Monthly Archives: June 1997

Celebrating 10 years of Oceanwatch articles

Published June 30, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

Ten years ago today, I wrote my first Oceanwatch article. I wanted to call the column Seawatch, but editor, publisher and friend John Flanagan suggested Oceanwatch instead. “It’s not a sea you’re going to be writing about,” he said. “It’s the Pacific Ocean.”

That was the first of many guiding words John gave me over the years, but certainly not the last. After several months of Mondays, he said to me, “You can use the word ‘I’ in your column, you know. It’s permitted.”

“It is?”

“Yes. Columns can be personal,” he told me. “Try it.”

I was nervous. Most science writing is notorious for using dull passive verbs. “Examination of Portuguese man-of-war should be done with caution,” I wrote in that first column. Yuck. Today, thanks to John’s instruction about the use of active verbs, I would write, “You can safely touch the float, but not the tentacles, of a Portuguese man-of-war.”

Active voice was one thing, writing in the first person another. It took me nearly a year to get brave enough to say “I” in this column.

When it happened, it came naturally. I had spent a night watching a sea turtle lay a clutch of eggs. Writing about my feelings during that special moment seemed like the right thing to do.

My regular readers know that I haven’t shut up about my experiences since. During my frequent travels, I’m always on the alert for sights, sounds, feelings and thoughts about the ocean that are interesting enough to share.

A couple of years ago, I met a reader who rarely missed a column. “I feel like I know you quite well,” he said as we shook hands. “We’ve been on so many trips together.” It was a fine compliment.

However, readers recognizing me and knowing what I think is not always a positive experience.

I’m always perplexed by the apparent pleasure some people get in writing insulting, even hateful, letters when they disagree with me.

“How do you cope with it?” I asked John one day, who as publisher gets more than his share of nasty missives.

“It’s your job to write honestly,” he said. “And if people don’t like it, they have a right to say so.”

“But sometimes it makes my stomach hurt.”

“Stomachaches are part of the job.”

I didn’t know that when I started. Neither did I realize I would have to kill so many of my babies, a phrase I learned from Managing Editor Dave Shapiro.

Writers’ babies are those clever little phrases we think up that ruin an otherwise good piece of work. Deleting these over-the-top creations is crucial to good writing.

It sounds easy but, oh, is it hard. You work and work, cutting, pasting, searching the thesaurus. Then suddenly there it is, a punny little paragraph you’ll never conjure up again in a million years. It’s beautiful, witty and charming — but adds absolutely nothing to the story. With a sob, you press delete. There goes another kid.

My favorite and most useful moment in learning to write came when John volunteered to edit my first book. We gathered paper, pencils and erasers, then settled in the cockpit of my sailboat.

John would read silently for a while. “What are you trying to say here?” he would often ask, pointing to a sentence.

“Blah, blah, blah,” I would explain, and his pencil would go like crazy, recording my exact words. We used those words in the book.

Since then, whenever I’m stuck, I ask myself, “What are you trying to say here?” It always works.

I’ve learned a lot in the 10 years since I walked on shaky legs into the Star-Bulletin with my puny portfolio and crisp new degree in marine biology under my arm.

Thank you, John and Dave, for your patient teaching. And thank you, readers, for joining me on this grand journey of words.

I’m sure the next 10 years will be as much fun.


Marine biologist Susan Scott writes the newspaper column, “Ocean Watch”,
for the Honolulu Star-Bulletin, www.starbulletin.com

A Wisconsin trip yields a very crabby argument

Published June 23, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

I didn’t expect it, but during my visit to Wisconsin last week, some aspect of the marine world cropped up nearly every day. It reminded me that even people who don’t live in Hawaii or on the coast still have connections to the world’s oceans.

One day while walking on the sandy beach of one of Wisconsin’s many lakes, I spotted a newly dead crayfish drifting near the water’s edge. I picked up the 4-inch-long animal.

“It’s a crab,” said a friend who had grown up near the lake.

“Actually, it’s a crayfish,” I explained, turning over the lobsterlike animal.

“We always called them crabs,” she told me.

I thought for a moment. Who am I to argue with local common names? “OK, you call them crabs and I’ll call them crayfish.”

She shrugged. “Fine. But they’re crabs.”

I smiled and let it go, remembering that the language of common names is a confusing one. New Zealanders and Australians, after all, call lobsters crayfish.

