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Vanishing BEAUTY

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Dario the animal caller

Text Dos Winkel and Stephan Austermühle

Photography Dos and Bertie Winkel

The jumping point for our trip to the southern most rainforest of Peru was the jungle town of Puerto Maldonado, situated at the junction of the rivers Madre de Dios and Tambopata at an altitude of 250 masl.  Founded a century ago, it has held a significant position as a rubber boomtown, logging center, and more recently a center for gold and oil prospectors.  It is also important for jungle crops such as Brazil nuts and coffee. The various commercial enterprises centered in Puerto Maldonado have crowned it the most valuable port and capital of the department of Madre de Dios.  In reality, it is an unpleasant, fast growing town with a busy frontier feel and a population of about 37,000.  And furthermore, due to the logging industry, the jungle around Puerto Maldonado has been mostly cleared.

Here we met the boat driver and the cook who were to accompany us during the following week of travel.  After loading all the provisions and equipment into our  huge motorized canoe “The Black Caiman”, we began our long journey down the Madre de Dios River.

It took us a whole day by river to reach our destination: the river “Heath”.  The river constitutes not only the border between Peru and Bolivia but also the southern limit of the Peruvian National Park Bahuaja-Sonene and the northern limit of the Bolivian National Park Madidi.

The further we traveled away from Puerto Maldonado, the more intact the forest became. Even though the border region and the Heath River form a very remote area, environmental problems are already present and increasing. The reports of gold findings in the Madre de Dios River caused a gold rush like invasion of individual miners searching the river bed.

We are a group of cameramen, two boats men, my wife Bertie and daughter Femke. Our goal is to make a television documentary about the rainforest in this part of Peru.

We set out traveling upstream on the Rio Heath, taking one river coil after another, asking ourselves when the last one would come until, finally, a little man came into view standing on the Peruvian riverside. It was the man we had traveled all this way to see this week: Dario, the animal caller.

Dario is the son of a colonist family and has spent his life working as a guide and hunter in the rainforest. In order to be a good hunter, Dario had to start observing and learning about the forest as a child; spending days walking through the forest alone.  Now, in his late sixties, he has accumulated an unbelievable amount of knowledge of the forest.

When younger, Dario used his knowledge to become a good hunter. Patiently he observed his preys’ behavior and learned to imitate the voices of the animals. He learned to scream like a jaguar or a black caiman, to call the giant river otters or monkeys and to whistle like the birds.  He became incredibly successful, estimating himself to have killed some 180 jaguars and an uncountable numbers of animals from other species in order to sell their fur.

However, he himself started seeing the effects of his activities.  He found less and less of the beautiful creatures that he had hunted and yet at the same time so admired.  He decided, therefore, to change sides, quit hunting and work as a park guard. Now he plans to become engaged in ecotourism in order to show the beautiful rainforest to tourists and serve the survival of nature.

At around noontime, we set out to travel further upstream with the boat.  One of the species of the rainforest we wanted to capture on film were the famous and exquisitely colorful Makaws. In order to do so, Dario had searched for a “Makaw lick”, a place where the river cuts through a layer of mineral rich soil and the birds come to feed every morning.

For a long time it was a mystery to scientists why the birds ate this clay, until they discovered that the parrot’s food, and that of many other rainforest animals, was heavily poisoned.  In order to protect themselves from predators, rainforest plants have concentrated alkaloids and tannins in their leaves and seeds.  Suckling on one of these plants would result in a prompt itching, burning and swelling of the lips.

In order to cope with this problem, the “flying nutcrackers” have learned to eat clay containing minerals that neutralize the chemicals and protect their intestines, as well as prohibiting the alkaloids to enter their bloodstream.

When arriving at the lick, we began to recognize how difficult it would be to photograph the birds. Taking the pictures from the other – Bolivian – side of the river was not an option, being much too far away, so we decided to use the natural vegetation directly under the lick to build our blinds. We located some holes under the bushes about 10 meters away from the lick just big enough for one person to sit in without stretching out their feet.  On the other side of the river, we cut some Caña brava plants (palm reed) to reinforce the natural cover, hoping the birds would be unable to see the team hidden under it. However, before waiting for the birds, there was another shy animal we hoped to find.

Dario had already scouted a place that could be used as a natural blind to photograph the Taricaya (Podocnemis unifilis) or Sideneck Turtle.  So named because they bend their neck sideways as opposed to horizontally, like other species, when withdrawing their heads into the shell, bending their necks in an S-shape.  Turtles appeared on the planet some 300 million years ago, during the Age of Reptiles, and have undergone little change since then. Protected by their shells from predators, Sideneck turtles spend much of their day feeding on aquatic vegetation and basking in the sun.

Right in front of our natural blind was a place where the turtles climbed everyday to sunbathe on a log in the water.  Even though well protected, the turtles have extremely fine hearing and disappear back into the water with enormous speed upon the slightest suspicious sound.  After waiting silently an hour or so, our patience was rewarded as several turtles climbed out of the water onto the log.  Soon a swarm of butterflies began to flutter overhead, taking advantage of the opportunity to feed on the turtles’ salty eye and nostril juices.

Although marvelous scenes such as this can still be seen frequently in the southern Peruvian rainforest, the turtles are in danger.  Human consumption of their eggs, which are laid in holes in sandy riverbanks in order for the sun to breed them, has drastically reduced their population and may lead to their endangerment.  In order to conserve the species, Dario became involved in a project executed by ProNaturaleza and INRENA in cooperation with the Ese’eja Indians to breed a certain percentage of the eggs on artificial beaches and then release the baby turtles into the river.

