Fish Story: A Meditation

March 18, 2014


They came, they fished, then snap! They posed. Right in front of their Big Catch — and thereby hangs a tale.

For generations, tour boats have been collecting fishing enthusiasts in Key West, Fla.: taking them for a day of deep sea casting; providing them rods, bait, companionship; and then, when the day ends, there’s a little wharf-side ceremony. Everyone is invited to take his biggest fish and hook it onto the “Hanging Board”; a judge compares catches, chooses a champion, and then the family that caught the biggest fish poses for a photograph. The one up above comes from 1958. Notice that the fish on the far left is bigger than the guy who, I assume, caught it; and their little girl is smaller than most of the “biggies” on the board. Those aren’t little people. Those are big fish.

Here’s another one from the year before — 1957. Again, the fish loom larger than the people. Check out the guy in the back, standing on the extreme right, next to an even bigger giant.

Charter companies have been taking these photos for at least 50 years now. In some cases, they’ve operated from the same dock, fished in the same waters and returned to the same Hanging Board for all that time — which is why, when a grad student working on her doctoral thesis found a thick stack of these photos in Key West’s Monroe County Library, she got very excited. Loren McClenachan figured she could use this parade of biggies to compare fish over time.

For example, here’s a photo taken a decade after the previous shots — during the 1965-1979 period:

The fish in that one are still big, but no longer bigger than the fishermen. It’s the same in this next one. Grandma and Grandpa are decidedly the biggest animals in the photo:

Let’s keep going. This next photo was taken during the 1980-1985 period. It’s a group shot, one of many. Everybody’s displaying their biggest catches. Loren visited this wharf in 2007 and discovered, as she writes in her scientific paper, that these display boards “had not changed over time,” which meant she could measure the board, and then (using the photos) measure the fish. Clearly, these fish are way smaller than the ones from the 1950s:

How much smaller? Adjusting for time of year, and after checking and measuring 1,275 different trophy fish, she found that in the 1950s, the biggest fish in the photos were typically over 6 feet — sometimes 6 feet 5 inches long. By the time we get to 2007, when Loren bought a ticket on a deep sea day cruise and snapped this picture …

… the biggest fish were averaging only a foot, or maybe a little over. That’s a staggering change. The biggest fish on display in 2007 was a shark, and sharks, Loren calculated, are now half the size they used to be in the ’50s. As to weight, she figured the average prizewinner dropped from nearly 43.8 pounds to a measly 5 pounds — an 88 percent drop.

It’s no big surprise, I suppose, that fish in the sea are getting smaller. The curious thing, though, is that people who pay 40 bucks to go fishing off Key West today have no sense of what it used to be like. Had Loren not found the fish photos, there would be no images, no comparative record of what used to be a routine catch.

In her paper, Loren says that the fishing charter tours are still very popular. The price of the tour hasn’t dropped (adjusting for inflation), only the size of the fish. Looking at the photos, people now seem just as pleased to be champions as those “champs” back in the ’50s, unaware that what’s big now would have been thrown away then. Loren says she suspects that people just erase the past “and will continue to fish while marine ecosystems undergo extreme changes.”

Change Blindness

Daniel Pauly, a professor at the University of British Columbia, has a way of describing these acts of creeping amnesia. He calls the condition “shifting baseline syndrome,” and while he was talking about marine biologists’ failure to see drastic changes in fish sizes over time, it’s a bigger, deeper idea. When you’re young, you look at the world and think what you see has been that way for a long time. When you’re 5, everything feels “normal.” When things change in your lifetime, you may regret what has changed, but for your children, born 30 years later into a more diminished world, what they see at 5 becomes their new “normal,” and so, over time, “normal” is constantly being redefined to mean “less.” And people who don’t believe that the past was so different from the present might have what could be called “change blindness blindness.”

Because these changes happen slowly, over a human lifetime, they never startle. They just tiptoe silently along, helping us all adjust to a smaller, shrunken world.

Professor Pauly has noticed that we are now consuming more small fish today than we did 50 years ago. Cod, swordfish and tuna are gradually giving way to herring, sardines, menhaden and anchovies. He was recently quoted as saying, “We are eating bait and moving on to jellyfish and plankton,” and soon kids will be giving up tuna fish sandwiches for jellyfish sandwiches. Sounds crazy, I know, but then I happened to notice a story about the cannonball jellyfish (Stomolophus meleagris), found off Florida in the Gulf of Mexico. It is now being harvested for human consumption. U.S. fisheries have opened to catch those jellyfish, mostly to send off to Asia, but hey, I’m sure there’s some marketing guy imagining peanut butter and jellyfish snacks. In fact — and I kid you not — at the Dallas aquarium, they are feeding real jellyfish peanut butter, and the jellies seem to like it. So already we’ve got jellies with just a hint of peanut living in Texas. Can the “New P & J” be far behind?

Who’s got some bread?

