Eaten Out of Existence
Chriswan Sungkono, WEEKENDER | Tue, 01/31/2012 1:30 PM |
With our rapacious appetite for fish, many marine species may be on the verge of vanishing.
“Would you like to try our succulent panda meat?”
We were walking along an alley of booths selling diving equipment at an expo in Singapore when a bubbly young woman approached us, rather intimidatingly brandishing a tray. Red slivers of meat, almost floss-like, each impaled with a toothpick, sat in tiny stacks on the tray.
I barely glanced at the tray before staring at her, befuddled.
“This is panda meat?” I wanted to be sure, in case I had heard her wrong.
Immediately she said yes and encouraged us to try it. She led us to a booth where posters of pandas chewing on bamboo shoots covered the walls.
“Why don’t you buy some canned panda meat to eat at home if you like it?” she asked me, handing me a tin from the table in the booth. It was a small can, like that for pâté, but rather heavy, with an appealing design.
“Come on, take one, you’ll love the taste,” she said, prodding me with the tray. My heart was beating noticeably faster than a minute before. I told her I couldn’t. I’ve eaten dog a few times in my life, and I confess I didn’t much care for the taste.
But how could you actually consume a panda?
“Why not? Just because it’s cute?” Her expression showed she was offended by my palpable aversion to her product. “If the thought of eating pandas horrifies you, would you promise to stop eating tuna then? That’s just as ghastly.”
It turns out that the offer of panda is a cunning ruse, part of a campaign aimed at educating people about the dangers of consuming bluefin tuna, although more to the fish than to us. (Although we clearly have to consider the effects of elevated concentrations of methylmercury in tuna meat on our health, but let us not digress.) The fact is, ever since industrial-scale fishing for bluefin tuna began in the 1970s to appease our growing appetite for the meat, populations in the wild have shrunk by almost 90 percent worldwide. While divinely delightful in taste and texture, the bluefin tuna is being “loved” – savored and consumed by us – to death.
It is easy for humans to love and sympathize with large animals that in many ways resemble ourselves (having two upper and lower limbs, a discernibly familiar mammalian face), not to mention one as impossibly endearing as the panda. Should the last panda die – I pray not for several hundred years from now, if ever — I’m pretty sure the sad affair will be viewed by millions of people through a lens (most likely that of a CCTV camera), and subsequently bewailed by billions. It doesn’t take a highbrow ecologist to see why the WWF picked the panda as its icon for biodiversity conservation: The animal is so lovable that nobody would want it to be gone forever.
Out of Sight
Alas, it isn’t that easy to feel for, let alone directly observe, the more subtle extinction events of less well-known and less significant (in our narrow perspective) species. The fact that many of the world’s critically endangered species live underwater – completely inaccessible and unseen by a great majority of us – doesn’t help. When the last bluefin tuna flourishes its majestic dorsal fin in a final swagger, as it perishes in the depths of the Atlantic, it would be a nonevent in the world of humanity, I believe. Yes, some of us would grumble at the disappearance of honmaguro sashimi from Japanese restaurants. But that’s it. I doubt anyone much would lament the irreversible loss of the fish for any length of time; certainly not those who overfish them. They’d simply switch their mindless hunting to other, no less lucrative fish species.
That would mean bonito, Atlantic halibut, mouse grouper, mahi-mahi, albacore – to name a few meaty (and indeed tasty) marine creatures featured on many conservation institutions’ rather-extensive-yet-never-comprehensive Seafood Watch lists.
Lest we be misinformed, such watch lists have rather a different purpose from that of lists telling us which blue-chip stocks to watch and pick in the coming year. They work the opposite way: These are fish we should avoid from landing on our plates far too often.
Our penchant for piscine pleasure risks bringing fish populations to extinction. I am not one to naïvely fall prey to apocalyptic projections, but if we are to continue gobbling seafood down at our current rates, there may be nothing of value left in our seas for posterity (or even for the older ourselves). The next time someone tells you not to worry as intensive fish farming will be the silver bullet, just ask yourself whether you’d wish to dine on (hopefully parasite-free) salmon or carp every other day. In terms of diversity, our future seafood diet will be bleak.