Motivated by our success, we returned to our blind under the makaw lick right before sunrise the next morning.  Normally at around six o’clock in the morning the show starts; huge flocks of Mealy Parrots (Amazona  farinose) and Blue-headed Parots (Pionus menstruus) are approaching the tree tops on top of the lick, noisily hopping  from one branch to the others. Then, some 30 minutes later the first ones are flying down into the licks and soon the clay wall is covered with huge clusters of green and blue patches of color. After about an hour of noisy entertainment the parrots start out for a day of foraging in the Amazons treetops and for a short while it gets silent again.

About half an hour after the parrots had left, the first couple of makaws showed up and perched themselves on the uppermost branches of the trees above the lick. It took about an hour more before a number of makaws (30-40) came together.  Some of them started flying rounds over the site, carefully monitoring any movement on the ground and when returning to the trees they landed on the lower branches, slowly moving closer to the lick. This continued for an hour more or so and then within one second of the first birds making their descent to the clay wall, something scared them away. Like a cloud, they all flew up and disappeared, squawking loudly across the river and back into the forest.

The birds have good reason to be careful. Uncountable numbers of parrots are caught each year, all around the world, both legally and illegally and sold as pets.  Japan and the United States comprise the largest markets, importing up to 350,000 parrots each year.  Some of the 19 Makaw species, like the Blue-throated makaw (Ara glaucogularis) and the Hyacinth makaw (Anodorhynchus hyazinthinus) have been brought to the brink of  extinction and made the listings of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Flora and Fauna (CITES).  The Spix`s makaw (Cyanopsitta spixi) has only 20 individuals left worldwide – all in captivity.  Therefore, the export of Makaws has been forbidden in Peru since 1973.

Besides direct capture, environmental destruction poses another problem for the survival of the species. Makaw couples stay together for their entire lives, but out of 100 couples only 10 to 20 reproduce each year, due to a lack of nesting space.  Within 2 square kilometers, scientists discovered only one or two tree holes, which being big and dry enough, were suitable nesting sites.  After reproduction in December, the female lays two eggs.  While breeding, the females stay weeks in their hole, fed by the male.  The female is unable to leave the nest, as she must prevent the eggs from cooling and protect  them against predators like Tucans.

The first young hatches out about five days before the second one, and already much bigger than its younger sibling, it competes more successfully for food from the parents and is regularly the only one that survives and grows up. With such a low reproduction rate, it is crucial for the survival of the species that there be, as it’s the limiting factor for reproduction, sufficient tree holes.  Taking away a low percentage of seemingly useless trees may wipe out an entire population of these brightly-colored birds, important disseminators themselves of many rainforest seeds. Removing a natural macaw-generating site may take the rainforest hundreds of years to replace it.

For us however, the next few days of waiting for the Macaws, became an extreme test of our patience.  The second morning the birds were scared away by a boat of indigenes traveling noisily upstream and the third day the Macaws were sitting on the top of the blind, just some two meters above my head, but decided against flying down to the wall.

Quite frustrated, we used the afternoons to look for other species to take pictures of, hoping we would be luckier the next morning.  Meanwhile, Dario brought us to a beautiful lake.  As the rivers wound their way over the Amazon’s flat basin, portions of their snakelike coils were sometimes cut off and isolated, forming oxbow-shaped

lakes, or cochas. These former river channels may either remain connected to their parent rivers or be in the process of gradually drying out. Cochas are especially rich in nutrients and have extremely high concentrations of fish which attracts huge numbers of birds  and other species, like the Giant river otter (Pteronura brasiliensis), the largest, rarest and most formidable predatory otter in the world.

Up to 1.8 meters long and weighing as much as 32 kilos, Giant river otters were at one time commonly seen swimming throughout the Amazon’s innumerable rivers and lakes. However, intense hunting pressures created by the international fur trade during the middle of this century took an enormous toll on the species, reducing a population once numbering somewhere in the hundreds of thousands to a current population of only a few thousand individuals.  Between 1946 and 1973, for example, over 247,000 Giant river otter skins were exported from Peru.  With an estimated population of fewer that 100 individuals, the Manu National Park may protect the largest Giant river otter population in the world. Along the river Heath so far only two groups have been sighted by scientists.

When arriving at the lake, Dario started to make a very strange noise, which one might think would scare away the wildlife forever, but he almost immediately got a response in a similarly strange way from the other side of the lagoon. Then we saw them approaching, a group of five Giant river otters swimming in close formation straight in our direction and answering each of Darios calls in a chorus of Donald-Duck-like cackling voices.  They came as close as an astonishing six meters to the beach, while consistently answering Darios screams, imitations of an intruding male otter, which were obviously getting them quite riled up.

As we did not want to upset the otters too much, Dario stopped provoking them and they became relaxed immediately, but remained close to us starting to fish.  This of course allowed us a chance to catch some incredible shots of them feeding. Giant river otters commonly eat up to 4 kilos of fish each day.  When hunting, the otters swim together along the edge of a lake, diving for 10-20 seconds while chasing fish underwater. Long whiskers on the tops, bottoms, and sides of their heads allow them to detect currents and thus to chase their prey despite the lake’s notoriously murky water. Once captured we saw the otters clasping the fish with their paws, eat first the fish’s head, then rip, crush and swallow the rest of its bones, scales and insides.

Although they spend the majority of their time in and around a single preferred lake, Giant river otters also travel from one lake to another seeking out untapped reservoirs of fish. The otters sleep in underground dens near the shores and females give birth to an average of four cubs.  During the day, they spend a considerable amount of time grooming one another, which contributes to group cohesion, an important factor for the avoidance of fights within the group as well as cooperation amongst themselves in order to hunt and defend against predators. The Giant river otters’ unusual group-like existence may be a behavior that evolved eons ago as a defense against their most ancient enemy – the giant Black Caiman.

