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4 Ocean Wonders You’ve Never Heard of that Desperately Need Your Protection

Posted by Casson in 4 Oceans

This is the most recent installment of my monthly Alternet column, “4 Oceans.” It was originally published on February 25, 2011.

The ocean is mysterious. It has obscured many of our planet’s most fantastic treasures from view since time immemorial, tucking them away in remote tropical waters, or hiding them deep beneath the white-capped fangs of raging polar seas. Sadly, many of these wonders are threatened by unbridled fishing pressure, deluges of castaway plastics, and a simple but devastating characteristic that, more than anything else, could guarantee their destruction: anonymity.

In this installment of “4 Oceans,” we’ll take a look at four astonishing marine marvels that most people have never heard of, and then discuss how these delicate ecosystems are under threat and what we as consumers can do to protect them.

A proud Zhemchug resident

He's a little crabby about the trawlers in his backyard

1. Zhemchug Canyon

Zhemchug (“pearl” in Russian) is the longest, widest and deepest canyon in the world. Its total volume is nearly twice that of the Grand Canyon. It is vast beyond description and teems with fascinating organisms. It is also hundreds of fathoms underwater.

Zhemchug, sprawling southwest from the Alaskan shore and deep into the Bering Sea, is home to dozens of soft corals, sponges and other invertebrates found nowhere else in the world. Only in the last five years have scientists have begun to plumb the depths of Zhemchug, and we still have virtually no information on what marvels it may conceal. That said, time is already running out.

Every year, the Alaskan pollock fleet rakes Zhemchug repeatedly with gigantic trawl nets in its relentless quest for fish protein (pollock is the low-value, high-volume fish often used to make products like fish sticks and fast-food fish sandwiches). While there is an argument for using pollock in our food system, there is no excuse for pulverizing Zhemchug Canyon (or its neighbor, Pribilof Canyon) to get it.

The pollock fishery covers thousands upon thousands of square miles outside of the canyons, and the vast majority of pollock is caught in these areas rather than Zhemchug or Pribilof. Pollock producers and companies that sell pollock products must commit to sourcing their pollock from outside the canyons if these amazing treasures are to survive.

To help protect Zhemchug Canyon: Avoid pollock products until leading seafood companies pledge only to source pollock from outside of the canyons, and then support those companies.

2. The Ross Sea

The Ross Sea, a remote, half-frozen dent in the side of Antarctica, is aptly nicknamed the ”the Last Ocean” — it is the only remaining oceanic ecosystem on our planet with a relatively intact animal population at all levels of the food chain. Elsewhere in the world, the ocean’s apex predators — sharks, bluefin tuna, swordfish, etc. — have been fished to the point of near-collapse. After nearly a century of industrialized fishing, the Ross is the only remaining sea that still has a strong top-level predator population.

The Last Ocean

The Last Ocean

The Ross Sea has no sharks. Instead, the food chain is dominated by two predators: the Antarctic toothfish and the Ross Sea orca. The toothfish, more commonly known by its menu-friendly moniker “Chilean sea bass” is the largest fish in the Ross Sea and a lynchpin of its ecosystem. The Ross Sea orca is a rare and isolated subspecies of killer whale found nowhere else in the world. Both species are under threat.

The Ross Sea is under increasing pressure by an emerging fishery targeting Antarctic toothfish. In order to satisfy a hunger for Chilean sea bass fillets, ships are now beginning to enter the last pristine ocean in search for white-fleshed plunder. Chilean sea bass is also a prime prey item for the Ross Sea orca, and recent science has identified a correlation between decreasing Antarctic toothfish populations and a diminishing orca presence.

To protect the Ross Sea: avoid Chilean sea bass, especially from the Ross Sea. Also, don’t be fooled by certifications — astonishingly, the Ross Sea toothfish fishery is Marine Stewardship Council-certified.

3. Palmyra Atoll

Cast far into the Pacific like a stone that has lost a child’s interest, Palmyra Atoll is a tropical wonderland upon which humanity has taken a sort of self-serving pity. Once privately owned by a wealthy American family, Palmyra was purchased some time ago by the Nature Conservancy in an effort to safeguard this virtually untouched ecosystem for study and posterity, and the atoll still boasts strong populations of many species that are disappearing from other areas of the tropics at astonishing rates.

It's me or the SUV

It's me or the SUV

Unfortunately, localized precautions cannot forestall a larger creeping doom that threatens to swallow Palmyra like a massive turtle — the menace of global climate change.

