Get hooked to marine life

Coming together around marine biodiversity has never been easier,  or more exciting, says the author, who is also the founder of a sustainable seafood initiative.

Writing an article about marine wildlife gave me a chance to reflect on my own encounters with the life under water. I realised that only because I started InSeason Fish, a sustainable seafood initiative. Given that my work has focussed on underwater death through the conduit of fisheries, my encounters with underwater life have been infrequent. Still, the change in perspective that comes from dipping one’s head below the surface and opening one’s eyes can be earth-shattering.

To think that fish can be curious, courageous, friendly was mind-blowing.

Attributing emotions to higher mammals, let alone fish, is a huge step in the study of animal behaviour. The authors of books like Other Minds and Soul of an Octopus tell of friendly encounters with underwater creatures who may not have bones but certainly have brains!

Triggerfish and squids change colour depending on their mood. Marine creatures not only exist, they are also smart. Just ask a small-scale fisherman who has to continuously innovate to catch fish, and he will tell you the about the lengths that he has to go to out-think his quarry.

Low-flying seabirds are interpreted as a sign of fish near the surface of the water, so the fisherman sets his nets with floats to keep it near the surface. Fishermen listen for the sounds of snapping shrimp to identify mounds under the sea — where some species of fishes like to congregate — so that they can set their nets accordingly. After all, mastering the art of catching fine sea food requires a thorough understanding of the ocean, its response to different creatures, and the weather. Fishermen have to make critical observations of moods and seasonal changes, an understanding that goes beyond the mere sense of sight. Watching fishing boats land can be one of the best ways to have a quick and pocket-friendly introduction to marine biodiversity. Children on one of our fish market explorations, also called Fishplorations, say that they see more marine life there than at aquaria.

Tropical diversity ensures that at any given time, over 100 edible varieties of sea creatures are being brought ashore in boats across India.

A boat that had just visited a reef would bring back multi-coloured snappers, lined rabbitfish, eels, groupers, and maybe even an unfortunate seahorse.

A fisherman who set his net in the muddy depths would bring rays, crabs, sea stars, sea snails and other molluscs. Circling above the deep blue depths are the big predators like tunas, sharks and spinner dolphins. Catching fish in these depths requires skill and endurance!

Sombre it is 

If one has to find beauty in death, the landing site is the best place to do so. The art of fishing is painted with the palette of the ocean; every brush-stroke like a net being dragged across the aqueous canvas.

The beauty of this masterpiece is dulled by time; the time the fish spends drying, the harsh light and ice doing it no favours, every hand through which it passes soils the craftsmanship. The fish could change colour, its markings erased by the time it reaches the neighbourhood market.

Fishermen-turned-SCUBA-divers along the coast of Northern Tamil Nadu and Puducherry claim they’d rather dive than fish after watching the fish underwater. So it seems strange that so many people go to the seaside searching for tranquillity. From the minutest plankton to the largest fish on earth, the seas around India are a tropical paradise visited seasonally in annual cycles of migration and breeding by thousands of species. The most commonly encountered are those animals that spend some time of their life onshore.

For instance, a nocturnal visit to India’s relatively uninhabited beaches post-monsoon may reveal the Olive ridley sea turtles who come ashore to lay their eggs.

They are especially abundant in Odisha, a coastline that is also home to some of the largest populations of threatened horseshoe crabs — ancient marine creatures that predate dinosaurs. But there are also fish that migrate through Indian waters. The whale shark, the world’s largest fish, migrates up the west coast of India, just before the south-west monsoon. Yellowfin tunas migrate into the Bay of Bengal during and after the north east monsoon. As science has shown us repeatedly, scenes of death can teach us so much about life.

Within reach 

At InSeason Fish, we see spaces such as fish-landing sites and fish markets as bringing together marine biodiversity, fishing, trade and people from all walks of life. These are laboratories for interdisciplinary learning. There is little else that so fully and transformatively connects inland cities like Bengaluru to the coast. A fisherman’s catch is not just seafood, it can also be thought of as art; as a still-life from the sea; or as wildlife to be treasured. 

The question remains of how to go beyond the plate and start seeing seafood from other perspectives. The first step is to ask simple questions. “What fish is this?” can become the gateway to discovery. Finding out more about the ingredients on your seafood platter is the mantra to physical, mental and ecological health.
The next step is to find out how the fish was caught.

Seafood-eaters need to know that when nets are set to catch squid and cuttle fish, there is no way to also catch bottom-dwelling rays.

Having realistic expectations of fish catch can mean the difference between sustainable fishing and destructive fishing.

The concern is to stimulate conversations that lead to an understanding of marine ecosystems with the credo: ‘Fish are friends and possibly food.’

Marine biodiversity forces me to simultaneously apply multiple perspectives — as a source of livelihood, nutrition, ecological balance, and beauty. Thinking this way is complex. Yet, it creates a space that is inclusive of tourists, chefs, fish-sellers, conservationists, fishermen and marine life, and builds bridges between these seemingly unconnected spheres. 

Coming together around marine biodiversity has never been easier,  or more exciting.

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