The Black Caiman (Melanosuchus niger) is closely related to reptiles, which inhabited the Mesozoic era 200 million years ago.  They are grouped in the subclass Archosauria – the same subclass to which belonged the now extinct dinosaurs and pterosaurs.  Since one branch of archosaurs later evolved into birds, caimans, ironically, are considered to be more closely related to birds than they are to snakes, turtles or lizards. Once abundant throughout the Amazon, the Black Caiman was nearly hunted to extinction in this century when tens of thousands of its skins were exported to the garment industry abroad.

In order to cross over the lakes surface, we borrowed one of the Ese`eja`s canoes and hauled it from the river, over land, to the lake. Then, at night, Dario started calling them. After a while we heard a huge caiman answering in a deep voice and went off in search of it with the boat.  Dario, while calling the caiman, paddled and directed the boat.  I felt a little uncomfortable sitting in a small, flat indigenous canoe, only a few centimeters above water level that could sink with any wrong movement.  In the end, though, we wanted to take pictures, so we concentrated on the flashlight that searched the water’s surface for the eyes of caimans, reflecting light like red glowing coals.

Then we saw  them. Without further sound we tried to approach, from time to time checking with the flashlights to see if the eyes were still there, but before coming too close, the two reddish points disappeared and the chase started anew. After several trials we finally made it. There, only a meter away, a medium-sized caiman floated on the surface, staring at us as we stared back, breathless and mystified, at a creature who carries on the ancient legacy of his ancestors.

The next day, after another frustrating morning at the makaw lick, we hiked along the rainforest, when suddenly we heard a sound somewhere in the leaves above our heads. Dario started another one of his strange sounding calls and sure enough, the sounds came closer. It was a whole group of Brown capuchin monkeys. They jumped around on the branches above us and curiously spied down at us. It was impossible to say who was more amazed by this encounter: us dazzled by the incredible reaction of the animals to Dario’s calls, or the monkeys wondering about the strange machines that were pointing at them while making clicking sounds.

Upon returning from the lake to the base camp, we found a group of Capibaras feeding on the riverside. The Capibara (Hydrochaeris hydrochaeris), otherwise known as “Ronzoco”, is the largest living rodent in the world attaining a weight of up to 65 kilos. These large, pig-like rodents sometimes travel in herds of several dozen of more.  Widely prized by Indians and colonists for their meat, they are normally diurnal, but have become nocturnal in areas where they are heavily hunted.

Our last night had come and sitting around the fire near Darios house we discussed what to do the following morning at the Makaw lick.  Our moods were down.  I was of the opinion that we were too close and too many in the blinds.  In the end I decided to use this last morning before returning to Puerto Maldonado and only leave me and Femke together in a blind, about 15 meters away from the lick; I would take the photographs and Femke would use the video camera.

The next morning, we were sitting silently in the boat while traveling upstream, hoping for a miracle.  But…nothing happened…!

It is 11.30.  The sun is already high up in the sky.  Femke and I are fried by now and still the macaws haven’t come down.  Then, the first pair of macaws left the area…!

We waited another two hours and than suddenly they came down.  We couldn`t believe it.  In our last 30 minutes, the macaws came down to the lick as though they did not want to let us leave without a picture and I was able to shoot some of the most incredible close-ups of wild Macaws I ever taken, while Femke did a great job filming them.

Back at the base camp, everybody was dancing for joy.  So many hours of waiting silently without movement, half eaten by insects, and finally we had succeeded.  These had been some really incredible days for everybody, the most impressive thing surely having been with Dario.  This humble man reads the rainforest like a book and by the end of the week we all felt very privileged that he had opened and read to us just a few of it’s miraculous pages.

The television documentary that we made during this trip has won:



eps. Dario, the animal caller

Gold Camera Award in the 36th international competition of the

U.S. International Film & Video Festival, Los Angeles



eps. Jungle Worlds

Bronze World Medal in the 45th international competition of

The New York Film Festival

in the category Environment & Ecology – television documentary

Addicted to LSD (without health hazards)

“What kind of LSD, although possibly addictive, is not harmful to your health?”  The answer is: “When LSD is short for Leafy Sea Dragon (Phycodurus eques), a very rare member of the seahorse family (Syngnatidae) that lives only in the temperate waters of the south coast of Western Australia and South Australia.” These beautiful but illusive creatures thrive where water temperatures range from 12°C to 20°C, and plants rather than hard corals populate the undersea environment.  I was privileged to find and photograph this incredible creature and its “cousin” the Weedy Sea Dragon while staying at Jim and Josie Thiselton’s dive school on Kangaroo Island (KI), south of Adelaide, South Australia’s biggest city.

Many divers have heard about the LSD, but few have ever seen one in the wild.  It has leaf-like appendages on its snout, head and body, and it is extremely well camouflaged among the algae and seaweed. Once, while focussing on the eggs of a male LSD, I was distracted by a young sea lion which looked straight into the port of my camera housing.  When I looked for the LSD after just a few seconds, I could not find it for several minutes, although it was in exactly the same spot. The LSD is approximately 40 centimeters (16 inches) long. The body is greenish-yellow with white bars, bordered with dull red and the head has distinct white markings which make it a bit easier to see.

Jim Thiselton is one of the few practical LSD experts in South Australia. He and Josie have operated Kangaroo Island Diving Safaris since February 1991.  Jim visits his LSD friends frequently and carefully documents important details such as changes in behaviour, a pregnant female, or a male carrying eggs. Jim recognises most of “his” LSD’s immediately and even names some of them.  He guarantees his divers that he will find an LSD within two days, or provide a complimentary two days of diving.  True to form, it took him exactly 20 minutes on my first dive to locate my first LSD ever!  Although I knew what this extraordinary fish looks like, I was totally amazed to see it live in its natural environment.  This beautiful fish looks totally different from other seahorses, except for the Weedy Sea Dragon (Phyllopteryx taeniolatus), which also can be found in these same waters.

