Dispatch #10, A Report for the J.M.Kaplan Fund on the Transborder Effort to Create Marine Protected Areas in the Gulf of Maine

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1. The Ocean As The Last Frontier of Planetary Stewardship

        In l997 I wrote a proposal for a long magazine piece about the state of the world’s oceans, part of a series on the state of the environment at the turn of the millennium, that never happened.    “I will first head for the pool halls and bars of Gloucester, Massachusetts to talk to codfishermen who are shooting pool and getting drunk because there are no more cod. The Atlantic codfish, whose schools once numbered in the millions, is commercially extinct, fished out, and headed for biological extinction. It is astonishing that this could happen to such an abundant, garden-variety species, but that is what we thought about the passenger pigeon and the buffalo. (Whenever I go to the Smithsonian Institution, I always make a little pilgrimage to the Bird Hall to contemplate the stuffed and mounted skin of Martha, the Last Passenger Pigeon, who died in the Cincinnatti Zoo in l914).  Recently the Atlantic and more than  a hundred other species of oceanic fish   were listed  by the World Conservation Union as endangered, a designation hitherto reserved for terrestrial animals  which represents a conceptual step forward,  recognizing that fish are not just resources but are wildlife, too, which have to be monitored and managed. Only five years ago the idea  that endangerment and extinction could also occur in the ocean,  too, indeed was happening¸ did not have wide dissemination outside the cognoscenti in the marine biological and conservation communities, although people like Elliott Norse, the president of the Redmond, Washington-based Marine Connservation Biology,  had been writing about it since l981. The red-listed fish range from the great white shark to the delectable white abalone of California (its population so depleted by fishing that little or no reproduction is taking place and extinction seems likely) to a whole group of groupers, including at least 14 species (sitting ducks for fishermen because they never leave the shallow-water patches of coral reefs where they live; a quirk in groupers’ life history makes them especially vulnerable : after several years as breeding females, the fish undergo a sex change and become breeding males. Kill the older, larger, fish, as is commonly done, or increase the rate at which individuals are killed by fishing operations, and the breeding males can be wiped out.). Millions of  dimunitive sea horses are netted by suppliers of the traditional Asian medicine market  in the grass beds around the world, where they spend their lives in small, circumscribed range, mated for life, nurturing their few young for a long time, and are easily caught. Obviously, this can’t go on indefinitely.

           “The oceans are the new frontier in planetary stewardship. Large ocean fishes, big charismatic species— bluefin tuna, sharks, billfish like swordfish, marlin, sailfish— have declined dramatically in the past decade or two. Sandbar and blacktip sharks are ten percent as numerous as they were in the mid-seventies.  Sharks have long lives and few young. Their life history resembles that of large land mammals, and they cannot stand the fishing pressure they are now under. The  nine species of great whale would probably be extinct by now for the same reason had not thirty-eight of the countries that hunt them, most of them, agreed to a moratorium in l986.   Fish are the last wild animals to be hunted on a large scale, and some conservationists maintain the world is in the early stages of a marine ‘last buffalo hunt’.  I’ll stop at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, to speak George Woodwell,  a visionary, multi-faceted scientist  who is concerned about the big picture. It was after a conversation with Woodwell about global warming twenty years ago that I thought it decided it might a good idea to move north and started looking for land in upstate New York. .

     Sylvia Earle, marine biologist and former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, is another eloquent spokesperson for the growing crisis of the oceans. The red listings represent the distribution of the lookers, not the distribution of the phenomena, she writes, and we still haven’t looked in  many places. Our oceans are in fact far less known  than Mars or the moon; there are only a dozen deep-sea robots and five submersibles  that can transport people to the ocean’s depths. (A descent in one of them seems essential.) The 65,000 kilometers of underwater mountain range—by far the longest on earth, dwarfing the Andes or the Rockies--  are only beginning to be mapped and explored,   the links between ocean currents and climate are still poorly understood,  and newly discovered deep-sea ecosystems whose flora and fauna are radically different from anything that has ever been seen or even imagined,  are making us think in new ways about the origins of life. An entirely new kingdom of life,  methane-producing microbes dubbed the Archaea, has only just been discovered to be thriving in the hot, high-pressure atmosphere generated by vulcanism deep within the ocean. They appear to be among most abundant creatures on earth and may be a critical link to life on Mars, controversial evidence for which has recently been found in a four-billion-year-old meteor. The oceans, argues Earle, are what make earth different from Mars (which was once well-watered) and hospitable for us and the rest of life. They shape the character of the planet, govern weather and climate, stabilize temperature, fill the (aerial) atmosphere with moisture that falls back on the land. Roughly half the oxygen in the air is generated by  algae on their surface (not—a popular misconception-- by the world’s rainforests, which are in photosynthetic equilibrium); and these algae also absorb the bulk  of the carbon dioxide that is taken out of the atmosphere. Both in terms of the sheer mass of living things and genetic diversity, the sea is  where the action is. 

