Essay

Trash fish, sand, sea snails

Why little things matter

WHY ARE SOME resources sexy and others not? The monumental equipment that accompanies certain forms of major resource extraction helps in the sexiness stakes. In Pilbara mines, trucks weighing nearly 400 tonnes stand more than seven-­metres tall, dwarfing the remaining humans that drive them. Automation is taking over in part because of the horrific accidents that happen when these mammoth beasts go wrong.

There have been many vivid cultural representations of resource extraction, perhaps none more so than Émile Zola’s Germinal. Published in 1885, soon after the miners’ strike in France that Zola witnessed, the novel features miners who work in a pit called Le Voreux, which ‘lay lower and squatter, deep in its den, crouching like a vicious beast of prey, snorting louder and longer, as if choking on its painful digestion of human flesh’. [i] Zola juggles different registers: ‘voreux’ is close to ‘vorace’, or voracious, and the mine is both animalised and personified – it eats human and it is a synecdoche of the human appetite.

There’s no doubt about it – some mines are awesome. Oceanic extraction, on the other hand, is – to some people – less so. Fishing, for instance, often falls under ‘hunting’ or ‘harvesting’, with images of the fierce hunter in the last wild commons, or the benign harvester who plucks fish out of the sea with the care of a grape picker.

One of my favourite maritime museums is in Aberdeen, on the north-­east coast of Scotland. Located in the old Shiprow down by the harbour, it divides perfectly in half. A 1:33 scale model of the Murchison oil platform – the first rig to be built in the North Sea – stands eight metres high in the middle of the museum. On the left-­hand side are three floors devoted to the history of fishing in Scotland, complete with photographs of stoic, unsmiling men and women next to flimsy boats. The women had to carry the men to their boats because there were few harbours. The women were being realistic rather than submissive. They didn’t want their men getting their heavy leather boots wet. Had the boats capsized, those boots would have meant a quick death at sea.

On the right-­hand side of the building is the story of oil extraction. The museum and its website make clear which side is more interesting. The rig model is pretty amazing; the real metal structure would have descended some 500 feet below sea level to the seabed. Before it was finally pulled down in 2014, the four corner legs would have been fixed to the seabed by thirty-­two piles, each weighing over 250 tonnes. The North Sea is wild and frigid, and the rig was designed to withstand 100-­feet waves and 150-­mph winds. When I was a girl in the 1970s, as the North Sea oil exploration began, we envied boys from school who went to work on the rigs, making their fortunes. Our excitement was the result of bored minds, as the work would have been frightening and monotonous.

The museum website is upbeat:

It is perhaps little wonder that man’s achievement in obtaining oil from these often-­hostile waters has been compared in scale to NASA’s Apollo program of moon landings. [ii]

On the top floor, there is a statue of an oil rig worker from the Piper Alpha rig, which exploded with massive fires on 6 July 1988, killing 167 men. The fires burned for three weeks. It remains the worst accident in the North Sea oil industry. The Piper Alpha statue is suitably heroic in the genre of Stalinist monumentalism, fitting given that the Piper Alpha was the one of the costliest man-­made catastrophes ever. [iii]

 

BUT WHAT OF the less charismatic resources? What of those small and seemingly insignificant natural ones – players such as trash fish, sand and sea snails? Writing about krill, Elizabeth Leane and Steve Nicol at the University of Tasmania note that ‘size does matter’ when it comes to academic and public appreciation of natural resources. [iv] As for sand, in his book The World in a Grain, Vince Beiser notes that ‘sand is the most taken-­for-­granted natural resource in the world’. [v] And yet, as it is the core ingredient in concrete, in Beiser’s rather over-­the-­top framing, ‘the army of sand has fanned out to conquer the entire world’. [vi] In an article entitled ‘Drugs from Slugs’ in the very serious journal Chemico-­Biological Interactions, Bingham et al. introduce my third player, the Conus snail, as ‘humble’. [vii] John Platt sighs: ‘Ah, snails. They’re small, they’re slimy. They lack the charisma of a polar bear or a gorilla. And yet…they’re disappearing.’ [viii]

There are intricacies to celebrate among these unsung entities, but first I need to set the scene of the drama in which they star. They all feature predominantly, though differently, in what is called trophic cascade. ‘Trophic’ refers to the position an entity holds in the system of who eats whom or what. As we may remember from school, the food web consists of the smallest entity on the bottom through to the predators on the top. In marine food webs, this might be visualised as a pyramid with a large base of phytoplankton and algae – often called the primary producers – followed by zooplankton and other herbivorous consumers, the low-­level carnivorous consumers such as shellfish, then larger fish, until at the top are the predators such as killer whales.