Finding the LSD, while difficult, is much easier than taking its picture. These fish, like most seahorses, habitually turn their heads away from the camera as soon as you get within shooting range. Therefore, the photographer needs to stay with the fish for as long as possible, without moving or blowing too many bubbles. Usually the dragon will relax after 20-30 minutes and will start feeding on tiny mysid shrimp or “sea-lice”. The feeding action consists of fast forward or downward movements of the head. Only when it is eating is it possible to take pictures. Having learned how this fish behaves, the photographer can better anticipate its movements. Patience will be rewarded with unusual shots of this most remarkable creature.

I began using a 20 mm lens, to capture the LSD in its environment of algae and weeds (pict. 4). Unlike coral reefs, which are primarily animal communities, the undersea world in temperate waters is filled with plants. In South Australian waters, more than 2000 species of plants have been identified! (pict. 5).

After two days using the 20 mm lens, I turned to the 28-70 mm lens for close-ups (pict. 6, 7 en 8). Finally, after a week I felt that I understood LSD behaviour well enough to begin macro photography using my favorite (105 mm) lens.  The female lays between 100 and 350 eggs and attaches them onto a “brood patch” on the underside of the male’s tail, where they are fertilized. This “brood patch” consists of small cups that the male develops during the breeding season from August to March, each cup containing one egg which receives oxygen through the cups’ blood vessels. Algae usually grow on the eggs, further camouflaging them. This is necessary because the eggs are a delicacy for many fish (pict. 9 en 10). The male carries the eggs for a period of 47 to 50 days, until the mini sea dragons emerge.   While I was using the 105 mm lens, Jim found a male LSD with eggs.  Although many of the babies had already left, leaving empty cups, a few embryos were still inside, fighting their way out. I was able to take some pictures in which the almost born babies can clearly be seen (pict. 11). Aquarium observations show that for the first two or three days the babies are sustained by their yolk sac, then they must hunt small zooplankton. Unfortunately, most LSD babies are soon eaten by other fish.  It is estimated that only 1-2% survive to maturity in the wild.

Jim also managed to find some Weedy Sea Dragons (WSD) for me. They, like the LSD, are totally different from other seahorses, with amazingly beautiful colors. They resemble the LSD in both size and behavior. Most of the “Weedies” we found were egg carrying males (pict. 12-14).

The sea grass and seaweed areas of Western Australia and South Australia are under increasing threat from pollution, excessive fertiliser run-off, and poaching. Although sea dragons are “protected” under most states’ fisheries legislation, unscrupulous “collectors” catch many of these beautiful creatures for sale to private aquarium owners at exorbitant prices! Many sea dragons die on their way up to the surface, because they can’t decompress! There is, in addition, virtually no information on population size and the legal and illegal take which makes sensible management of these fish virtually impossible (Tony Flaherty, 1996). The pressure for international trade in seahorses and pipefish for the aquarium and Asian “medicine” trade is expanding (Vincent 1996).

To get to KI one can take a short direct flight from Adelaide to Kingscote on KI, or an often rough ferry ride from Cape Jervis, which is an hour and a half drive south of Adelaide.  The cost is about the same, but one needs transportation to and from the two airports.  With advance notice, Jim and Josie usually pick up their visitors, since the dive school is in fact a farm, difficult to find. A blue and white dive flag and the name TELHAWK (pict. 1 – small photo), tells one that this is the correct address and the gateway to the mysterious LSD.

The Diving Safaris boat is a graceful 15-meter, twin-engine catamaran, which they keep anchored in a protected man-made harbour, half an hour’s scenic drive through a beautiful landscape of century old grass-trees ( Yakka or Xanathias Xanathias) and artistic gum (eucalyptus) trees (pict. 2&3). Although the boat can accommodate 12 persons, Jim never takes more than six divers on safari. There are four spacious cabins, one bathroom with hot water shower, and a fully equipped kitchen.

The dive schedule is tailored to the guest’s needs and abilities.  Some days we went out in the early morning, did two dives and came back around five o’clock in the afternoon.  Other times, we did a four-day dive safari, which had the advantage of staying on board overnight.  On those days we did three dives a day and one night dive as well.  Visibility varied between 10 and 15 meters and there was usually a light current.  The surge can be quite strong, presenting challenges to the photographer.  Because of the cold water, an 8 mm wetsuit, or if possible a drysuit, is recommended.

For the adventurous diver/underwater photographer, Kangaroo Island offers a unique opportunity to see and photograph these unusual and beautiful sea dragons in their natural habitat. With Jim and Josie as perfect hosts and Gum Valley Retreat as a wonderful guesthouse, your stay on Kangaroo Island will be an unforgettable one. I would highly recommend to stay another week on land to experience many of the wonders that KI has to offer, like the wildlife (kangaroos, wallabies, possums,

Koalas, Australian sea lions, New Zealand fur seals, beautiful birds and many more) and rugged landscapes.

On April 11 2000, the Minister for Environment and Heritage, Iain Evans MP, announced that the Leafy Seadragon would become South Australia’s marine emblem!

References (includes Tony Flaherty, 1996 and Vincent 1996).

Information about Kangaroo Island Diving Safaris:

operating in KI waters from November to early May each season.

Live aboard or land based tours available.

Operating PNG and eastern Micronesia June to early October. Seven to ten day live on board tours from airline serviced ports including Port Moresby, Alotau, Lae, Madang, Kimbe, Kavieng and Pohnpei.

