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August 2009    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 35, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Fresh Fish? Think Twice Before Ordering

your responsibility to the marine life you love diving with

from the August, 2009 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

People are now eating manta rays. That right, those lovely creatures you spend thousands of dollars to dive with in the Revilligado Islands, Yap and the Maldives.

It’s all because shark populations are crashing. While the market for sharkfin soup continues to grow - - hell, you can buy it at Chinese restaurants in any city in America - - the shark fin population is crashing. So Asian chefs are looking for a substitute and the manta is it.

If you’ve ever seen a manta underwater, you know it’s an easy target to spear or snag with a hook attached to buoyant oil drums, against which the manta struggles until it wears itself out. Traditionally, they’ve been caught by subsistence fishermen throughout Asia, but now there is money in that meat. Frank Pope of the London Times reports that in the eastern Indonesian port of Lamakera, catches of manta have rocketed from a few hundred to about 1,500 a year.

Tim Clark, a marine biologist at the University of Hawaii, says manta rays are being used as shark fin soup filler, with the cartilage being mixed with low-grade shark fins in cheap versions of the soup. While the rays, distantly related to sharks, are ending up in Hong Kong’s restaurants, their gills are also being used in traditional Chinese medicines. “The big market is for the gill elements,” says Clark. “They are dried, ground to a powder and used in traditional Asian medicines.”

The manta’s branchial gill plates, which filter plankton from seawater, can fetch up to $325 on the street in China, because practitioners of traditional Chinese medicine claim they reduce toxins in the body by purifying the blood, Pope says.

Of course, news like this drives us divers crazy. It’s the equivalent of roasting panda bears. Yet this is just one marker in the horrible tale of the destruction of the seas, which many of us unwittingly play in to. If divers had never descended on Cayman or Bonaire or Cozumel in the Caribbean or similar islands in other parts of the world, development would be far less, populations would be smaller and the reefs populated.

But today, it’s a different picture. As we watch the sunset at the end of a day’s diving, how many of us delight in ordering the fresh local grouper? Or snapper? Or lobster? And then decry the declining population of critters on the reef before we’ve even digested our meal. Why do we fail to make the connection to our culinary habits? Sylvia Earle understands it. The renowned marine biologist doesn’t eat fish and implores others not to. She has solid reasons. Here’s what she told the graduating class of American University last year.

“When our numbers were small and the world was largely wilderness, we could sustain ourselves on the interest generated by a richly endowed planet. Hunting and gathering enabled a few million people to live more or less sustainably. [However], as biologist Ed Wilson has noted, humankind has had a way of eliminating the large, the slow and the tasty over the ages. On the way to developing effective agriculture, we managed to do in much of the wildlife that shared the planet with us. And although we should know better by now, we’re doing the same thing to the ocean. Not over thousands of years, but in decades. In the sea, we savagely reduced the large - - that is the whales, the dolphins, the seals, the manatees, the turtles. And with wondrous new technologies in just a few decades, we have managed to eliminate 90 percent of the sharks, the cod, the grouper, the halibut and other tasty creatures including the fast—the tunas, the swordfish, the marlin—and the small: the anchovies, the herring, the capelin, the menhaden. And more recently the slow-growing deep water species - - monkfish, Chilean sea bass, arctic cod, orange roughy.

That orange roughy swimming on your plate with lemon slices and butter may have been swimming two thousand feet deep in the ocean for more than a century . . . .Some of the deep, slow-growing coral destroyed in order to catch the orange roughy began life when the pyramids were being built in Egypt. Wild-caught fish are not exactly like corn or rice or cows and chickens. They are basically bush meat, wildlife, part of what makes our life possible by making our life-support system function.

We have entered [an era] where one species has so altered the nature of the planet, the fundamental systems that make the planet function are at risk. What can you do? Be mindful of where in the universe you are. On a little, mostly blue planet that is wonderfully resilient, but not infinitely so. Remember that half of the coral reefs have either been destroyed or are in a serious state of decline. But half are still in pretty good shape. In half a century, while we have consumed 90 percent of many of the ocean’s big fish, they’re not all gone - - yet. There is still a chance that they might recover if we give them a break. They might not, if we don’t. . . .”

I think Dr. Earle’s graduation speech was more optimistic than she is privately. For every dollop of good news that trickles out, bad news overwhelms. As divers, we worry about inadvertently kicking a coral branch, about dive operators that feed fish Cheese Whiz, or about people tucking “dead shells” into their BC pockets. But it’s not enough. We must consider the impact of that tasty grouper dinner, knowing it may have come from the nearby marine park where subsistence fisherman are still allowed. We must think about the carbon spewed by dive boats carrying us to the reefs, and the airplanes to get us there in the first place. And we must think about how our high standard of living is forever altering our world. Maybe giving up a fresh fish dinner is something you’re not prepared to do. But you must do something, I must do something, we all must.

- - Ben Davison

PS: To get a list of what seafood may be sustainable, as well as what species are crashing and should be avoided, go to and click on “Seafood Watch.”

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