Riddles in the Dark

We know more about space than we do our oceans, even though the oceans sustain all life on our planet.

∇Δ Sylvia Earle

moray eel in japan.

moray eel in japan.

To the obligate land-dweller, life underwater is just about as foreign as life on other planets. Hidden from our land-centric consciousness, the average human seldom considers our aquatic counterparts, even as they frequently end up on our dinner plates. Out of sight. Out of mind. And yet, all modern life—aquatic and land-dwelling—was born from the ocean. we share a common unicellular ancestor that serendipitously emerged in the water 3.5 billion years ago. So, evolutionarily speaking, these aquatic aliens are actually more like our long-lost cousins.

But somehow, in the last 50 years we have eaten our way through over 90% of the ocean’s big fish—the tuna, the sharks, the marlin. We have, through widespread bottom trawling practices, destroyed hundreds of seamounts and ancient coral systems. our influence in recent history has placed an enormous strain on our underwater relations and their habitat. Unfortunately, our impact has gone largely unnoticed likely because the underwater world remains concealed from our conscientious consciousness. In an effort to reveal this hidden world to us landlings, national geographic photographer Brian Skerry has made it his mission to capture “both the horror and the magic” that lies within our oceans—to remind us land-walkers where we came from and the damage we have caused.

trapped thresher shark

trapped thresher shark.

Skerry’s work is notably reminiscent of war photography, which is not surprising considering the striking similarities between widespread industrial fishing practices and modern combat strategies. To keep up with the high demand for fish [think diet fads like the fish facelift diet], fishermen have been using gps, radar, and satellite to track + capture hoards of fish. In their arsenal are large hooks that can delve as deep as 120 km* and trawling vessels that can travel up to 170 km with enough storage room for 12 jumbo jets! As a result of the incredible efficiency of this technology, the global catch is a recorded 124 million metric tons [the equivalent of 378 empire state buildings]. Even more astonishing is that over 25% of the global haul is actually bycatch, unintentionally caught fish that are thrown overboard.

Scientists have long claimed that life on earth is due in large part to our oceans. Our planet is 71% ocean, which supports over 50% of the world’s species. The NOAA estimates over 95% of the underwater world remains unexplored, suggesting that there is more going on down there than even skerry’s revealing photography can show us. We have barely any comprehension of the impact we are having on the aquatic ecosystems we exploit daily—systems that have gone relatively untouched by the landed for billions of years.

guitarfish, rays, and other bycatch are tossed from a shrimp boat.

guitarfish, rays, and other bycatch are tossed from a shrimp boat.

Nonetheless, the vast majority of us are perfectly complicit in the ocean’s devastation. Fishing in the dark, we have all but wiped out the top link of the food chain, opened up niches for jellyfish and algae resulting in oxygen-barren dead zones, and depleted a huge chunk of the food source for marine mammals and seabirds. Even ‘solutions’ like aquaculture present no good alternatives to the problem at hand. The fish farm comes with its own set of problems, first among them being that farmed fish are fed by wild fish at an extremely low efficiency: 5 tons of wild-caught small fish are needed to feed 1 ton of farmed salmon. In addition, overcrowding on the fish farm increases the risk of disease and infection in fish stocks, while waste from these fish often spills out into surrounding waters. We need to cycle, it’s time to put away the fishing reel, just for a short blip in time, what is 1 or 2 generations…  Why can’t we let things come back to normal…

Admittedly, ocean conservation only crept into my consciousness a few years ago as a result of lectures from ocean conservationists like Dr. Sylvia Earle and documentaries like The End of the Line. Like Skerry, these activists provide a small glimpse—the only real glimpses we currently have—of the ocean’s hidden wonders to reveal how much we really have to lose if we continue exploiting life underwater. The ocean’s deep mysteries appealed to the very same fascination with unknown worlds [albeit at a microscopic level] that led me to molecular biology. I am profoundly awed and humbled every time I hear reports of fish that live for over 500 years and gigantic squid that dwell deep in the sea. Broader ecological considerations aside, there are few things more tragic to me than obliterating a whole world—the world we actually came from—before we have even had a chance to explore and understand it.

Fortunately, hope remains for our aquatic cousins and their home: “Ten percent of the big fish still remain. There are still some blue whales. There are still some krill in antarctica. There are a few oysters in chesapeake bay. Half the coral reefs are still in pretty good shape—a jeweled belt around the middle of the planet. There’s still time, but not a lot, to turn things around.” [Sylvia Earle]

red snappers on a coral reef.

As a point of reference, James Cameron is the human to have delved deepest into the ocean at 11 km down.

All photos by Brian Skerry.