Email: kids .au

Web Site:

Telephone/Fax: 61 8 855 93225

Gum Valley Retreat is a 4 star rated accommodation facility for up to 16 guests situated on a 2000 acre sheep and cattle grazing property on the North Coast of Kangaroo Island. The area abounds with local native wildlife, is a five minutes drive from KI Diving Safaris, close to the National Parks and overlooks the sea.

Ten reasons why fish, fish oil and other seafood products are not what they seem

We often hear and read that fish and fish oil pills are particularly good for our health, and that the benefits far outweigh the disadvantages. This is far from the truth. The only benefits there are of fish and seafood consumption are to the fishers, the fish processing industry and the seafood retail industry.

Many people are beginning to understand that we need to cut down on or cut out our meat consumption, and they are turning to fish as a ‘healthy’ alternative. But now fish is coming under fire. This is therefore a difficult message to bring across.

“The modern fishery is the most destructive and thoughtless human activity ever” David Takayoshi Suzuki, Canadian geneticist and environmental campaigner.
Holder of 22 honourable doctorates.

1. Overfishing

Of the European fish stocks, 88 percent are either over fished or at the point of collapse. If we want to save stocks for future generations and keep the industry going, the European fishery fleet must be severely reduced by 2013. However, there is little reason for optimism. The various European fishery ministers are not in agreement with this, and it was these same ministers who ignored the 2012 quotas recommended by scientists and allowed catches to exceed these by 40%. Nothing is likely to change in 2013 despite the lobbying of about 130 European NGOs, including the Sea First Foundation, and the truly best efforts of the European Commissioner for Maritime Affairs and Fisheries, Maria Damanaki. Ultimately, it is the fishery ministers who take the decisions.

Using a computer model, marine and fisheries biologists have shown that if we continue fishing as we are doing at present, the seas will be empty of commercial fish by 2048. Their findings were confirmed in a United Nations report produced by economists – not conservationists – in 2010. The UN report estimates that date as 2050 and goes on to say that drastic changes need to be made. This means reducing the world’s 20 million fishing boats to 7 million, a reduction of 13 million vessels. This includes all the large factory ships. Given the level of subsidies, decreasing the size of the fishing industry makes economic sense. A staggering EUR 27 billion is spent worldwide on subsidising fisheries. If 13 million vessels were decommissioned and 35 million fishers put out of work, it would only cost about EUR 20 million to invest in retraining and alternative employment. EUR 20 million investing in the future compared to EUR 27 billion keeping a redundant industry afloat. A good proportion of the investment could be made in farming seaweed, a good nutritional alternative to seafood, and a sustainable industry.

The 2050 cut-off is for all commercial fish species in all the world’s seas. Sustainable fishing methods may have been practiced in the Atlantic Ocean and in large parts of the Pacific Ocean for centuries, but over the last few decades, Europe has changed this. Now that European waters are almost empty, the fisheries are going further afield to find fish. This sometimes means “stealing” the food from the people who need fish as a source of protein. EU countries pay governments of developing nations for fishing licences, and fish away their food. In many countries with high levels of corruption, the local fishers do not receive one single cent and even lose the fish that would normally sustain their livelihoods. And where do those fish end up? On the plates of the European consumer where seafood is a choice and not a necessary source of protein.

A related and equally serious problem is that about 35 billion kilos of fish is caught every year to be processed into fishmeal for farmed fish, pigs, chicken and fur animals. See point 5 below.

2. By-catch

Annually about 45 billion kilos of fish are caught and thrown overboard as waste because they are not the target species or are not permitted to be caught. This is by-catch. By-catch also includes millions of marine mammals such as dolphins; sea turtles; birds; and of course fish. All these animals are caught in nets and fishing lines and die. Using satellite images, scientists have calculated that there are enough long lines in the oceans to encircle the earth 550 times. That is more than 22 million kilometres of fishing lines! Many are over 100 kilometres in length. The fish and other animals that get hooked die a terrible death. They often fight for more than 24 hours for their lives. As the intended catch, mostly tuna and swordfish, are becoming rarer, the lines are becoming longer.

A significant part of the Dutch fleet, and the largest part of the Belgian fleet – often consisting of “runaway” Dutch fishers – are still beam trawl fishing. This method consists of dragging heavy chains along the seabed which catch any and all animals that live there. Unfortunately, it destroys the entire seabed ecosystem and up to 96% of the catch is by-catch.

3. Sustainability labels

The best known sustainable fishery label is Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). This label was started by the World Wide Fund for Nature and Unilever, both of which were concerned by the dramatic reduction in fish stocks as a result of fishing practices. However, the MSC’s ideas about sustainable fishing are not shared by some conservation agencies, including the Sea First Foundation. There are many reasons for this, and one is the awarding of MSC certificates to fishers who practice the destructive beam trawl and long line methods. Another reason is that the factor of animal welfare is not taken into consideration at all.

The certification criteria of many other sustainable fishery labels are often even worse.

4. Shark killing and tuna

One third of all the shark species in the world are threatened with extinction. An estimated 100 million sharks are killed every year for their fins. In 2006, this was 120 million, but the numbers have declined in parallel with the resulting decline in shark numbers. It is European rather than Chinese fishers who supply most of the sharks’ fins to the Far East. Most of these are Spanish, but Dutch fishers are equally responsible. The fins of the sharks are cut off while they are still alive, and the shark is thrown overboard. A horrific death. Sharks’ fin soup is a status symbol in China and in other countries in the Far East. The sharks’ fin industry is worth billions and for many fisheries is a highly lucrative sideline.

The populations of most shark species have declined by at least 90%. Removing predators from ecosystems in such large numbers has led to enormous imbalances in the populations of other sea creatures. Killing sharks is thus a huge part of the unsustainability of fishing.

