Editor’s Note: Marine conservation photojournalist Shane Gross kicks off a new series of opinion articles tackling issues around underwater photography and the ocean. The opinions in this article belong to the author.
A green sea turtle drowned in discarded fishing gear
As scuba divers we all dream of swimming through dense schools of fish, finding amazing critters and having our breath taken away by charismatic megafauna. Can we do that and eat sushi during our surface interval? Perhaps the better question is, should we?
We all make moral choices about what we eat every day. Don’t think so? What would you say if I invited you over for dinner and served golden retriever? British shorthair cat? White rhino? Blue whale? How about shark fin soup? Why do we find these items morally objectionable, but would have no problem eating: tuna, shrimp, Chilean sea bass, conch, swordfish, grouper or calamari? Where do we draw the line and why? And who is “we”?
A massive pile of conch shells, most of which are under the legal size limit
Let’s get the “we” part out of the way. Scuba divers and underwater photographers not only have the means to do this expensive activity, we are also the conduit from which those that cannot explore beneath the waves see underwater. We are leaders at the forefront of ocean conservation and what we do is an example to those around us.
So, why don’t we eat shark fin soup? By now, the issue has been drilled into us divers that shark fin soup is bad news bears. We have all heard the statistic: 100 million sharks are killed each year mostly for their fins in the loathed soup, especially in Asia. You will not see this dish being served on any liveaboard dive boat. Divers would be outraged—and rightly so. Our refusal to enjoy this dish seems logical. So does this logic apply to other seafood items?
I would argue it’s not logic but social norms and clever marketing that guide the vast majority of our decisions. Of the three species of bluefin tuna, one is “Vulnerable,” one is “Endangered” and one is “Critically Endangered” according to the IUCN, yet it is on the menu at fashionable restaurants like Nobu. Queen conch, the official food of the Bahamas is projected to be commercially extinct in 15 years, but you can still find it at almost every restaurant and it’s considered a “must-try” among tourists. Nassau grouper was recently reclassified as “Critically Endangered,” but you can still find it regularly on menus throughout Florida, the Bahamas and the Caribbean—and those restaurants are not protested like those serving shark fin soup.
Critically endangered Nassau grouper caught in illegal traps, out of season. These particular grouper were lucky: They were intercepted by scientists, tagged and released
I live in the Bahamas, so the latter two examples are especially salient, but certainly not exclusive. The “Critically Endangered” vaquita porpoise is being driven to extinction in the Gulf of California thanks to illegal fishing for another “Critically Endangered” species, the totoaba fish, whose bladder sells for big money in China. A famous example in the First World is the cod fishery in Atlantic Canada that closed in the early 1990s, leaving 40,000 people out of a job overnight. The fishery was so beyond destroyed, it still hasn’t recovered today. On the subject of jobs, yes, jobs are important, but if a fishery is going down, the work will dry up sooner or later once the fish are gone and, with a less robust ecosystem, unlikely to recover. Moving on to the next species is usually what happens. There are many more examples of poorly managed fisheries—don’t even get me started on salmon farming—but aren’t there sustainable options too? Of course.
There are many guides out there to help us choose sustainable seafood. One of the most popular is the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch. They rank all bluefin tuna under their “Avoid” category. For those of us wishing to preserve the ocean and eat healthy, tasty meals, this seems like a godsend, but the situation is not so black and white. In fact, it gets so complicated, I have personally given up eating seafood (with one minor exception). What do I mean?
Tuna caught in a seine net. It’s estimated that 90% of the ocean’s big fish have been fished out
Do I know that my shrimp came from the right place and not from Southeast Asia, where they are cheaper and farmed in “places that have been shown over and over again to use bad practices, banned drugs, and prohibited pesticides”? When I'm at a restaurant, I definitely don’t, but what about the supermarket? They should be labeled, right? Sadly, mislabeling is rampant in the seafood industry. A recent study by Oceana found that 20% of the 449 fish they tested were incorrectly labeled: “Mislabeling also occurred when cheaper, imported fish were sold as local catch and when farm-raised fish were marketed as wild caught… Particularly concerning was the report’s finding that some substitutes were fish that contain higher mercury levels or come from less sustainable fisheries.”
Depressing, right? The more I researched this issue, the more confused and fed up I got. There are sustainable seafood sources out there, but you have to be so diligent to find them. Even so, that doesn’t touch on the issue of how fish suffer: Fish are animals that feel pain and the vast majority are killed by being deprived of oxygen—like us drowning. Then you have the fact that 46% of plastic in the ocean today comes from fishing gear, and the bycatch problem, and the habitat destruction problem, especially with trawlers. It’s very hard to make good choices these days.
It is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish
Diving down and spearing the animals is considered to be among the best ways to get seafood. I even see people claiming to be “conservationists” posting pictures of themselves on Instagram holding a dead animal in their hands with a proud grin on their face. This method does indeed let you target a specific individual, meaning there is no bycatch—as long as the spearo knows what not to shoot, knows the rules, knows which fish are endangered, size limits, and so on. It can generally be considered sustainable. I would, however, argue that it is not helping the crisis state of our ocean. As divers, doesn’t it seem weird that we so value certain animals and treat others with such disdain that we proudly kill them? Is it just me? That’s more of a moral question than a sustainability question.
I see a ton of articles written on ethical macro photography, which is great. You shouldn’t move or manipulate your photo subject. I agree. But isn’t killing and eating your photo subject far worse? I have been on a livaboard listening to one person scold another over moving a scorpionfish one inch to the left for a better shot while tuna was on their plate, literally. I would argue that as divers we have a moral obligation to, whenever possible, help the ocean rather than kill and eat it.
A spearfisherman with the octopus he killed
If you’ve read this far, you must care a bit about where your food comes from. The biggest issue facing our oceans and our planet today is climate change. Switching even a portion of your diet to a plant-based one as opposed to an animal-based one is the biggest thing you can do to help the climate crisis. Taking pictures and spreading awareness is great, but we need real action if we want to see real change.
Earlier I mentioned that I don’t eat seafood with one exception. That would be lionfish in the Atlantic, which are invasive species that are having a negative effect on Caribbean reefs. Eating invasive lionfish actually helps the reefs. I will eat lionfish, but it doesn’t mean I want them to suffer—it’s not their fault.
If you are a big seafood and animal eater, I doubt this article is going to change your mind, but I hope it gets you thinking a little bit. I hope you do your own research and make a conscious effort to make choices that are better for the ocean and the planet. All the animals and their habitats deserve our respect whether they have been marketed to us as tasting great or are considered a great photo subject.
Invasive lionfish off Florida, USA
About the Author: Shane Gross is a marine conservation photojournalist currently based in the Bahamas. He is a multiple winner in the Wildlife Photographer of the Year competition and an Emerging League Photographer with the iLCP. His favourite food is pizza, and it shows. He was once in the trunk of a car while it lost control and drove through a fence. His hands are soft. He is also desperate for more Instagram followers. So, you know, follow @shanegrossphoto.
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