In the study of marine biology (at least in my textbooks), crabs, crayfish, lobsters and shrimp are close relatives, all belonging to a group of crustaceans called decapods, meaning 10 feet. Most decapods are marine, but some shrimp, a few crabs and all crayfish live in fresh water.

Crayfish are the most successful of the freshwater decapods, evolving into more than 500 species in the world’s streams, lakes and ponds. Some live under stones or debris, but others build burrows which they use for retreats and for overwintering.

Most crayfish are less than 4 inches long, but one type in Australia reaches the size of lobsters. This may be why folks there use the two names differently than North Americans.

Like crabs, crayfish eat most anything they can find, scavenging on dead organic matter and catching small fish and invertebrates. Unlike crabs, however, or any other decapod for that matter, crayfish antennae glands can excrete urine that is less salty than their bodies. This plays an important role in these creatures’ salt balance.

A few days after my crayfish find, I was strolling along a path next to a creek I played in as a child. A flash of a large fin stopped me in my tracks, and before my astonished eyes, an enormous fish, over 3 feet long, swam to the water’s edge.

With its two chin whiskers busily probing, the fish soon began to loudly suck mud.

The fish was a common carp, a native of Europe and Asia that was introduced to North America in 1831 and is now nearly everywhere. It grows to 4 feet long.

Because carp root in mud for organic wastes, thus increasing the turbidity of streams and ponds, the presence of these aliens can decrease populations of native fish. Most people now consider carp a giant pest.

I considered this particular one a blessing, though, because right after it left the bank, a mature painted turtle appeared from the stream depths to forage in the fish’s wake.

The turtle had orange stripes between the green scutes on its back, yellow markings on its face, neck and legs, and long, sharp-looking claws.

I watched the turtle struggle with a loose crayfish claw uncovered by the carp’s rooting. It nibbled on this for a while, then it moved to graze on some nearby algae.

I was thrilled to see this 10-inch ancestor of the sea turtles I like so much.

After it took off, I hurried to a nearby bookstore to see if they had anything about freshwater turtles.

I found a book on reptiles — next to two books about whales and dolphins.

In the Wisconsin home of my childhood, reminders of the ocean are everywhere. Still, it was too far away for me.

It’s good to be back in Hawaii.

Ta‘ape, a 1950s import, has spelled trouble here

Published June 16, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

Twice last week, I heard that ta’ape (also called bluestripe snapper) are causing problems in Hawaii. On one occasion, a state official mentioned the possibility of the fish crowding Hanauma Bay. Another time, I saw an exhibit that stated these fish are responsible for the depletion of some native species.

Are these fish really such troublemakers, I wondered? How do we know? And if it’s true, what can be done?

Ta’ape is the French Polynesian name for a type of snapper the state’s Division of Fish and Game (now DLNR) introduced into Hawaiian waters in the 1950s. Officials believed this species would be a valuable commercial fish here and released about 3,200 into waters around Oahu.

This intentional transfer sounds shocking to our environmentally sensitive ears of today, but back then, moving species around was often an innocent effort to do good. Wildlife officials concentrated on the jobs and food the introduction might create instead of its potential problems.

Things have changed, of course, and now we’re bending over backward to keep nonnative plants and animals out of Hawaii. But we’re stuck forever with some of the old introductions, such as ta’ape.

These pretty yellow fish with the bright blue stripes not only survived in that 1950s release — they flourished. Schools of ta’ape have been seen near all the main Hawaiian Islands as well as the islands of Hawaii’s northwest chain up to Midway.

That’s too bad because today nearly everyone believes bringing these fish to Hawaii was a mistake.

People here, it turns out, don’t like to eat ta’ape as much as they like native snappers, such as opakapaka, ehu and onaga. So even though the ta’ape catches are large, the demand is low and the fish aren’t lucrative.

Native snappers, however, are lucrative. The problem with these species is that their numbers are dwindling to a point where the state is in the process of implementing new fishing restrictions to save the industry.

Why are native snappers so scarce? Some people believe that ta’ape eat the young. Others claim that ta’ape are outcompeting the native species for their favorite foods such as crabs, shrimp and small fish. Still others think the native species have been overfished.

True answers to this problem are hard to find. Fisheries biologists have difficulty studying native snappers because they live several hundred feet deep, far beyond scuba limits.