While there has fortunately been change in European legislation recently and some species are now protected, these measures are still largely insufficient.

Tuna is also a seriously threatened fish species. Bluefin tuna is as good as extinct, so fisheries are turning to other tuna species resulting in the overfishing of these. If you do not eat a panda sandwich or Bengal tiger stew, why eat tuna when they are equally threatened. For further information (in Dutch) about tuna, see this campaign for tuna free restaurants by Aman Prana and the Sea First Foundation.

5. Aquaculture and mangrove forests

Mangroves are crucial habitats for many species of fish and are the home of many endemic species. Mangroves are forests of bushes and trees that live in salt water. They grow in shallow water, their roots covered in algae, seaweeds, oysters, sponges and anemones. Young fish hide among the roots when danger lurks. They live in relative safety until they are big enough to head out to open sea. These nurseries are crucial to hundreds of species of sea life.

All over the world mangroves are being cut down to make way for prawn and fish farms. The animals in these farms are crammed together in small spaces leading to all sorts of behavioural and other problems. Apart from the animal unfriendly practices, this is neither an efficient nor a sustainable way of growing food as the density of the animals means that they must be given heavy doses of antibiotics and medicines to avoid the spread of disease and pests such as fish lice. At present, about 50% of the world’s prawns come from farms. The level of chemicals used to ‘protect’ the prawns means that the surroundings of the farms are so heavily contaminated that the workers, who earn a pittance, often get sick. As do the inhabitants of the area who are dependent on the contaminated groundwater. The groundwater contamination may reach a radius of 100 kms! At a certain point the groundwater is contaminated to such a degree that even the prawns are unable to survive. This takes about four to five years, and the whole farm is moved to a new location. This means more clearing mangroves to make space and leaving a contaminated desert behind.

The disappearance of mangroves is leading to the disappearance of many fish species. In the Dutch Antilles for example, the population of large fish around the north coast of South America has dramatically decreased as a result of over fishing and the destruction of mangroves.

Farming fish in open water, such as salmon in Norway and Chile, also causes major problems. The seabed around the pens becomes “dead zones”, areas where there is no sea life at all. This is caused by the large quantities of excrement that is contaminated with medicines and antibiotics.

Most farmed fish are carnivorous. They can only survive on a diet of animal-based foods. Most of this food is derived from wild caught fish. Peru and Chile both have a large fishery industry for this purpose. As wild caught fish are transported great distances, such as from Peru to Norway, to feed farmed fish, the industry is responsible for large quantities of emissions. To produce one kilo of farmed salmon, you need two to six kilos of wild fish. Fish farming thus exacerbates over fishing. This means that farming fish is anything but sustainable.

For an extensive explanation, see De Huilende Zee (in Dutch), by Dos Winkel, published by Elmar

6. Pollution

There are several forms of pollution that affect our land and marine environments. These include chemical pollution (toxins); non-biodegradable materials such as plastic; radioactivity and radioactive waste; aquaculture (outlined above in point 5); noise pollution; and CO2 emissions (acidity – outlined below in point 9).

Chemical pollution
The most common chemicals are dioxins, dioxin type PCBs, heavy metals such as mercury and cadmium, and flame retardants. Most of these materials are man-made, though some are found naturally in small amounts. There are many substances that are found in large quantities in the marine environment and these include toxic and carcinogenic flame retardants. These are found in fish and in particular in fatty fish.

Many studies have been carried out on the effects of these toxins on human health, but they have only examined these toxins individually or as groups of substances. Bilau (2008) studied dioxins in food, but recommends that the effects of combinations of toxins on human health be examined. We currently know very little about this.

Most European dioxins originate from industrial waste incineration processes that involve chlorine such as metal casting, bleaching of paper pulp, and the processing of particular pesticides and herbicides. Other large producers of dioxins include waste incineration plants. The amount of dioxins in the North Sea may have decreased significantly over the last decades, but North Sea fish still contains much more dioxins than fish from the Indian and Atlantic Oceans.

Between 95% and 98% of dioxins found in the human body are ingested through food consumption. They are mostly found in animal products, and in fish in particular. The biggest problem with dioxins is their high chemical stability. Once they have entered a living organism, they nestle and remain there for a very long time. They thus accumulate in the food chain, and the higher they are in the food chain, the higher the concentration. Fatty fish are generally at the top of the food chain and have ingested all the accumulated dioxins from all the animals they have eaten. The people most vulnerable to dioxins are pregnant women and newborn babies. As opposed to common advice, pregnant women should avoid eating fatty fish (see point 7). Current European guidelines for the maximum safe levels of dioxin in our diets note that fish contain much more toxic dioxins than other foodstuffs: 20 times more than meat and milk; 10 times more than eggs.

Mercury is usually present in predatory fish in the form of methyl mercury, which is more toxic than ordinary mercury. It is found in the skin, muscles and organs of the fish, and not only in the fatty tissue. Anyone eating two portions of tuna sushi a week runs a real chance of health problems.

It is incomprehensible why nutritional centres and governments shrug off the fact that fish and other animal fats contain so many toxins. Toxins are toxic and can be detrimental to human health even in the smallest quantities. Keeping the fish and meat industries going is apparently more important than human health.

