SEA Currents: Corwith Cramer
28° 08’ 16.80” N x 15° 25’ 16.80” W
Alongside at Gran Canaria, our final destination
Three months ago we set out to look at how humans have impacted coastal and marine environments and we have learned much more than we anticipated. On the Atlantic coast of Spain at Baelo Claudia, we visited the site of a Roman city from two thousand years ago where we saw evidence of an active ancient tuna fishery, and of an industrial plant set up to salt tons of fish annually for shipment along the northern Mediterranean coast and across the Strait of Gibraltar to Africa. Layer upon layer of civilizations there have utilized marine resources and it was a good place for us to think about where we fit into the picture. The impact of a growing human population and new developments in technology have sped up the process of resource depletion, leading to the loss of fish stocks and changes to ecosystems in just the last several decades.
While we marveled at the number of species of squid and octopus that were available for sale in the fish market in Cadiz, it was impossible not to notice that skate and dogfish -species that used to be thrown away as worthless bycatch - were available in abundance, while cod and herring were nowhere to be seen. You can still buy a big red chunk of fresh tuna, but one has to wonder how much longer that will be available. Our colleagues in Mallorca told us that once a “total allowable catch” for 2013 was determined for Bluefin tuna in their region of the Mediterranean, it was caught in 48 hours. In Madeira, we ate black scabbardfish, which come from great depths; our guide told us that it used to be fished only in Madeira, but is now being caught from Japan to Iceland. What she didn’t say is that on local menus it has replaced surface species that are now fished out.
There is no doubt that we humans have dramatically impacted global ocean ecosystems. 100% of our net tows in the North Atlantic produced microplastics, tiny bits of our consumer culture that are churning around in the big gyre. An explosive growth of tourism has created concomitant pollution from cruise ships, and strains on water sources on islands and in coastal regions. There is reason to be concerned, even alarmed about the environmental issues that face us.
There is also reason to be hopeful, though, and for me that starts with the students with whom I have been working and traveling. They recognize that we simply cannot afford to continue to consume and discard resources at our current rate; they want to know more, and they want to act for change. We have also encountered a strong preservation ethic in the places we have visited; we saw numerous protected areas, both in the ocean and onshore, and excellent research into the marine environment as well as coastal history and archaeology. We have been extraordinarily lucky to have made friends with Spanish and Portuguese colleagues in each of our port stops, and to have learned from them about their local waters and shorelines.
As we wrap up the first offering of SEA’s new “Global Ocean” program, I have to say that I think it has been a great success. Our shipboard company has been remarkably companionable, always enthusiastic and committed. We have built a base on which to continue a course of study not just for SEA, but for each of us as individuals. This is important work: spreading the word about the essential need for ocean conservation. Thirty-three advocates for the global ocean leave the ship tomorrow ready to continue the job, and my thanks go to each of them for having been wonderful companions on the journey.
Thanks to those of you who have followed our progress on this blog, and a special greeting to my Aunt Theresa and the Columban Sisters in Silver Creek, NY, who kept us in their thoughts all along the way.