Are ta’ape down there by the hoards eating the more valuable snappers or gobbling up all their food? No one knows.

Ta’ape also live in shallow waters and have been blamed for shortages of goatfish, squirrelfish and Kona crabs.

In 1980, researchers examined the stomach contents of both ta’ape and one kind of squirrelfish in a section of Oahu. The two species had eaten different food, showing no clear competition between the two.

But this was just one limited study done a long time ago. University of Hawaii fisheries biologist Jim Parrish is planning a more extensive study in which fishermen, who know the most about these fish, will be invited to help with field research.

Meantime, even if researchers learn that ta’ape are outcompeting or eating our fish, the aliens are here to stay. There’s no way to eradicate a species that has spread through 1,500 miles of ocean.

One solution to the ta’ape problem is for Hawaii residents to eat more of these fish. Ta’ape are popular food fish in French Polynesia; some positive public relations by the state could make them popular here too.

Another solution is for Hawaii anglers to support upcoming regulations for bottomfish. Whatever the cause of their shortage, native snappers need help.

Bishop exhibit’s lesson full of gloom and doom

Published June 2, 1997 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©1997 Susan Scott

“Ready to go back in and get more depressed?” my friend asked.

“I guess,” I said.

But no one in our group moved. We sat in the tranquil garden for a few more moments, sipping sodas and enjoying the afternoon. Finally, someone stood and we slowly ambled back into the exhibition hall to finish our tour.

No, we weren’t visiting the Holocaust Museum or looking at the AIDS quilt. We were at the Bishop Museum visiting the Smithsonian’s traveling exhibit, “Ocean Planet.” Contrary to our expectations, it was a downright depressing experience.

Row upon row of displays told about the dismal state of the world’s oceans today.

Fisheries are in such a state of decline that after seeing the numbers, I felt I could never again in good conscience eat food from the sea. The pollution statistics, especially in terms of oil, were so shocking I felt guilty about owning a boat and a car. And the amount of coral damage from hands, feet and anchors made me consider never taking anyone snorkeling or scuba diving again.

No, no, I can hear museum officials say. The point is to encourage each of us to pitch in, to implement change, to be innovative in conservation efforts.

But does it work?

I headed to the restroom, pondering this approach. In the hallway, a display about Hawaii’s snails included a code of ethics for collectors. “Collect (meaning kill) only what you really need,” was one rule. Who “needs” snail shells, I wondered?

Then the next panel explained how collecting had contributed to the extinction of most of Hawaii’s tree snails.

Huh?

Apparently, “Ocean Planet’s” stern message that we humans are wrecking the world’s oceans and killing marine wildlife right and left did not change the Bishop Museum’s policy about trophy hunting.

Such blatant failure doesn’t leave much hope that the exhibit will change the thinking of the rest of us either.

There’s no question that our oceans are in trouble. And we all need to remember it. But the doom-and-gloom tactics of “Ocean Planet” make most of us feel hopeless and helpless instead of inspired and encouraged.

I moped around the museum awhile, then tried to concentrate on the positive aspects of “Ocean Planet.” There are several.

One of the best was a video of a 2,500-foot submarine dive. As weird and wonderful marine animals appeared on the screen, researchers explained what they know about them — or what they don’t. It was nicely filmed and narrated and caused nearly everyone to stop and watch.

Another thing I liked about this ocean exhibit was the great effort Bishop Museum put forth to include information about Hawaii and the Pacific.

Years ago, when “Ocean Planet” first opened at the Smithsonian, I happened to be in Washington, D.C. The exhibit was so East Coast-oriented that I wondered if anyone at the Smithsonian had heard that there’s another ocean on the other side of the country.

The current Hawaii and Pacific parts of “Ocean Planet” deal mostly with catching and eating fish, from old Hawaii until now. Ancient Hawaiian canoe anchors kept our attention, as did an impressive display of fishhooks from the past.

I asked my friends what they thought of “Ocean Planet.” “Broad but shallow,” was one comment. “Too many plastic fish,” said another. “It’s the flip side of the Waikiki Aquarium,” said a third.

The concept of “Ocean Planet” is good, but whacking people over the head with guilt doesn’t work. As they say at the San Diego Zoo: We only save what we love; we only love what we know; we only know what we are taught.

This kind of teaching is hard to love.