For an extensive explanation, see De Huilende Zee (in Dutch), by Dos Winkel, published by Elmar

Non-biodegradable materials
In the middle of the Pacific Ocean is an area at least the size of Western Europe that contains an enormous amount of plastic waste: the “Great Pacific Garbage Patch”. This is probably a conservative estimate as some put the size at twice the size of the United States. The Garbage Patch contains a huge amount of floating plastic rubbish. Plastic accumulates and is kept going by the maelstrom of the Pacific Ocean gyre that is created by the trade winds. The periphery of the gyre is in continuous movement and is higher than the parts towards the centre. This has the effect of concentrating the plastic “soup” ever further which remains swirling around the vortex in the middle. These garbage patches have been found in all the world’s oceans. A United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) study in 2006 showed that every 1.5 square kilometres of sea contain 46,000 plastic particles that range from lost slippers to miniscule particles. Countless birds, lobsters and seals get caught in the plastic rings of six-packs, plastic bags or nylon cords. Many seabirds such as petrels, shearwaters and albatrosses, just like sea turtles, eat everything. Many die because a large object such as a plastic bag gets stuck and blocks the throat or digestive tract. But many animals simply weaken because the small pieces of plastic fill the stomach taking away the feeling of hunger. The brain does not send the signal to eat, and the birds die of starvation. Ninety-eight percent of all examined dead birds had plastic in their stomachs, on average 30 pieces of plastic.

Millions of fish and marine mammals see the floating pieces of algae covered plastic with their chemical additives as a tasty snack. Many fisheries operate in these areas and the fish end up, plastic, chemicals and all, on the plate. Toxic plastic is thus an extra threat to human health. Eighty thousand different types of toxins have been found in the plastics.

Radioactivity and radioactive waste
Just ten years ago, radioactive dumping in the sea was still an enormous problem. This form of pollution though has decreased dramatically in the past few years. Dumping of radioactive materials, for example, by the nuclear plant in Sellafield in England has decreased by 75%.

Current European dumping is no longer a threat to marine plants and animals, and has little effect on people who eat them. However, what is a danger to sea life is the enormous amount of cooling water used by nuclear power plants on the coast. As the water is taken from the sea to cool the plant, all the life in it is taken too and dies. This includes fish larvae and eggs. Little is known about the extent of the damage due to the lack of research. This affects the North Sea, Irish Sea, Baltic Sea and Sea of Japan. Countries such as Japan, the United Kingdom and France have several nuclear power plants located on the coasts. The disaster in Fukushima in Japan (2011) has given us a glimpse of the consequences.

Noise pollution
People rarely think about noise if they think about marine pollution. Still, noise is a huge problem for millions of animals every year. Sources of noise include oil exploration and drilling, pile driving to place windmills, shipping and sonar. Millions of whales, dolphins, seals and other sea creatures will die in the next few years as a result of the sonar used by the American navy alone, on top of the sonar used by other countries. Military exercises will be carried out in the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico in particular. The US navy uses sonar to trace submarines and since 2002 when President Bush gave the US navy permission to use sonar in 80% of oceans, is a growing threat.

Sonar consists of extremely loud sound impulses that bounce signals off large objects, reflecting them back to source. It deafens whales, causing them to become seriously disoriented. The result is that they either shoot to the surface of the water far too quickly thereby dying from the ‘bends’ (blood embolisms), or they try to escape the noise by throwing themselves out of the water and stranding. Most of the animals that happen to be too close to the source of the sonar simply die because their ears and brains explode. These animals sink to the bottom of the ocean and nobody knows how many animals have been killed by this type of noise pollution.

In 2004, the Bush administration signed a law that gave loopholes to the American navy in environmental laws. Then in 2008, he signed an ‘Executive Order’ in which he permitted the navy to be exempt from the environmental laws governing threatened species.

Between 2010 and 2015, millions of marine mammals and other sea life will knowingly be sacrificed by the US Navy in its ‘Warfare Testing Range Complex Expansions’.  These are warfare testing programmes which will be significantly expanded in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The National Marine Fisheries Services has already given permission to kill sea mammals in more than a dozen marine warfare testing programmes and it is preparing a new request in which it itself estimates that 11.7 million marine mammals (32 species) will perish. The growing number of licences that are issued for sonar testing programmes in more than 12 areas of USA territorial waters in the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico will exterminate many species of marine mammal and other sea life.

7. Toxins in fish

By not eating fish you avoid ingesting many toxins such as PCBs, dioxins, dioxin based PCBs, heavy metals such as mercury and flame retardants. Fatty wild fish in particular are highly toxic. The toxins are all highly carcinogenic and, even when ingested in small quantities, can cause cancer. In 2008, research at the University of Ghent in Belgium showed that about 50% of all PCBs, dioxins and dioxin based PCBs is derived from seafood, while only 1-2% of our diets are seafood! However, the Netherlands Nutrition Centre Foundation claims that the Belgian study is not correct and that only 12% of all dioxins in the food of people in the Netherlands is derived from seafood. This is probably because the Dutch eat less seafood than other Europeans. Either way, both organisations clearly indicate high levels of toxins in seafood.

While most of the toxins in seafood are checked individually and are at present below the European permitted levels, little research has been done into the effects of an accumulation of toxins ingested from seafood, that is, all the toxins together. The more fatty the fish, the more toxins the fish contains. This is because many toxins are lipophilic. This means that they enter the fatty tissue of the host and remain there. Another aspect is that the higher the fish is on the food chain, the more toxic. Predators such as tuna, swordfish and shark have accumulated all the toxins from the animals that they have eaten such as the smaller fish lower in the food chain.

Despite this, it is often said that consuming fatty fish is important to human health because of the fatty acids that it contains. In the case of omega 3 fatty acids, these are not produced by fish themselves. These are ingested by fish in their food and taken in through their gills during breathing. Omega 3 is actually contained in single cell plankton algae which enter the fish’s body through food and breathing. People can still consume omega 3 while avoiding eating fish by eating plant based foods that contain alpha-linolenic acid (ALA) such as purslane, walnuts, linseed oil, rapeseed oil and many other vegetables and nuts. Omega 3 derivatives (EPA and DHA) can also be obtained from algae based pills and products found in health food stores and from farmed algae and seaweed.