While picturing this as a pyramid makes the base look very solid, as marine scientist Daniel Pauly and his team have found, we are increasingly ‘fishing down the food web’. [ix] It is well known that when you take out the top carnivores in a marine ecosystem, the entire system gets shaken up. In places such as the west of Scotland or the Maritime provinces in Canada, when the cod were fished out there was a huge increase in lower level – but highly valuable – organisms such as lobster and langoustines.

This makes some fishers happy, at least for the time being. However, in a less spectacular way, entities at the bottom or low levels of the food web are now being targeted for what is called the ‘reduction’ industry. Fish are literally reduced to meal, and their status as important living entities is reduced to nil. Krill, anchovies and sardines are sadly categorised as ‘trash fish’. They are pulped to feed salmon and the most valuable fish in the world, bluefin tuna, now ‘ranched’ in ocean feedlots.

Marine ecosystems are being squeezed from the top and the bottom. As Lynam and colleagues put it, ‘The question of whether food webs are resource (bottom-­up) or predation (top-­down) controlled is one of the most fundamental research questions in ecology.’ [x] It is also, arguably, one of the most pressing questions facing us all. When the bottom of the food web is taken away, the marine ecosystem topples. When you remove top predators, populations of their prey expand and eat and eat. This is what is happening to kelp forests, as sea urchins are no longer deterred by carnivorous fish that would have eaten their larvae. They are loving kelp to death. As Craig Johnston, Head of the Ecology and Biodiversity Centre at the University of Tasmania, finds in his research: ‘Patch by patch, long-­spined urchins are razing the kelp forests, reducing them to desolate “urchin barrens” on the sea floor.’ [xi]

One of the reasons sea urchins arrived in Tasmania is because of our warming ocean – the waters along the south-­east coast of Australia are some of the fastest warming in the world. As the East Australian Current brings warmer water further down, many marine species flee southward. Climate change is the undeniable player in the drama of trophic cascade. It is somewhat offstage in my tale, but its presence should be felt throughout. Lynam and colleagues warn that the changes associated with warming can constitute ‘a regime shift’.[xii] This is trophic cascade on a major scale, across several species and ecosystems.

 

IT’S TIME TO turn to the players. I’ll start with fish, as they are what I know best. Some people find it strange that I write about fish; others don’t know that I’ve ever written about anything else.

Writing Eating the Ocean, I became obsessed with little fish. As I wrote there, I set out

to explore the small marine things with which we need to cultivate a closer relationship. These are the little fish and other marine organisms that disturb the classifications of what is edible, and for whom or what. In telling their stories I want to disturb what we think counts as food. These are fish that are fed to fish, that become food for animals, and that are ‘reduced’ to become health supplements for the wealthy. These little marine life forms include sardines, menhaden, anchovies, sea cucumbers, algae and other entities low on the food chain, and some like phytoplankton too small to be seen by human eyes. [xiii]

I am drawn to one particularly multifaceted ‘non-­charismatic mini-­fauna’.[xiv] Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba), the one that interests us here, is by far the largest of the krill fisheries in the world, with size estimates fluctuating according to the scientific capacities to count them. People can get very excited about krill, its Latin name meaning ‘true shining light’. Some say that the word is Norwegian for ‘young fish’, but Steve Nicol, ‘Dr Krill’, suggests otherwise: in Norwegian, it is an ‘onomatopoeia, a word formed to duplicate the sound of millions of krill patterning on the water as they jump clear of the surface’.[xv]

