You, not unlike myself, will probably conjure up images of a group of people sitting around a bonfire and grilling up some wild coyote (or some equally gamey piece of meat) when you hear the phrase “bush-meat”. And in, fact, you’re not entirely wrong- but that’s not the type of bush-meat I want to talk about today. Whilst the prior is steeped in tradition, what I am about to tell you is a new phenomenon, a new practice that has been forced onto people around the globe due to our blatant capitalization of the oceans.
It’s no secret (at least it certainly shouldn’t be) that our seas are being overfished. In recent years, it has gotten so bad that the UN estimates 17% of all fish-stocks are overexploited and a startling 52% are exploited. With statistics like these it should come as no surprise that scientists are pegging the collapse of the food-web by 2050. Whilst the biological effects of this catastrophe are being amply covered, there is often a critical part of the food chain that is being left out in these calculations. Humans. Now I know what you are thinking, we are the ones instigating it so why would be possibly be a consideration, but what we forget is that fishing did not always look like it does today. When you look out into the harbors of today’s cities you see industrial fleets capable of catching entire shoals of tuna, their nets span for over a kilometer, and reach depths exceeding 150 meters. This may be what fishing has become, but this is an ancient practice. Records go back to 2000 BC, in Ancient Egypt, where people relied on fishing rods and small nets to catch their prey. This remained the common way of fishing all the way up to the industrial revolution.
While much of the first world has moved on to commercial fishing many coastal cities (largely concentrated in Africa and Asia) still rely on these traditional forms of angling. To this day, 1 billion people rely on fish as their primary source of protein and income. We continue to enjoy supermarket aisles filled to the brim with fresh seafood, but all around the world traditional communities are suffering. Dinsi Yang, a member of the Taiwanese Amis tribe, used to spend all his days fishing, living off the profits, but today he can no longer afford to make a living like this. There are simply not enough fish left.
This increasing trend has led many of these communities, “at least 20 countries across West and Central Africa” according to OceanCare, to something now being called, aquatic bush-meat. With fish stocks dwindling at alarming levels, these traditionalist societies have been given no choice. For them it is live or die. And so, they’ve survived- as they have for thousands of years before. While their conventional prey species disappear they have taken on hunting manatees, dolphins, turtles, and other charismatic, and often endangered megafauna. Now, it is easy for us to see news reports of some innocent sea lion being hauled out of the sea and eaten, and point fingers, but we must be very careful when doing so. We must not assign blame until we unravel the full story- until we understand why they are doing what they are doing. And their story is the one I have told today. A story that spans back thousands of years. People who have been living in harmony with unpredictable Mother Earth, living within her ability to give, but now have been forced to reach beyond her bounds through no choice of their own, but because we have given them no alternative. They might be the ones who wield the knife, but we are the ones that gave it to them, we are the ones that unleashed our monsters upon them and left them to fend for themselves. And so when we see the domino effect of our decisions and our actions, we need to acknowledge it. We need to take responsibility for our actions. And we need to help those that suffer because of what we have done. For if we do nothing, we do not have a right to call ourselves a civilization.
Sophie is currently a student at the University of Edinburgh studying environmental chemistry. She plans to specialize in marine chemistry during graduate work. She has been supporting OceanCare for many years – thanks a lot!