       The services it provides, starting with being the earth’s life-support system,  are so fundamental that most of us are not even aware of them, or take them for granted.   In the past century, we have removed billions of tons of living creatures from the sea, and  poured billions tons of toxic substances into it. We have regarded fish, whale, shrimp and clams and other living things are commodities, not as vital component of living systems on which we are utterly dependent. The worldwide catch peaked in l989, but we continue to grind tiny phosphorescent spotted lantern fish and hatchetfish, whose life history is largely a mystery, and benthic species that haven’t even been identified or classified yet,  into fish meal, to lure squid from the depths with lights and to snare millions of tons of them--- a brief bonanza that may doom not only the squid but also the fish, birds, marine mammals, and other members of ocean comunities that depend on squid for food. Ocean-sweeping factory trawlers with kilometer-long nets are hauling in four hundred tons of fish in single cast, schools of tens of thousands in single gulp, which are sorted on conveyor belts, gutted, filleted, and frozen by the time the ships return to shore. Other kinds of trawler drags heavy chains over shallow water to scare up fish, destroying shellfish, sea urchins, worms, and other bottom-dwelling creatures in the process. Seventy percent of the world’s fish stock is strained to the point of commercial extinction, ten percent of the world’s reefs are dead, thirty percent more may be gone in ten years, another thirty percent by 2050.  The only hiatuses in the ruthless exploitation and destruction of the life in our oceans during the last hundred years, Earle points out,  have been provided, ironically, by the two World Wars.
         So even massive sanctioned state-level intraspecific violence has a silver lining.

"No hay mal que por bien no venga.”

2.  The Trip Report

       On August 8, 2002 I set out with the fam. for the Gulf of Maine, leaving the Adirondacks, which are paradisial at this time year. It was one of those limpid days when the mountains are dwarfed by huge billowing white cumulus clouds several miles from tip to tip, but the rest of the sky is clear blue and the air is  crisp and cool. The Gulf of Maine extends from the eastern tip of Cape Cod to the southern tip of Nova Scotia and as far out as Georges Bank, which is 160 miles offshore and starts off Nantucket; this is where the perfect storm of Sebastian Junger’s eponymous bestseller took place. We passed through the White Mountains, which are bigger than the Adirondacks, on a grander scale with their bald tops rising higher and  more massively above the treeline, and vast valleys that get much more snow and subzero weather for weeks at a time. 

     We’re going fishing, I told the boys. I fished a lot as a kid in Bedford, New York, walked every foot of its brooks and rivers, caught rainbow and brown trout, smallmouth bass and pickerel with little Mepps spinners and other lures on my ultralight spinning rod. Oliver, the eight-year-old, was really into fishing. Zachary, the seven-year old, loves animals and  hooking and hurting a fish is not his idea of fun. Edgar, the four-year-old, is pretty much up for anything. So, crossing into Maine, we bought a couple of rods and reels at a tackle shop near Jay, and some  home-made dayglo daredevil spoons and Oliver tossed one out into the Androscoggin River, below a big steel bridge, and on the first cast tied into a ten-inch smallmouth. The river was maybe a hundred yards across, taking a long slow bend around  some cornfields. On the other side a bald eagle was circling, looking for a fish to drop down on.

     Every motel within two hours of Bangor, where we had planned to spend the night, was full. Maine was just packed with tourists. Americans were not venturing abroad this summer. They were discovering the many marvels of their own country. Which was what we were doing. I hadn’t been to Maine since  l970. The main thing I remembered about it was the incredible light along the coast and the beauty of Mount Desert. At last, at two in the morning, we found a room at the Best Western in Millinocket, sixty miles north of Bangor. The next morning we drove up the Golden Road, which belonged to one of the big paper companies, looking for a pond where we had been told we might be able to see a moose. The Golden Road was paved, and went dead straight for  thirty miles through the forest until the massive bare treeless truncated pyramid of  Mount Katahdin appeared  in front of us. There were lots of little dirt side roads. We pulled off on one where it  looked like there might be a pond behind the trees. But it was a dense, impenetrable alder swamp. A man with a pickup stopped and I asked him where the pond where the moose were supposed to be was and he said, well you get back on the Todd Road, as I heard him, and was puzzled because I knew it was the Golden Road, but then I realized he had said, in his downeast accent,  tarred, not Todd. 

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