Christmas is truly on its way, even for those who were glaring at those of us who had our Christmas trees up since Thanksgiving. With the festive period now in full swing, it seems everyone is put in a better mood. I mean how can a reindeer and hot chocolate with mini marshmallows not put a smile on your face (unless you’re a Grinch of course). We murmur “Happy holidays” under our breath to people we pass by on the street, drop a dollar into Santa’s bucket outside the mall, and generally try and smile just a little bit more than usual (despite our frozen fingers).
All around us are falling snowflakes and it would almost seem like the entire planet was breathing a sigh of relief. Another year almost gone, the final home stretch till a new beginning. I think if anything is a true embodiment of peace it’s got to be that feeling around this time of year. A calm seems to wash over everyone (despite the Christmas frenzy), and even the ground stills enough to allow a thick blanket of snow to settle across it. It’s like Helen Steiner Rice said, “Peace on earth will come to stay, when we live Christmas every day.”
Peace like so many of these laden words, is a difficult thing to describe. Many people think of peace as a time without war, a time of tranquillity. We think it is when nations decide to play nice (for a time), but I think it is something much more than that. It’s about acceptance. It’s about accepting others and everyone else around us for who they are, and being content with that. It’s about acknowledging everyone’s differences and calling them friends all the same. And I can’t think of a better time than Christmas to start living by that ideal.
When it comes to ocean conservation, there have been a few key flagship species that always reappear. It is the cute dolphin who appears to smile at us from the camera, and the idling turtle who coasts along like a surfer in the waves. It’s the whale who sings a song to its sister hundreds of miles away, and it’s the fluffy otters that remind us of our dogs back home. These are the species who garner our support. These are the species that have us demanding justice and reform. It is not the terror-striking shark or the alien tuna that has us hammering on politicians’ doors. Because they are simply too foreign to us. We struggle to emphasize with their plight because they are so different from us. And so when we see their struggle, we see that hundreds of millions of sharks are killed every year we turn a blind eye. But when we read an article about another shark attack, then we take up arms, demand their blood, and use it to justify the culling of them in their millions. We refuse to read the subtext that the attack was brought on by a drunk tourist who decided to jump onto a shark’s back, we don’t allow ourselves to think that perhaps these awe-inspiring creatures don’t have another choice.
I spoke to OceanCare’s Susanne Hagen who very artfully said, “Each animal has not only an intrinsic value, but it plays an important part to its habitat. Without fish, the ‘cute’ animals we so love such as dolphins, wouldn’t exist.” There is no saving one without the other. One cannot hope for a healthy ocean and not have the shark and the fish be a part of it. Hagen also said, “Perhaps people would change their views if they knew that fish are individuals who can feel pain, are curious and can be frightened just like you or me.” They might not have the same facial controls as we do, but that is no reason to think that they are any different from our dog or the cute horse by the stable next door.
How is it that we are ok with a shark being massacred alive and then tossed back into the ocean, and yet there would be a moral outrage if millions of dogs were found in the street with their limbs cut off, slowly bleeding out? Is this not the very definition of hypocrisy? The very thing we are fighting against in our own society. That everyone should be treated equally, be awarded the same opportunity no matter who they are, where they come from, and most importantly what you might think of them. Why does the shark deserve any less than the dolphin? Why does the tuna deserve to go extinct while everyone fights for the preservation of the panda?
And if I can’t convince you to save them on principles alone then consider the effect on others. Fish play and absolutely integral part to the food chain, Hagen said, “Even people who are not part of the problem, and don’t eat fish, will bear the consequences of overfishing. In many ways we all depend on healthy oceans.” She went on to say that 50-85% of all oxygen on earth is produced by phytoplankton whose populations are also nourished by fish, they are as Hagen eloquently put, “The gardeners of the ocean.”
It is difficult to say just what will happen if we continue on our current trajectory of overfishing, but Hagen did say, “What is true, without a shadow of a doubt, is that at the beginning of the last century the oceans were still teeming with fish; even though humans had been fishing for centuries before this time and had already had a negative impact on the abundance of fish. Nowadays there is only a fraction of the most sought after fish left (about 20% of the catch rates of the early 1900s).” She went on to say, that there is only an estimated 7% of fish stocks that can be labelled as “healthy”, 60% are on the brink of being overfished, and 33% are already there.
Now you might still be saying, “So what?” (though I hope that’s not the case). So what if all the fish disappear? I don’t eat fish. I don’t care about fish. Nor am I all too concerned about the state of the oceans. Now, I hope there are not many people of that mind, but there still remains a final argument. If you can’t bring yourself to care about the other species we share the planet with, perhaps your own species’ woes might bring you to action. For fish are not just some fancy meal people have at Christmas time. Fish are an integral part to over a billion people’s livelihoods and diets, Hagen said, “Rich fishing nations plunder the fishing grounds of poor countries which force them to eat more bush meat or aquatic wild meat, which endangers these species and can enhance the risk of transmission of zoonotic diseases to humans.” Already a decade ago our voracious appetite for fish had driven local fishermen, to leave their families and seek work elsewhere. Local fishermen who had been using traditional fishing for generations, had not only lost their source of protein, livelihoods, and homes, they had lost their inheritance. A way of living passed down by their forefathers that has simply been lost. And through no fault of their own, but because of industrial nations’ insatiable greed for fish. For our relentlessly need for more, with no thought of anyone other than ourselves.
So this Christmas, and beyond, I implore you to think before you buy. Opt for something other than fish for dinner, as Hagen said, “Every item of food has an ecological as well as a social footprint. Every single one of our choices has an impact on nature and on other people. So we should be mindful about what we decide to eat and buy. Ideally we would all decide to stop eating fish, as they are infinitely more valuable alive than dead.” Or as Bruce from Finding Nemo once said, “fish are friends not food.” So the next time you look at a fish, don’t just see it for the slightly strange, slimy, alien thing you think it is, but look beyond it. Appreciate it for the irreplaceable position it holds in the most amazing ecosystem on the planet. And if nothing else think about your fellow brethren spread out across the world who need that fish so much more than you ever could, and then turn around and if you’re feeling so inclined tell the person behind you why you decided to buy something else today.
Sophie is currently a student at the University of Edinburgh studying environmental chemistry. She plans to specialise in marine chemistry, with a tentative focus in how ocean acidification affects marine megafauna during her graduate work. Sophie has been supporting OceanCare for many years – thanks a lot!