As we pump carbon into our atmosphere, we increase the rate at which our polar ice caps melt and give these areas less time to re-freeze in the winter. As such, water that had been frozen for eons is now streaming into the ocean, causing global sea levels to rise. A few vertical inches can spell the end for atolls like Palmyra, which is just one of the many sandbank jewels scattered about our world that may not survive to see the coming decades.

To save Palmyra: the best we can do is support clean energy efforts, limit our consumption of fossil fuels, and keep the climate crisis in mind as we go about our daily lives.

4. The Sargasso Sea

The world’s only “sea without shores” is geographically defined not by a neighboring land mass, but rather by the spatial dimensions of its own ecosystem. There is no other expanse of ocean like the Sargasso; a unique conflux of swirling currents, temperate weather, and the calming winds of the horse latitudes has given rise to an enormous morass of Sargassum seaweed. This vast aquatic jungle is the basis of an entire ecology involving dozens of species found nowhere else in the world.

It's a jungle down there

It's a jungle down there

Between the leafy sea dragons, pipefish and man-o-war peppering the Sargasso swim American and European freshwater eels, known in the sushi industry as unagi. These animals hatch in the waters of the Sargasso and are slowly swept along by the currents of the Atlantic Ocean. When the tiny eels enter water with decreased salinity — due to a nearby river mouth — they transform, developing muscles and the ability to propel their bodies through the water. These eels — now known as “elvers” — swim directly upriver, where they feed, grow and mature. They will spend their life in fresh water until they reach adulthood, whereupon they leave the river system and return to the Sargasso Sea to mate. All freshwater eels from both sides of the North Atlantic come to the Sargasso, and nowhere else, for this purpose.

But the Sargasso is in trouble. Not only are eels themselves severely overfished (that unagi at your local sushi bar may be “farmed,” but in reality, it was captured from the wild as an elver and transferred to a rearing facility for fattening), but the greedy eddies of the Sargasso attract massive amounts of jetsam from all over the Atlantic, especially plastic and container waste, which disrupt the ecosystem and hinder many animals’ ability to feed.

To help save the Sargasso: avoid unagi, and be judicious about the use of plastic bags and other refuse that often ends up in the oceans.

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The Art of Sushi – Part 4: Going beyond the limit with Chris Jordan

Does size matter?  Ask Chris Jordan

Does size matter? Ask Chris Jordan

Since I am currently on a ship slowly steaming across the vast azure void of the Pacific Ocean, it seems appropriate to discuss an artist that specializes in not only environmental conservation messages, but in a medium that calls our attention to the size and scale of the challenges that have beset our planet.

Chris Jordan is a Seattle-based artist who has both an unrivaled determination and an uncanny ability to tackle some of the largest problems in the world – and I mean that quite literally.  Jordan excels at  confronting issues that threaten our very survival, but are simply too large for us to easily understand.  One of the ironic cruelties of ocean conservation is the fact that the problems facing us are so astoundingly immense that we simply lack the brain power to truly comprehend them.  When talking about pollution, overfishing, and climate change, we routinely speak in numbers so large that we are unable to construct a mental picture that reflects the truth.

For example, consider the case of the world’s largest food fishery, Alaska pollock.  For the last several years, the total landings of Alaska pollock have roughly averaged around 1.5 million tons.  1.5 million tons certainly seems like a huge number — but what does it look like?  How many fish is that, exactly?  How many freezers would that fill?  How many people does that feed?  How many football stadiums could we bury under frozen pollock fillets?  The number is simply so large that we cannot grasp the actual amount of biomass in question.  This lack of understanding stymies our ability to understand the impacts of our actions on the health of our planet.

"Gyre" (photograph)

"Gyre" (photograph)

Chris Jordan’s talent lies not just in his ability to translate the incomprehensibly large into the understandably small, but to do so in a way that actually enhances the gravitas of the subject matter.  One area in which he has seemingly achieved the impossible is in the case of the North Pacific gyre, home of the litter-strewn waters known as the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch” or “trash vortex.”  When we discuss the gyre and its lamentable petro-saturated state, it becomes difficult to truly grasp the dimensions of the problem for the simple reason that it is so staggeringly large.  We can say something like “twice the size of Texas,” but how does one truly visualize that expanse?  What will it take to truly drive home the gargantuan scope of the trash vortex and the looming challenge that it represents?

Close-up of "Gyre": top of Mt. Fuji

Jordan attacked the problem head on by creating his awe-inspiring “Gyre”: a mosaic of discarded, waterlogged plastic that he has painstakingly arranged to mimic Hokusai’sGreat Wave off Kanagawa,” which is unequivocally one of the most well-known seascapes in the history of mankind. Jordan’s piece measures only nine feet by twelve feet, yet somehow manages to convey the immense scale of the trash vortex, which is nearly the size of the continental United States.   The close-up shots reveal the millions of pieces of plastic that have been co-opted into this mammoth task.  His use of actual flotsam and jetsam taken from the sea itself to create such an iconic encapsulation of the ocean is a stroke of genius — the viewer cannot help but imagine the foreboding reality of a sea composed entirely of plastic.

