Not so fishy business.

The cognitive abilities of fish seem to be very underestimated. We often do not see fish in the same light as we see other mammals, or birds. This strange outlook has always puzzled me. 

Maybe part of the story is that the life of fish is very elusive to us. Most people do not dive on a regular basis in the Ocean to observe the daily life of fish. We are land mammals, and that is what most of us are more familiar with.

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Most of what we ever learn about marine life in general is based on visits to aquariums, fishing trips, and videos on nature channels. Aquarium hobbyists will witness a larger repertoire of fish behaviors, but a fish in a tank does not behave like a fish in the Ocean. 

A book by Bill François, Eloquence of the Sardine: extraordinary encounters beneath the sea, is challenging our views. Written as a blend of narrative and fiction, Bill portrays many examples of the extraordinary adaptations of different fish species he has encountered over the years. Many of the stories he describes are truly fascinating. 

One particular story that struck me was about an eel. I think the movie adaptation of Günter Grass’s book, The Tin Drum, severely biased me towards eels. There is a scene where a fisherman pulls out a horse’s head from the sea full of eels. Since then eels were on my “don’t me eat” list. You can watch it here. I chose not to revisit the scene if I can help it. 

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What struck me about the eel’s story was its longevity. A European eel’s normal lifespan is about 5-20 years. A Swedish eel named Ale (ironically Ale means eel in Swedish), which inhabited the well, lived for 155 years. That would make 1859 as his date of birth. How did he do it? It is not very clear. An important question to ask is, what kills eels in the wild? One can only imagine what he was thinking all this time. As Bill points out, Ale lived in ignorance of the changing world, he did not know cars, major conflicts, or the internet. He was sheltered. Was he waiting to be rescued from the solitude of the well? We will never know. 

Eels are very skillful, they can crawl on land and under waterfalls when needed. That has to be seen to be believed. Their life journey overall is very mysterious, as they migrate from freshwater to saltwater to mate. The how, where, and the why of the process are not well understood. 

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Bill also describes a story of Old Tom, a killer whale, which in the early 1900s helped fishermen hunt for baleen whales. However, this story goes back to Australia over 10,000 years ago. The Indigenous Australian whalers, the Katunga, practiced whaling and developed a relationship with the orcas. The orcas would help them locate the whales, and the fishermen would feed the orcas the carcass of the whale, especially their tongue. This mutual cooperation was called the Law of Tongue. As the story goes, John Logan would fight the orca for the whale carcass, injuring Old Tom’s teeth, leading to the orca’s eventual starvation in 1930. Tom’s skeleton is displayed in the Eden Killer Whale Museum

More importantly than the anecdotes described in the book, Bill rightfully points out that overfishing, polluting waters, increased shipping traffic, are all negative aspects of humans trying to conquer the Oceans. We fail to recognize the importance of the Ocean to our climate, and to the Earth’s ecosystems. The mysteries lurking in the waters may revolutionize humanity and medicine, but we may destroy the Ocean of knowledge even before we recognize its value.

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We barely scratched the surface of what the Oceans have to offer. Sadly, at current rates of overfishing, it is predicted that by 2048 all of the world’s fisheries will collapse.  We may never learn what is out there, as we are destroying the Oceans’ biodiversity. Years from now, we may no longer have stories to tell. Take notice. 

Although I am not a vegetarian, I may think twice before ordering my next fish. 

2022-07-08

There are many models that suggest how to protect the Ocean’s biodiversity, while allow to maintain sustainable fisheries. Like many ideas, many would have to be implemented to fully realize their potential.

According to recent data, only 7% of the ocean’s area are designated as marine protected area, locations where extractive and destructive activities are not permitted. Sadly, only 2.7% of such areas are fully protected.

Efforts to protect the Earth’s fisheries and biodiversity requires multinational effort, and requires immediate international attention.

Sala, E., Mayorga, J., Bradley, D. et al. Protecting the global ocean for biodiversity, food and climate. Nature 592, 397–402 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-021-03371-z

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