Of course, if you drop by one of the world’s major fish markets, or even the seafood aisle at your local supermarket or wet market, you may not see evidence of this fishy vanishing act. Rather, you will come to face to fin with vast quantities of fish – of every size, hue, kind and form – spread out in all their scaly glory. But visit a seaside fish auction in the early morning, and chat with the traditional fishermen unloading their day’s catch, along with their clothing reeking of brine and fish guts. Listen as they confide how they must venture farther and farther from shore to catch the same or even a smaller amount of fish with every passing month.
It was at a fish auction in my hometown of Cilacap years ago that I encountered my first manta ray. The sorry state of its corpse is something I’d rather not describe here. The largest member of the ray family, the manta is a perennial favorite of first-time snorkelers and dedicated divers alike – when alive. People literally spend a fortune and fly great distances to particular locations where manta sightings are common for a “wet date” with these serene swimmers. In the ocean, their presence can be rather hard to pinpoint: I was hapless enough in my first four scuba diving years not to have encountered a single manta under the water. But I’m convinced you can find a dead one every few days at virtually any fish auction if you care to look.
There is always a limit to what nature can store to sustain humanity. To quote a fellow diver: “One more dead fish at the market is one less fish in the sea.”
Caught in the Act
But fish make up just a part of the story. You’ll find turtles, too, in some fish markets, often still very much alive, just overturned on their shells, their flapping flippers usually fastened with ropes, as they struggle in vein to find their way back to the water. Deemed a delicacy in the Caribbean, Pacific and especially among the ethnic Chinese (any visitor to Jakarta’s Glodok area can attest to this fact), these long-living, slow-growing reptiles and their fragile, whitish eggs are harvested to be served as gourmet food. Never mind their distressingly dwindling numbers in the oceans, the massacre goes on.
Which brings us to the sharks. If ever a fish family has sparked public debates and prompted thousands of rallies the world over, it’s them. Sharks face the same ordeal as the rhinos on land: They are hunted to near-extinction for their ludicrously prized fins, believed by the Chinese (almost exclusively) to possess some of the most potent medicinal benefits for humans.
Just as rhinos are left for dead in the forest as soon as they’ve been relieved of their horns, finless sharks are dumped straight back into the sea to sink into the abyss – without their fins, the live sharks are nothing but helpless chunks of meat – and rot. It’s a gruesome sight, no doubt, but to dwell on the ethics of killing sharks would miss the point. We chomp on cows and chickens every day but their populations only grow, while in the last century alone our insensible eating preferences have indelibly diminished the population of various sharks by more than three-quarters.
Although many countries ban shark finning in their territorial waters, the incentive remains high for fishermen to flout the laws – a bowl of shark fin soup easily commands hundreds of dollars – and Indonesian waters, sadly, are the site of the greatest number of shark-related catches.
Yet it is heartening to note lately that the balance has started to tip back to the other side, thanks to hotels and restaurants in Hong Kong and China, and more importantly younger consumers, vowing to stop serving and eating shark fin soup. As for the counterclaim among older people that such activism undermines their national identity and tradition – owning slaves was once a well-regarded source of identity, and killing one’s own slaves a sanctioned tradition, too.
My aim here is not to single out any particular culture here for committing the vile sin of overfishing. In Four Fish, a book that should be read by anyone with even a marginal interest in knowing more about how the fish on their plate ended up there, essayist Paul Greenberg takes up the voice of the sea bass, the cod, the salmon and the tuna (of course) to recount how their respective families’ lives in the wild have been transformed as Western-style eating becomes more widespread. East and West share a single pond, nature’s liquid belly.
In closing, the future surely doesn’t look all grim. Overfishing has led to an unforeseen effect dubbed “jellyfish bloom”: the unchecked proliferation of jellyfish that choke our oceans, ruin our beaches and jeopardize fishermen’s lives. Dangerous organisms they are, yes, when they sting, but – here’s a little secret only the Chinese and green sea turtles know – jellyfish is also delightfully chewy. Mixed with a dash of soy sauce and sesame oil, it tastes pretty good. Now, instead of the bluefin tuna, perhaps we should start ordering jellyfish for dinner.