Mysteries of the deep

By now most people have heard of Paul the psychic octopus, the prognosticating cephalopod that presaged the outcome of the 2010 World Cup.  Paul, a caged male common octopus (Octopus vulgaris: the same species as the tako at your local sushi bar) at Sea Life Aquarium in Oberhausen, Germany, managed to successfully predict the winners of eight consecutive soccer matches – most of which involved the German national team – by eating a mussel from one of two small plastic boxes.  Each box was draped with the flag of one of the upcoming competitors, and Paul was allowed to choose between the two at his leisure.  Paul’s choices were accurate in all cases.

A statistician would tell you that the odds of an octopus predicting the correct outcome of a soccer match eight out of eight times are 255:1, or 0.39%.  Then, of course, another statistician would tell you that this would be true of any sequence of choices that the octopus made, correct or otherwise.  At this point a third statistician would remind you that regardless of the choices that the octopus had previously made, the chances of him accurately choosing the winner of any one game, World Cup Final or not, is exactly 50%.  Then you’d probably get bored and go do something more interesting than listen to a group of statisticians talk about an octopus.

Gimme ten bucks on whatever the octopus said

Gimme ten bucks on Paul

Oddly, the world at large did not get bored.  In fact, just the opposite occurred.  The buzz surrounding Paul and his alleged clairvoyance grew to such a level that in the final match, bookies could actually see a shift in betting patterns immediately after the octopus ransacked his chosen mussel box.

Paul has received international acclaim as well as the adoration of Spaniards everywhere.  The clever little mollusk was a given miniature World Cup trophy as well as honorary citizenship in a small Spanish town. The Madrid Zoo has promised the octopus a life of sultanesque luxury should Sea Life be interested in selling him – an offer which the German aquarium has repeatedly rebuked. Sea Life may soon change its tone, however, now that a cadre of Russian bookmakers has offered 100000 Euros for the octopus.

Others are not as reverent.  The Germans, in particular, have loudly and repeatedly called for Paul’s blood (which is blue, by the way… octopuses use hemocyanin to carry oxygen rather than the hemoglobin many other animals use, and thus they end up with blue blood instead of red).  Many indignant German soccer fans are demanding that the octopus be grilled, barbecued, or otherwise ritually killed and consumed for predicting Germany’s upset loss to Serbia.

The octopus is not the issue here, dude

I’m digressing.  This isn’t supposed to be about the octopus, or the fans, or soccer.  For me, the most compelling piece of this ridiculous story is the conceptual angle – the fact that we find ourselves opening our minds to the possibility that the ocean may have produced something that is far beyond our comprehension.

Paul’s feat reminds us that there is a tremendous amount of wonder and mystery in the sea.  We have learned enough about the complex ecosystems of this planet to realize that there are any number of potential superfoods, magic bullets, and cures for cancer hiding in their midst; we just haven’t found them all yet.  The ocean is no exception.  We have no idea what marvels are down there, hiding in the depths.

Last month, at Jacques Cousteau’s posthumous 100th birthday celebration, the great ocean explorer’s grandson Fabian reiterated the popular adage that “we still know more about outer space than we do about the deep ocean.”  While I’m not certain how we can qualitatively prove this statement, the thrust of it is what’s important: we are still incredibly ignorant when it comes to deep ocean ecosystems.  Unfortunately, this has not stopped us from causing untold damage to these unexplored realms — and there is little more damaging to the ocean than bottom trawling.

Bottom trawls are weighted nets that are used by fishing vessels to ensnare species that live along the floor or the ocean.  These nets are dragged along the seabed, pulverizing corals and causing tremendous damage to reefs, invertebrates, and rocky habitats.  Given that the total area of ocean floor trawled each year is twice the square mileage of the United States, we’re no doubt causing serious trouble for countless animals that live amongst the stones and eelgrass.  The mortality rate of bottom trawling – that is, the percentage of impacted animals that are killed by these nets – is extremely high, often surpassing 90%.  Many of these creatures aren’t desirable from a strict economic perspective, and are tossed overboard as soon as they’re pulled up.  This carnage is known as bycatch, and some trawlers (especially tropical shrimpers) have been known regularly to haul up nets with bycatch outnumbering the targeted species by over ten to one.  For every pound of shrimp these boats catch, over ten pounds of other animals – fish, invertebrates, etc. – are pitched over the side, already dead.

Imagine the scale of waste and destruction that the global trawling enterprise precipitates on a daily basis – the loss of life, the destruction of habitat… it’s staggering.   In exchange for a short-run profit bump, these trawlers ride roughshod over the deep like the horsemen of some marine apocalypse.  Who knows what miracles we may have already lost to their greed and indifference?

Land of opportunity

While I haven’t yet made up my mind about whether or not I believe that Paul does indeed have some sort of extra-sensory perception, I am grateful to him for reminding us all that there is so much that we still don’t understand hiding beneath the waves.  Psychic octopus or not, it doesn’t matter – the important thing is to realize that is that we can’t afford to sacrifice the immeasurable potential of the deep for a few extra dollars in the here and now.

Life is full of mysteries.  Some, like Paul, can bring great joy and wonder.  Others may take a bit more exploration to unlock, but could be even more dazzling.  If we don’t reign in our destructive practices, though, we may never find out.

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    Jul 20, 2010 at 2:09 pm

    What a great post! Yes indeed,bottom trawling has to stop. It is the clear-cutting of our oceans and we know the damage that approach has done to our forests!

    Dec 20, 2010 at 2:30 am

    Maybe Paul just didn’t care for Germany’s flag. If it was draped on the container of food, and he wasn’t a fan of the color scheme, he may have just been picking what he felt was a nicer design. Or, Paul was the Oracle of Futbol, an envoy from ethereal realms of enchanted suckers.



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