Before There Was “Green” There Was Blue

Thursday Apr. 1st, 2010

Carolyn Hopper

What’s that swimming in your soup? Shark fins? Is the next course orange roughy? Bluefin tuna sushi? And how, one might ask, is the orange roughy and the shark’s fin the ocean and the ocean us?
It’s all about hydrogen bonds, or chains, and food chains and how they are as inextricably connected as DNA threads. If you pull one strand out of the weave, it is no longer what it was. Without 2 hydrogen atoms and 1 oxygen atom you do not have water. Extract one part of the food chain out of the ocean and the rest will collapse. So why do we care, here, when the nearest ocean is thousands of miles away?
The value of clean water is already known—for drinking, for washing or for supplying us with food. It’s known that nothing should go in the water that might change the lives that depend on it and that our rivers end up in the sea. What’s less noticeable is the way people and all natural forms are connected to it. We know that the planet is about 70% water. Our bodies are also about 70% water. Originally most, if not all the water came from space—from countless small comets thumping against the atmosphere. A marathon line of practically unabridged hydrogen bonds, or chains, comprises a hydrologic cycle from atmosphere to ocean and back.

Our lives depend on the ocean. It influences weather patterns, and holds the lives of much of what we have depended upon for centuries. Yet, less than 5% of the ocean has been seen, let alone explored. As the headline of a recent article in the newspaper states “Nearly half of Earth’s life may lie below land, sea.”

Which brings us to the fish we may wish to eat for dinner, or the exotic varieties harvested that we want to look at in a home aquarium, or the seahorse you might find during a walk on the beach while on vacation. (Yes, seahorses are fish). 90% of all sharks have been commercially extracted from the ocean primarily for their fins. A Bluefin tuna might take 30 to 50 years to mature. Where does the tuna go? For sushi. While growing it eats many sizes and varieties of other fish. If you remove the tuna from the ocean in the great numbers that is being fished today, what happens to all the other pieces of the food chain?

An orange roughy is slow growing and late to mature. It’s food is zooplankton, mysid shrimp, amphipods and other crustaceans. It takes from 20 to 30 years to mature—reach the size at which it is harvested. The orange roughy is harvested by trawling – using large nets to scrape across the bottom of the ocean. Its recovery rate can be slow in the areas where it has been overfished.
Through industrial-sized commercial ocean fishing we have, in the last 50 years, extracted 90% of the fish we like to have for our food – wild salmon, bluefin tuna, grouper and swordfish. Will it be possible to put the brakes on industrial scale extraction before all that is left is less than 10% of what we knew about 50 years ago?

During trawling many other organisms are trapped. This is called by-catch. The by-catch includes octopuses, seahorses and turtles. Many die in the nets. This by-catch is ground up and used as bait to catch more of the desirable catch. The trawl nets also break the coral reefs which support the lives of the plants and animals that look like plants—anemones. Remember the scene in Forrest Gump where he pulls up the nets and there are few shrimp, but many other organisms? Using a trawl net for catching fish is like using a bulldozer to catch canaries.

If the taste for protecting the integrity of the ocean is growing on your lips, let’s talk about how the ocean is not an inexhaustible source for food and all life. In the last 50 years we have lost 50% of our coral reefs, themselves a source of food and shelter for plants and other fish. Or how the humphead wrasse (not your average beauty queen) is the largest living member of the family Labridae, with males reaching up to 6 feet. They are long lived and slow to breed. They are harvested for the live reef food fish trade, marine aquarium trade and illegal, unregulated, or unreported fisheries. Their lips have been sold for as much as $1000.00! Fortunately Australia and Indonesia have are now regulating the taking of this fish other than for limited educational purposes or limited public display. Or the tiny seahorse which looks like part horse, part kangaroo and part monkey. Millions are harvested for food in other countries. Pregnant males are dried and ground up and added to drinks. While trade is restricted and in some cases illegal, suitcases full may be transported without notice.

Today we have the power to eliminate all life in the oceans, and on earth, including ourselves. We also have the power that knowledge gives us to work as hard as we can to save it. Now that we know what is gone and where it has gone—in the case of the oceans, for food—we can give up harvesting millions of sharks for their fins and breaking off coral reefs with nets that gather food or leave clouds of silt to cover other reefs and habitat. Or, at the very least, limit our thirst for what is almost gone. The planet is our world bank. We’ve been burning through its resources at break-neck speed. What we can do now is continue to use its resources without using them up. We can’t make another one. We can continue to apply our growing knowledge remembering that before there was “green” there was blue. All life on earth depends on the oceans.

Let’s come back to that dinner plate at a local restaurant. We can change the order, check a new menu. There are many sources for information about what we can eat that comes from the sea that is sustainable. You can check the Monterey Bay Aquarium website or surf around the net for organizations that are working to help keep our oceans healthy and full of life. That means the human part of the equation as well.

The next time you sit in a cold car and exhale you will fog the windows with the water you carry. And though this bit of moisture you see may be your only connection with the ocean, listen for the voices of moving water.

“We forget that the water cycle and the life cycle are one.” Jacques Cousteau