Krill plays an essential role as a keystone species in the ecosystems of Antarctica as food for whales, seals, squid, ice fish, penguins, albatrosses and many other species of birds. They are ‘the only stepping stone in the food chain between one of the tiniest organisms on earth – single-­celled diatoms – and the largest creatures of earth – whales’. [xvi] Krill provide the essential link between phytoplankton and marine mammals. As we’ve seen, phytoplankton is the base of marine ecosystems, responsible for the productivity of the oceans, as they also supply most of the world’s oxygen. [xvii] Steve Nicol refers to this as a ‘wasp-waisted ecosystem’, whereby krill channel energy and nutrients from the bottom of the food chain and become edible matter for species all the way up to the massive blue whales that exist only on krill.[xviii]

The first commercial krill fishery started in the early 1970s when the Soviet Union started fishing them. It was an inefficient operation, with a large bycatch of 5.2 kilos per one kilo of krill, and the trawling techniques did immense damage to the ecosystem. The Soviets weren’t quite sure what to do with them. Aware of their high protein content – by weight the same as beef – they added them to sausage, cheese and beer. Apparently, even hungry Soviet citizens weren’t impressed.

Killing krill presents a quandary: they begin to deteriorate very quickly on board, turning black. And they have a very high fluoride content, about the same as the toothpaste on your brush. On the other hand, they are perfect when turned into fish meal for farmed fish, as they naturally possess the red pigment, astaxanthin, that has to be otherwise added artificially so that our farmed salmon and prawns are a luscious reddish colour. Farmed fish on a purely soy, vegetable-­based diet would not really count as marine animals – beige entities with none of the omega-­3 that has made them so sought after by health-­conscious humans.

As the demand and price for krill meal and krill oil have rocketed, so too has the desire to catch and process them. Scientists are divided about the present and future of krill and the Southern Ocean ecosystem that depends on them. Because the fishing grounds are so very far from sight and mind, and because the catch is lucrative, illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing is relatively easy. With so many ships now flying flags of convenience, it is hard to know which countries are condoning illegal practices. It is mainly up to NGOs such as WWF and Greenpeace, as well as the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR), to police practices.

With the entrance of the Norwegian company Aker BioMarine, harvesting krill has taken on another dimension. The purpose-­built Antarctic Endurance (named after Shackleton’s ship) is an amazing vessel. With its patented Eco-­Harvesting technology, the trawling system is continuously submerged and a hose gently brings the krill on board, greatly reducing the risk of bycatch of other species. A 2019–20 survey of the krill fishery conducted by Norwegians revealed that there is some 72 million­tonne stock, [xix]against which the overall quota set by CCAMLR is only 620,000 tonnes.

Krill encapsulate many of the most crucial problems when it comes to the tiny organisms at the bottom – geographically and existentially – of our world. Steve Nicol understands the science behind why they are so important, as well as their beauty as a species, not just as fodder for humans and other animals. [xx] Yes, if ships like the Antarctic Endurance were to multiply massively, then the suction of krill into processing pits might have an impact on their numbers. However, the stock size and the quota are closely monitored by international scientists and CCAMLR. For Nicol, it comes down to whether it would be economically feasible for many more ships to hunt for krill. It is all a bit knife-­edge. Will demand soar? In the meantime, warming oceans and melting ice mass may wreak the most damage on krill and the ecosystem they support.

 

I HAVE SPENT a lot of time at the Sydney Fish Market (SFM) over the years. I eat lots of fish, but I also go to admire the beautiful colours and shapes of the marine organisms on sale. In the last several years, as my research has turned to fish and oceans, I have noted more intently the flow and the buzz of the market, talked to the people who work there and the fishers whose fish end up on the slabs. In the last decade and prior to the pandemic, SFM had become one of Sydney’s top tourist attractions, and the car park would be packed with mainland Chinese tour buses disgorging passengers young and old. They would proceed to the different fish stalls to marvel at the plate-­sized abalone clinging to tanks. I’d watch their joy as they handled the large spiny lobsters, posing with them before the aged crustaceans would be cooked in black bean, garlic, ginger and chilli.

Relatively recently, I noticed that the market is bookended by large concrete factories. Owned by the multinational company Hanson, they’ve stood there for over forty years, supplying almost 35 per cent of Sydney CBD’s concrete needs. They are now being moved for the $250 million SFM relocation and revamp.

