Monthly Archives: September 2017

Disturbing truth makes seafood unappealing

Published September 9, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

An Australian slipper lobster known as a Balmain bug. ©2017 Susan Scott

Last week when our Sydney taxi driver asked the carload of us where we were from, we shouted in unison, “Bangladesh! France! Guatemala! Hawaii!” We were in Australia attending a wedding, the groom Bangladeshi, the bride French-Guatemalan.

One of the places the French wanted to visit the following week was the Sydney Fish Market, a shore-side facility famous for artful displays of edible marine animals. Many are still alive, the bride told me. You choose something and they cook it for you. Given my interest in marine biology, she was sure I would want to go.

Oh, dear. This brought up my dilemma regarding marine life. It feels wrong to eat the animals that give me so much pleasure when I see them alive in their natural environments.

Seeing them suffocating in tiny tanks and twitching on beds of ice makes my stomach hurt. Plus, I’m aware of stock depletion, habitat destruction and the wasteful ways we catch fish.

On the other hand, it feels equally wrong not to eat marine life that someone, whose livelihood depends on fishing, has already caught. And then there are the markets and restaurants whose owners and employees earn their livings by cooking and selling fish.

According to Sylvia Earle, an oceanographer who has spent more than 50 years working to save the world’s oceans, we who have choices should stop eating all marine animals.

I can practically hear the gasps from island residents, where catching and eating fish, lobster, shrimp and crab is part of daily life. But Sylvia isn’t a fanatic. She’s a scientist who knows the data.

Factory ships put out enormous nets and lines 50 or 60 miles long, and bottom trawlers scoop up entire ecosystems. Humans’ ability to kill wildlife has far surpassed the oceans’ ability to keep up. Even more disturbing is that much of what’s caught is thrown out.

Many people think that marine animals’ sole purpose in existing is to feed us. Not so. Their roles in ocean ecosystems far outweigh our need to eat them.

This wedding, where people of several races came together to celebrate the union of two people from different cultures, was a good example of a changing world. With 7 billion people on the planet, and the oceans in trouble, I’m changing, too. I’m not a vegetarian, but more and more I’m choosing to eat plants over animals.

Except for my visit with those special friends at the Sydney Fish Market. I ordered eel because it was already dead. I had recently written about it. (I didn’t like it.)

The bride picked a slipper lobster known as a Balmain bug. When she passed me her plate for a taste, a silver gull swooped down, snatched the entire lobster tail and flew off with it.

Fair enough, I thought. Seabirds don’t have many choices.

Fortunately, we Americans do.

Nightmare on kid’s feet is critters’ big moment

Published September 2, 2017 in the “Ocean Watch” column, Honolulu Star-Advertiser ©2017 Susan Scott

Lysianassoid amphipods, above, created an internet sensation when they nibbled on a teen’s feet in the waters at an Australian beach last month. The crustaceans known as sand fleas or sea lice are recyclers of the seas, usually choosing to feast upon dead plants and animals. Courtesy Wikimedia

Bloody attack! Mysterious sea creatures! A taste for human flesh! Unstoppable bleeding … And so went the sensational terms describing an injury sustained by a 16-year-old Australian boy last month.

Having sore leg muscles after a football game, Sam stood with his ankles in the water off a southern Australian beach. The 60-degree water numbed the teen’s skin, and when he emerged, blood oozed from multiple tiny bites.

When the teen’s father posted gory pictures of his son’s feet on Facebook, people got so overly excited you would have thought the kid got shredded by Freddie Kruger. In fact, the 16-year-old had pinprick lesions from a bunch of amphipods just doing their job.

Amphipods are crustaceans, an enormous group of shelled animals including shrimp, lobsters, crabs, barnacles and more. The ocean hosts 8,000 amphipod species with 2,000 more living in brackish and fresh water. Amphipod relatives are isopods and copepods, also with thousands of species each.

In biology, “pod” means feet, and the various prefixes above describe differences in the creatures’ limbs.

Although fleas and lice are insects, and amphipods are not, people often call amphipods sand fleas or sea lice.

The average amphipod is about a half-inch long. Some species, though, are barely visible to the naked eye, and one rare deep-sea species grows to 13 inches.

One of these huge amphipods, appropriately named gigantea, was found in the stomach of a black-footed albatross, one of Hawaii’s seabirds. Researchers believed the huge amphipod was already dead when the bird ate it. Check out this colossal crustacean at goo.gl/XdLhKF.

Most amphipods swim the world’s oceans eating dead plants and animals, making them outstanding recyclers. So, yes, amphipods eat animal flesh, but the creatures are neither parasites nor carnivores. Rather, most are omnivores, eating whatever they find, such as the Australian teen’s feet and ankles.

Sam’s immobility attracted his neighborhood amphipods, and since he couldn’t feel their nips in the cold water, he allowed them to keep biting.

Most amphipods use claw-tipped front legs to eat, cutting food off in tiny pieces and delivering it to the mouth. The creatures have no venom and are not medically dangerous. Had the parents elevated Sam’s feet and put a bit of pressure on the lesions, the bleeding would have stopped. But then the oceans’ sanitation engineers known as amphipods wouldn’t have had their 15 minutes of fame.

An Australian biologist identified the animals that munched on the boy’s feet as lysianassoid amphipods, a family that specializes in recycling. Some reporters, however, erroneously placed the creatures in the Kruger family of Elm Street.