chooses his intelligently:
avoiding the farmed, the faraway, the overfished,
and those large, long-lived,
high-on-the-food-chain species such as halibut,
tuna, shark and swordfish whose meat is infused
with mercury and other chemicals known to cause
eventual nerve damage. Instead, he suggests
sardines, sea urchins and squid: In other words:
Become a Bottomfeeder — at least until, and if,
the seas stop dying.

Anneli Rufus is the author of several books,
including “Party of One: The Loners’ Manifesto.”
© 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/86789/

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