I was so used to these factories in the background of my mind that it was a shock when I realised that the one on Bridge Road was gone. The other will soon follow to be rebuilt on Glebe Island, much to the concern of local inhabitants – human and other. The demolishment of the second factory will make room for the mooted forty-­seven-­storey apartment buildings that will crowd onto SFM’s small footprint, peering onto the expressway.

The new buildings will, of course, be made of concrete. Which is to say that they will be made of sand, as are most of the world’s buildings and roads. One ton of cement requires six to seven tons of sand and gravel. Even during the pandemic, those big, churning concrete trucks kept moving more concrete into the building of apartments.

Most of us associate sand with beaches. In Australia, we have an embarrassment of choice. Scrunching into the squeaky sand of Jervis Bay for an afternoon kip is unbeatable – ‘the whitest sand in the world’, they boast, though the sand in Esperance, Western Australia seems on par. It is beach sand that concrete factories want. As one author puts it, ‘exporters in Australia are literally selling sand to Arabs’ to build the tallest buildings and the most elaborate artificial islands in the world in the United Arab Emirates. Desert sand is no good for concrete; it’s too smooth, rounded by wind.

Sand mining is a huge endeavour. It is also largely illegal. India, for instance, is home to ‘sand mafias’, and much of Singapore’s reclaimed land is built on and with illegal sand by badly cared for migrant workers. Sand is, by and large, a common pool resource, which is to say it is readily available and hard to regulate. Many now wonder whether we are in the midst of a ‘looming tragedy of the sand commons’. [xxi] The effects of sand mining are seen in devastated landscapes, and in the way whole islands disappear seemingly overnight. The removal of sand jolts the ecosystem in a number of ways: dredging mangroves removes essential habitat for fish and other marine organisms, disrupts the balance of sweet and saline water to harm crops and drinking supplies, and creates fetid pools that become breeding grounds for malaria-­carrying mosquitos and emerging bacterial diseases.

If we could picture the planet from afar in terms of sand, we would see whole beaches taken from the Global South to ‘rehabilitate’ those in places such as Florida, where beaches are disappearing due to extreme storms and rising sea levels; the levelling of sand dunes in the increasingly frantic search for high-­grade mineral sands containing zirconium necessary for the production of glass, electronics and machinery; and the minute figures of men, women and children manually digging and carrying loads of sand while basic dredgers throw it into the air. We’d see the growth of desertification taking over millions of square kilometres in China and elsewhere.

Sand is naturally renewable, but through our actions it simply doesn’t have the time to renew itself, making it a newly scarce resource. The clichés are evident. But even a glimpse into our sandy and sandless world makes me feel that we are standing on shifting ground.

 

I DON’T KNOW that much about cone snails. But what I do know is that Conus are fascinating. There are about 800 or 1,000 different kinds of cone snails in the world, and more than one hundred in Eastern Polynesia – they are hard to count precisely. I am part of a multinational, multidisciplinary team, ‘Polycone’, investigating them. [xxii] The social science side of the project isn’t moving very fast, as it involves ethnographic fieldwork in French Polynesia. As old fellas are said to say: ‘You can’t get there from here.’

Cone snails are very beautiful and for centuries have been gathered by shell collectors – and for much longer by Indigenous communities in the South Pacific. One of my colleagues on the project has gathered a compendium of snail images, ‘Cones des marquises’. It is a fitting title for these beautiful specimens, even if it is just the French for the Marquesas Islands – reportedly the most isolated islands in the world. Conus gauguini is named for the artist, with its vibrant reds. Conus imperialis has luscious tawny-­brown spots, and Conus magnificus has a stately looking burnished shell. Conus geographus has wonderful whorls that seem to conjure up a whole new geography.

They are predators, divided into groups that eat either worms or fish, and sometimes each other. Because they are slow-­moving, over millions of years of evolution they have perfected a killing technique. They have a proboscis, with a harpoon-­like tooth, that snares their prey. The mechanism is amazing. That tooth acts like a hypodermic needle, plunging poison into its victim, which the snail then draws into its extended mouth. They can eat fish bigger than themselves, digesting them and spitting out the bones. Conus geographus is the most lethal, and can kill humans in hours. It’s not a nice death: your brain swells, you fall into a coma, and respiratory arrest and heart failure finish you off. There is no antivenom.