"Shark teeth" (photograph)

"Shark teeth" (photograph)

Jordan has also weighed in on the abominable practice of shark finning and the hellacious scope of the industry’s shark-slaughtering machine.  His 2009 photograph “Shark teeth” showcases an artfully arranged collection of fossilized shark teeth ranging from off-white and beige to dusky blue and dark grey.  The original piece measures 64″ by 94″ and is based on a watercolor by artist Sarah Waller.  There are 270,000 teeth in the collage – one tooth for each shark that is killed by the global finning fleet every single day.

Jordan’s juxtaposition of stratospheric mega-imagery with close-ups of minute detail smacks the viewer with two difference senses of awe: the jaw drops upon perceiving the abyssal magnitude of the work, while the eyes squint and forehead wrinkles in disbelief at its pseudo-molecular intricacy.  He accomplishes the same task on behalf of one of the world’s most beleaguered fish with “Tuna,” a photographic marvel detailing 20,500 tuna — the average number of tuna captured from the world’s oceans every fifteen minutes.

"Tuna" (photograph)

Jordan proves through his relentless drive, his attention to detail, and his willingness to confront issues beyond the scope of human imagination that we are truly an omnipotent race.  We have created these problems for ourselves, but however massive they have become, however long they have festered, whether spiraling outward in plastic ripples across the face of the deep or tearing into it with greed-driven claws, it is within out power to understand them – and with that understanding will come one inevitable conclusion: we can, and we must, save the ocean.

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Mekong delta blues

I’m in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and I’m not here for the sushi.

As difficult as it is for sushi snobs such as myself to accept, there is a whole world of fish and seafood outside of our comfortable little tatami rooms.  In fact, it’s because of trouble on a distant front – the murky waters of the catfish industry – that I’ve crossed the Pacific to participate in a series of meetings here in Southeast Asia.

Endangered species

Endangered species

The fisheries that we have traditionally relied upon for our fish sticks, surimi, and Filet-O-Fish sandwiches are showing signs of distress.  First it was Atlantic cod, which we fished to death in 1960s and 1970s.  In the years following, various stocks of haddock, plaice, and similarly uncharismatic fish began to flag, mainly in the Baltic and North Seas.  As I mentioned in a recent post, even Alaska Pollock, which had for years been heralded as an inexhaustible source of cheap, mediocre fish protein, is starting to tank.  This ominous pattern spells trouble for the oceans, but it’s also worrisome for those megacompanies that have built their empires atop a foundation of inexpensive, lightly breaded marine life.

The question has become a manner of simple logic for these large corporations.  Ocean conservation and ethics aside, companies like Bird’s Eye, Gordon’s, and McDonald’s want to be able to sell their whitefish products throughout this bright new 21st century of ours.  This becomes a rather unlikely possibility when one considers that there may be virtually no whitefish left to sell in the coming decades.

So what do these seafood buyers do?  Boundlessly pragmatic, they begin to look for a new source of comparable whitefish, one that can withstand the demand pressure from all the people out there that are shaking their fists in the name of fish sticks.

In other words, these companies need a sustainable fishery.  For this is indeed the very essence of the word’s meaning, in a literal sense – a resource that can be exploited without compromising its capacity for similar exploitation in the future.

Thus do the eyes of the world’s seafood merchandisers turn to the smoky, motorbike-infested streets of Can Tho, Vietnam.

Catfish country

Catfish country

Can Tho is the center of the Vietnamese pangasius catfish farming industry, a burgeoning enterprise if ever there was one.  Two distinct species of pangasius are farmed in any significant amount: Pangasius hypopthalamus (marketed as tra or swai) and Pangasius bocourti (sold as basa).  These South Asian river fish are much like our Mississippi-born domestic channel catfish (Ictalurus punctatus), with a similar bewhiskered countenance and the same muck-dwelling habits.  They are raised in ponds, enclosures, and cages all along the muddy banks of the creeping Mekong River, and over the past five years or so have been snapped up in exponentially increasing quantities by a European Union that is starving for whitefish.  In fact, with crashing cod and Pollock stocks contributing to a flood of unanswered demand, pangasius is quickly becoming one of the main fish fingers in the dyke.

Meow?

