When Professor Mark Hixon of Oregon State University passed Maggy and me on an early morning hike at Rancho La Puerta and asked if we were coming to his four-part lecture, “Amazing Oceans of Life,” I hesitated. With so much horribly wrong with the food chain on land, I wasn’t sure I was ready to take on the ocean too. Wouldn’t it be a lot more fun to head to the lounge and watch It’s Complicated?
“Yes, I’ll come,” I replied, “but I know it’s going to be depressing.” He assured us it wouldn’t be and delivered on his promise… at least the first night when he showed slide after slide of wondrous sea creatures and their habitats. I checked the brochure. He offered two more presentations and then his final talk: “Humans and the Sea: Threats and Solutions.” It was too late. I was hooked. I had to go. As Mark shared facts and statistics throughout the week, I realized there’s no happy ending to this ocean story—at least for the moment. He points to three problems: ocean warming, ocean acidification, and over-fishing (especially by bottom trawling).
As the atmosphere warms so goes the ocean. This is why the north polar ice cap is melting, sea levels are rising, and equatorial sea life is swimming towards relatively cooler waters at the poles. All of this is wreaking havoc on the ocean’s ecosystems.
Ocean acidification—why not just sprinkle in a little baking soda or toss in few Tums? Not so simple. Carbon emissions (from those darn fossil fuels) mingle with seawater producing carbonic acid that stymies coral from building their skeletons and shellfish from forming their shells—a serious blow to the ocean’s habitats and food chain.
And finally there’s over-fishing, especially in the form of bottom trawling. I had no idea how many nets (some large enough to capture a 747) are being dragged every day across the ocean floor. They make their catch all right, but in the process their fishing gear can destroy the seafloor and capture way more sea life than was targeted, most of which is simply tossed overboard. Of course, there’s plenty to despair about. It’s like going to the doctor and finding out you’ve got curable cancer. It’s a serious disease, but if you follow doctor’s orders and work at changing your life, there’s hope.
I’m going to leave carbon emissions legislation to another passionate person, but as a cook, I can start following a simple pamphlet from the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch when I’m shopping for fish or seafood. This pamphlet details “Best” and “Good Alternatives.” Eventually I’ll internalize these categories. Until then, I will carry a guide in my purse and start asking questions before I buy or order fish or seafood. If the vendor cannot definitively tell me where a fish is from and how it was caught, I will not buy it. That’s my pledge, Dr. Mark.
For your own copy, specific to your area of the country, head to: http://www.montereybayaquarium.org/cr/cr_seafoodwatch/download.aspx
Illustration by Joe Shoulak