It is, however, this amazing ability to kill that is driving research on the conus. Its venom is made of conotoxins, which researchers are describing as a ‘tool box’, ‘a pharmacopeia of biologically active peptides’. [xxiii] These peptides interact with the nervous systems of mammals, including humans, and disrupt the transmission of pain signals. They represent ‘a whole new class of potent analgesics’, writes David Holmes in The Lancet Neurology. [xxiv] They promise to be ‘10,000 times more potent than morphine without morphine’s addictive properties and side-­effects’, according to National Geographic. [xxv] In addition to pain treatment, they may also help treat Parkinson’s disease, and even attention-­deficit hyperactivity disorder and depression. [xxvi]

There is a ‘but’. No one has really bothered to discover how these creatures are doing. A recent – and the first – comprehensive overview of the threats to their livelihood points to several factors, including pollution, changes in human habitat and coastal development, and ocean warming. [xxvii]

Bioprospecting could have a huge impact on their numbers, and is potentially very big business. Think of the tragic stories about opiate use. Or the stomach-turning news reports about the Sackler family, who made US$13 billion from their Purdue Pharma’s OxyContin. This synthetic prescription pain reliever is at the heart of the current opiate crisis that is killing hundreds of thousands who overdose. Think of the gazillions to be made by pharmaceutical companies with a more powerful painkiller that has no addictive side effects.

Our research project obviously doesn’t seek to create more harm. The focus is on developing best access and benefit sharing, and overall the team wants to implement the sustainable extraction of conotoxins. As I write, there are aquariums on their way by ship from France, and the scientists are consulting about the right choice for collection. This, they hope, will result in a venom bank, with the snails carefully milked for their precious poison. Sometime when we can travel, my social scientist colleagues and I will make our way to the stunning home of these little snails, and do our best to ensure that neither they nor their traditional users will be further harmed. Combined with the marine and biological scientists, perhaps this research could be a smallest drop of change in a massive ocean of hurt.

 

I’M INTERESTED IN the issues that bloom from a consideration of little entities. They are not so uncharismatic as their portrayal in academic research or in the public mind might suggest. And their numbers are key to trophic cascade. Krill, beautiful creatures that swim in the depths of the oceans at the bottom of the world, are big players in our neighbouring ecosystem in the Southern Ocean. Sure, they won’t attract tourists to Antarctica, a doubtful enterprise at the best of times, but they deserve recognition, and thanks, for keeping alive an ecosystem that supports the flashier species. Their huge cache of protein could be used to feed poorer populations, not just fish for the rich.

Grains of sand, so many our human minds can’t fathom, have provided the essential ingredient for our admittedly dumb desire to build over, to build higher, to have easy access to the electronics that grease our way through life. In some ways, they are the saddest of my players – totally overlooked, taken for granted just like our pre-­pandemic trips to the beach.

And of those gorgeous and, in fact, rather sexy cone snails that beguile with their beauty and fascinate with their wonderful system of killing. Maybe they will deliver relief to those who suffer without turning them into opiate-­crazed zombies.

The strands are many, and they mix hope and despair. But these unsung entities matter, big time. Let’s just hope this isn’t a swan song for them.

 

REFERENCES

 

[i] Zola cited in Ruth Scurr, “Rereading Zola's Germinal”. The Guardian. June 19, 2010. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2010/jun/19/emile-zola-germinal-ruth-scurr

[ii]www.undiscoveredscotland.co.uk/aberdeen/maritimemuseum/index.html

[iii] “Piper Alfa”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Piper_Alpha

[iv] Leane, Elizabeth, and Steve Nicol. 2011. "Charismatic krill? Size and conservation in the ocean." Anthrozoös 24, no. 2, 135-146. P 143.

[v] Beiser, Vince. 2019. The world in a grain: The story of sand and how it transformed civilization. Riverhead Books,. P 257

[vi] Beiser, Vince. 2019. The world in a grain: The story of sand and how it transformed civilization. Riverhead Books, P 219.

[vii] Bingham, J. P., Mitsunaga, E., & Bergeron, Z. L. 2010. “Drugs from slugs—Past, present and future perspectives of ω-conotoxin research”. Chemico-biological interactions, 183(1), 1-18.