11 Responses to “Fish Story: A Meditation”

  1. indy222 Says:

    thanks, Peter, for providing a “great” visual for my lecture on declining ocean productivity. Is the last photo a bag ‘o jellies?

  2. jimbills Says:

    Shifting baselines are a major problems in our attitudes. Each generation forgets what the previous generation had. In this way, steady environmental degradation isn’t as shocking, and each generation can continue the habits that help to create it.

    This article is one illustration of many why the problems we face over the next century will be better addressed by addressing human behavior instead of JUST advancing and adopting replacement technologies and pretending our problems have been solved.

    Ocean fisheries could be restocked by simply putting a ban on ocean fishing in large areas. It would take generations for them to restock at this point, but it’s the only real way of solving the problem. That solution is completely unacceptable to many, though, who will say they need the jobs, or they just like eating fish, or they don’t believe an overfishing problem exists in the first place. There would be a major penalty economically if such a measure took place, and people would get angry that their freedoms were being curtailed. There would be a significant effort to get past the ban, a sort of fishing piracy, that would require enforcement and more loss of money.

    Instead, what we currently see is a broad effort to farm the tastier species while continuing ocean fishing practices. Again, it’s just belief in the almighty power of technology to solve all our problems. But there are as many problems from fish farming as there are solutions. Mainly, the feedstock for farmed fish mostly comes trawled from the oceans, and the feed conversion ratio means a lot more biomass is taken from the oceans to feed farmed fish than we get as biomass in farmed fish. Plus, this system is inherently inefficient, because wild fish are a lot more efficient at feeding themselves.

    What we also see is the mistaken belief that if we just farm fish, and get better at it, then we solve the problem. It’s a sort of crazy ‘if we just move the fish to the land, then the seas will be saved’. In this way, we can continue our habits as before. We’d let our glorious free market solve the problem!

    But again, until we drastically curtail fishing in the oceans (there are many quotas already in place, but these are too high and too easily ignored, plus trawling efforts with a lot of bycatch waste and ecosystem destruction rolls on), wild populations will only continue to drop dramatically, because it’s far cheaper to catch wild fish than it is to raise farmed fish. The free market has no morality – it only cares about what is the cheapest and easiest method to provide products to the marketplace.

    It’s not difficult to see where this will lead, and yet we continue to pretend.

    • rayduray Says:

      Hi jim,

      Another brilliant and wise post. 🙂

      To corroborate your observation about marine reserves, here’s an article about the Oregon experience. I’ve personally spoken to Gov. Kitzhaber about marine reserves. He was surprised that someone living 200 miles from the coast would care about the issue. But as he described progress toward the achievement of meager conservation goals he met stiff resistance from commercial fishing interests, he indicated the profound difficulty of getting the rape & pillage crowd, in this case the commercial fishermen and coastal libertarian set, to do the right thing for conservation and for the sake of future generations.

      I am enamored of the succinct way Dr. Daniel Pauley summed up man’s relationship with the large fishes of the sea. As he observes, “we ate them”.

  3. anotheralionel Says:

    I recognised some of those images instantly (1, 5 & 6) from being published in Callum Roberts’s excellent book ‘Ocean of Life: How Our Seas Have Changed’ which followed up on his deeper history of how humans have fished out one stream river sea and ocean after another in his earlier ‘The Unnatural History of the Sea: The past and future of humanity and fishing’.

    Recommended reading which brings home the magnitude of our mining of the Earth, not only of its structure. I find to difficult to see how our descendants will survive.

    • rayduray Says:

      Hi anotheralionel,

      I can vouch for the quality of Roberts’ “The Unnatural History of the Sea”. Iti is a lively read and I learned quite a lot.

      Readers may also wish to familiarize themselves with another author, Carl Safina, who has a fine lyrical style and a biologist’s sharp eye for what’s happening in our oceans. Highly recommended.

  4. anotheralionel Says:

    Timothy Chase, from your link:

    ‘According to Georgia state marine biologist Jim Page, they’re very common. “We always kind of laugh but, when they’re abundant, you could just about walk on water with them, you could walk from one to the next.”’

    A theme which crops up frequently in the narrative of Callum Roberts’s books as he describes the decline of species after species through history, as does the issue of moving baselines for populations (jimbills).

    Even with an active and policed moratorium on fishing where stocks are almost wiped out because of sea bed degradation, damage through bottom trawling and the lack of predators to prey on the predators of juveniles the ability of populations to rejuvenate is debatable.

  5. redskylite Says:

    The photo’s (taken at my favourite place on this planet) illustrate exactly what I’ve been reading in several reports and papers now – change blindness (and an acceptance with new generations) plenty of evidence of that human condition.

  6. redskylite, thanks for both of those links. That’s a fair old chunk of fish mass we’re losing – rather puts the “CO2 is plantfood” nonsense in its place.

  7. daryan12 Says:

    So what you’re saying is there aren’t plenty more fish in the sea anymore!

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