Bad kitty

Unfortunately, the pangasius industry is fraught with all manner of problems.  Abuse of chemicals and antibiotics, unchecked resource use, massive environmental negligence and rampaging cascades of effluent are threatening the entire ecosystem of the Mekong delta.  Concerns about health issues related to pangasius products are common, and western consumers are meeting the incoming catfish with anything from light skepticism to blaring sirens and biohazard-level health alerts.

Catfish cascade

Catfish cascade

Luckily, there is a ray of hope for both the eco-loco and the health nuts.   Championed by the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), the creation of a new aquaculture certification body known as the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) is underway.  It is the hope of all concerned that this standard will separate the wheat from the chaff within the industry, as well as raise the quality bar in general.  A farm’s acquisition of the standard is theoretically linked to its production of a more desirable product on the market.  This type of commodity differentiation would then lead to higher profits for those that invested in running a cleaner and more responsible operation.

This is the fourth meeting of what is known as the Pangasius Aquaculture Dialogue (PAD), a subset of the ASC process.  I will be posting an update on the progress of this round of meetings later in the week.

I know catfish is far from the most interesting subject out there, but this industry has grown by orders of magnitude in the last decade, and we must give it the attention it deserves.  The creation of a strong and defensible certification standard for pangasius farming is absolutely critical if we are to save the ailing Mekong River from a fishy free-for-all.

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Update: Alaska Pollock (Imitation crab / Kanikama)

Feeding the world

Feeding the world

When Sustainable Sushi was being developed, the Alaska pollock fishery — the 2nd largest fishery in terms of total biomass in the entire world — seemed relatively healthy and stable.  At the very least, it provided a traceable and ostensibly well-managed seafood source that was superior to the random mash of imported whitefish that provides the ersatz fish protein underpinning our fish stick and surimi industries. In fact, the Alaska pollock fishery has been considered a “Best Choice” by the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program for years, and is an MSC-certified fishery.

Things seem to be taking a turn for the worse, however.  Recent developments in the fishery seem to suggest that all may not be well in pollock country.

Bottoming out

Bottoming out

For five years running, the stock has seen lower levels of recruitment (new fish in younger age classes) than historical trends would lead researchers to expect.  Overall stock levels have severely declined as well, taking the overall populations to levels only previously reached in the late 1970s — a time when the fishery was open to international fleets and was being heavily over-exploited.

Bycatch levels are also higher than one would like.  An increase in overall CPUE (Catch Per Unit of Effort — a measurement of the amount of resources and manpower needed to produce a given amount of fish) has led to increased mortality among co-habiting salmon.  Local sea birds and marine mammals are also being affected; strong links are being drawn between the pollock fishery and a downturn in northern fur seals and the endangered Stellar’s sea lion.

Trawl victims

Pollock trawls are impacting sensitive seabed habitats as well — new explorations in the Bering Sea have revealed rich areas of endemic corals.  Unfortunately, these areas are not yet protected from fishing, and the pollock fleet is freely operating in coral beds which should ideally be listed as no-take zones.

Most troubling, however, is the reaction on the part of the Northern Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC), a federal body that is responsible for setting the yearly pollock quota.  Rather than use the aforementioned concerns as justification to pare down the fishery and reign in some of its more worrisome aspects, the NPFMC instead did the exact opposite and increased the allowed amount of king salmon bycatch to 60,000 fish.

This is poor management from an environmental standpoint.  The pollock fishery’s regulations are such that when the bycatch cap for salmon is reached, the fishery is immediately shut down for the year.  This increase in tolerable bycatch numbers reflects the rising CPUE within today’s pollock fishery, but rather than move to rebuild the fishery, it simply allows for greater and more damaging exploitation.

Can you spot the pollock?

Can you spot the pollock?

The pollock fishery is no longer what it once was.  It is clear that federal management cannot be depended upon to make wise and environmentally sound decisions in the face of the economic and industrial short-term interests that dominate the pollock industry.  Given the current situation, I have no choice but to urge readers to refrain from purchasing products that contain Alaska pollock.  In the sushi industry, this means the California roll and other items that include kanikama (imitation crab).

This is by no means an irreversible situation.  The Alaska pollock is an incredibly resilient and fecund fish that has the capability to bounce back.  Proper management can restore the fishery to its former productive glory, just as was done in the early 1980s.  The greater worry is for other impacted populations, primarily Stellar’s sea lions, Alaskan king salmon, coldwater corals, and northern fur seals.  If the pollock fishery is to continue, it must reinvent itself to be more sensitive to these co-habiting species.

I have no doubt that other environmental organizations have this issue on their radar, and that we will in the very near future begin to see more criticism of the Alaska pollock fishery from groups much larger and more established than Sustainable Sushi.

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