[viii]  Platt, John R. 2016. “Snails Are Going Extinct: Here's Why That Matters.” Scientific America. August 10. https://blogs.scientificamerican.com/extinction-countdown/snails-going-extinct

[ix] Pauly, D., V. Christiansen, J. Dalsgaard, R. Froese and F. Torres, Jr. 1998. “Fishing down marine food webs” .Science 279: 860–863. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/279/5352/860.abstract

[x] Lynam, C.P., Llope, M., Möllmann, C., Helaouët, P., Bayliss-Brown, G.A. and Stenseth, N.C., 2017. “Interaction between top-down and bottom-up control in marine food webs”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(8), pp.1952-1957. https://www.pnas.org/content/114/8/1952.short

[xi] “Why lobsters are the best thing to hit Tassie's urchin-encrusted reefs”, Aug 24, 2018. https://www.utas.edu.au/news/2018/8/24/765-why-lobsters-are-the-best-thing-to-hit-tassies-urchin-encrusted-reefs/</

[xii] Lynam, C.P., Llope, M., Möllmann, C., Helaouët, P., Bayliss-Brown, G.A. and Stenseth, N.C., 2017. “Interaction between top-down and bottom-up control in marine food webs”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 114(8), pp.1952-1957. P 1955.

[xiii] Probyn, Elspeth. 2016. Eating the Ocean. Durham and London: Duke University Press. P 129-130.

[xiv] Leane, Elizabeth, and Steve Nicol. 2011. "Charismatic krill? Size and conservation in the ocean." Anthrozoös 24, no. 2. 135-146. P 143.

[xv] Nicol, S., 2018. The Curious Life of Krill: A Conservation Story from the Bottom of the World. Island Press. P 7.

[xvi] Sovacool, B.K. and Siman, K.E., 2011. “Revoking a license to krill: what the United States can do to save fish stocks in Antarctica”. Journal of International Wildlife Law & Policy, 14(1), pp.1-50. P.5.

[xvii] Nicol, S., 2018. The Curious Life of Krill: A Conservation Story from the Bottom of the World. Island Press. P 94.

[xviii] Nicol, S., 2018. The Curious Life of Krill: A Conservation Story from the Bottom of the World. Island Press. P 94.

[xix] “Krill survey conclusion: 72 million tonne Antarctic krill stock”. FiskerForum, September 9, 2019. https://fiskerforum.com/krill-survey-conclusion-72-million-tonne-antarctic-krill-stock

[xx] I highly recommend Nicol’s book, The Curious Life of Krill: A Conservation Story from the Bottom of the World, from which I have drawn considerably. A lifetime of krill provides a loving and deeply knowledgeable account of these little creatures.

[xxi] Torres, Aurora, Jodi Brandt, Kristen Lear, Jianguo Liu. 2017. “A looming tragedy of the sand commons” Science 08 Sep.  970-971. https://science.sciencemag.org/content/357/6355/970.summary

[xxii] Tamatoa Bambridge et al. Integrated and sustainable regulation of cones in Eastern Polynesia – Polycone. Funded by the Belmont Forum. 2020-2023.

[xxiii] Bingham, J. P., Mitsunaga, E., & Bergeron, Z. L. 2010. “Drugs from slugs—Past, present and future perspectives of ω-conotoxin research”. Chemico-biological interactions, 183(1), 1-18, p 2.

[xxiv] Holmes, D., 2014. “Conotoxins: how a deadly snail could help ease pain”. The Lancet Neurology, 13(9), pp.867-868. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laneur/article/PIIS1474-4422(14)70183-8/fulltext

[xxv] “Geography Cone”, National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/animals/invertebrates/g/geography-cone

[xxvi] Holmes, D., 2014. “Conotoxins: how a deadly snail could help ease pain”. The Lancet Neurology, 13(9), pp.867-868. https://www.thelancet.com/journals/laneur/article/PIIS1474-4422(14)70183-8/fulltext

[xxvii] Peters, H., O'Leary, B.C., Hawkins, J.P., Carpenter, K.E. and Roberts, C.M., 2013. “Conus: First comprehensive conservation Red List assessment of a marine gastropod mollusc genus”. PLoS One, 8(12), p.e83353. https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0083353

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