For an extensive explanation, see De Huilende Zee (in Dutch), by Dos Winkel, published by Elmar

8. Food poisoning

Food poisoning from eating fish and seafoods such as prawns, oysters or mussels is by far the most common form of food poisoning.

Ciguatera poisoning is mostly caused by eating tropical fish. This condition is mostly found in areas of coral reefs, but also arises among people who have eaten fish imported from these regions. Ciguatera is poisoning caused by a toxin that is produced by dinoflagellates, a type of toxic algae. These dinoflagellates are found in coral, plankton and seaweed. These are eaten by herbivorous fish that are in turn eaten by larger carnivorous fish. The most common source of ciguatera poisoning are barracuda, sea bass, snapper, moray eel, parrot fish and trigger fish, though other species can also cause serious poisoning. Ciguatera toxin is highly heat resistant so it is not neutralised by cooking.

Ciguatera poisoning mostly causes stomach, intestinal and neurological symptoms. The most common of these are: nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, headache, muscular pain, numbness and hallucinations (Wikipedia). The most common symptom among serious cases is the cold allodynia, whereby patients have a hot, burning feeling when they touch something cold. It is also possible that the toxin is passed on through sexual intercourse or breastfeeding. The symptoms may last weeks, and sometimes even years. They may reoccur after many years, triggered by various factors such as the consumption of fish or alcoholic drinks.

As there is no known treatment for Ciguatera poisoning, treatment is simply to ease the symptoms with medicines such as pain killers. Prevention is the best cure, and the only way to avoid contracting Ciguatera poisoning is by not eating reef fish.

Scombroid food poisoning is another common form of food poisoning contracted from eating seafood. It is a type of histamine poisoning and is most often seen after consuming tuna, mackerel, sardines, yellowtail snappers and abalone. It can be caused by the poor refrigeration of seafood. The symptoms arise quickly after consumption and include tingling or a burning feeling in the mouth; rashes on the face and upper body; thudding headache; hives and itchy skin; nausea, vomiting and diarrhoea.

Seafood can also be contaminated with listeria. This is a bacteria that also grows in low temperatures. Listeria is particularly dangerous for pregnant women and the elderly. They are advised not to eat pre-packed smoked fish such as salmon, trout, eel or mackerel. Pre-packed smoked fish has a long shelf-life which gives the bacteria the time to multiply into dangerous quantities.

Apart from ciguatera and scombroid poisoning, fish contain many other micro-organisms that may cause food poisoning. It is also advisable to not feed your dog or cat fish as they too can become seriously ill.

9. Acidity: CO2 and O2

Oceans are the main source of oxygen on earth. Up to 70% of all oxygen is produced by marine plants. They absorb CO2 (carbon dioxide) and convert it into O2 (oxygen), as do all land plants. We therefore breathe because of the ocean! Most of the earth’s plants live in the oceans. These include seaweed, algae and phytoplankton (plant-based plankton).

The oceans are the earth’s main carbon sink. But given the levels of CO2 emissions, the phytoplankton is unable to process it all and convert it into O2. CO2 and other emissions such as those produced by intensive cattle farming[1], are making sea water increasingly more acidic. The lower Ph values are dissolving calcium, and scientists are afraid that all coral polyps will be died out by 2050. The level of CO2 in seawater is already 383 ppm (parts per million), while the safe levels for coral polyps is around 320 ppm. The chalky skeletons of the polyps start dissolving at 360 ppm. We have already far exceeded this! Along with pollution and overfishing, acidification is one of the most main reasons why coral reefs are dying all over the world.

Other animals are affected too. Those at the base of the food chain that have calcium carbonate shells, such as shellfish and molluscs, are becoming unable to form shells. Warming temperatures as a result of the high CO2 emissions are also creating problems of coral bleaching. Fish are a good buffer as they absorb a lot of dissolved calcium through their food and breathing through their gills. They convert the calcium into calcium carbonate (CaCO3) which they then excrete back into the sea. However, overfishing has decimated fish populations the world over and we can no longer rely on fish to help prevent coral dying as a result of increasing acidity. We need every fish there is to stay in the sea. Every fish that is removed is one too many.

10. Animal welfare

This may be the last point listed, but is really the most important reason why we should avoid eating fish. Animal welfare is an enormous problem in the fishing industry. Every year up to three trillion animals are caught and suffer a terrible death. Research into fish welfare and fish’s ability to feel pain has been thoroughly studied over the last 15 years. When I started research into the destruction of the marine ecosystem about six years ago, there were only a few dozen research activities into pain. There are now more than a thousand such studies.

Under European law, animals that are slaughtered for consumption must be either killed within one second, or must be stunned to the extent that they feel nothing prior to death. While this is not carried out in practice to the extent that we would like is sad enough, but, at the very least, there is legislation with which to deal with poor practices. This legislation does not apply to fisheries or to fish farming, and there is no other legislation. We know that fish have both an extremely well developed central nervous system (brains and spinal chord) and a well developed peripheral nervous system with pain receptors (nociceptors) that go right to the tips of the fins and around the mouth. Fish thus feel pain well and feel the same stress and fear that birds, reptiles and mammals do. And they are still treated like inanimate objects. The slaughtering methods of fish are truly appalling and some fish take hours to die. If only we could hear them scream we would certainly take more care of them.

If you would like to know more, please see:

De Huilende Zee (in Dutch), Dos Winkel, Uitgeverij Elmar

Do Fish feel Pain, Prof. Victoria Braithwaite, Oxford University Press

A very important study: Worse things happen at sea: the welfare of wild-caught fish, Alison Mood. The whole article can be find here.

[1] The meat industry is responsible for nearly 20% of all emissions in the world, thus more than all forms of motorised transport, including shipping and aviation, together.