Marine reserve blues

Dr Lou Luddington is a marine biologist, nature photographer and writer living aboard a sailboat, Noctiluca, on the move and exploring marine protected areas. 

Words & photograph by Lou Luddington

A loud double whistle, the kind made to get your attention, makes me jump up from my seat and rush up on deck. Our sailing friends are rowing to the opposite quay, waving and pointing at the fishing boat arriving at the landing stage and beckoning us to join them. I swiftly shoulder my camera bag, hop off the boat, grab my folding bike and whizz along the pontoon to meet them.  A crowd has gathered around a small artisanal fishing boat unloading the night’s catch and as I get closer I can see why. Hoisted tail-first a giant fish is hauled up from beside the boat. Water pours from its gaping mouth and the sun glints off a barbed hook held fast in the flesh at its corner, a tiny curve of metal that sealed its fate. 

Caught by pole and line method in a simulated feeding frenzy of intensive baiting, it would have been unaware of the peril of the lurking hook until it felt the fatal tug towards the air. A long fight would have ensued until exhaustion and the final blow; a slice to the tail to drain the blood and stop the heart. 

Now brandished by the arm of a crane, 200kg of yellowfin tuna, Thunnus albacares rises high into the air. It is lowered onto a pallet and a forklift truck moves it along the quayside to make way for another. The next fish is bigger, closer to 300kg. Hoisted up in the same way, its sharp profile is etched on to the sky. I am awed by its exquisite features; honed for efficient, high speed and long distance swimming, it is a robust torpedo-like fish. Their fins are sturdy and stiff and luminous yellow finlets run along the tail to reduce turbulence for fine-tuned swimming. At five times my body weight it’s the biggest fish I’ve ever seen landed. Strung aloft by its scythe-like tail fin, a rivulet of blood drips from the mouth, painting a crimson ring on the pavement beneath as it twirls. 

I’m in disbelief at two things; one that a creature so fantastical lives and swims among us and two, that they are so routinely hunted and eaten by humans, conveniently canned and available in every grocery store. Yet here it is before me, hooked and landed. 

The small, gathered crowd is a fascinating mix of characters. Proud fishers landing their hard-won catch after a long night of searching, baiting, battling; a distressed boy who begins wailing and pulling away when his dad tries to make him stand next to the huge, bloodied fish; a middle-aged German lady flexing her biceps in make-believe conquest for the camera; a security guard maintaining order; pensive tourists processing a swirl of emotion; and me, with camera in hand. I stand before the tuna, their blood pooling at my feet and begin to crack, throat prickling, eyes hot. I have to walk away and take a moment to compose myself as a sob rises in my chest. Even in death these fish are magnificent.

You may be surprised to learn that it is permissible to catch fish like these within the boundaries of a celebrated marine reserve in the Mar de Calme area south of El Hierro, Canary islands. The reserve was in fact proposed and set up by the fishing community of La Restinga primarily to protect their fishing interests. Individually, these small artisanal fishing boats appear to have a low impact as catches are limited, however collectively the Canary Islands tuna fisheries catch around 8,000 tons of tuna per year by pole and line. Tuna are a top predator in the marine food chain, maintaining a balance in the ocean environment.  Removing large numbers of top predators creates a trophic cascade – similar to the effect of removing wolves from Yellowstone National Park. The whole ecosystem can break down. 

We arrived at La Restinga on our sailboat excited to freedive in the marine reserve that scuba diving friends had raved about for its spectacular underwater scenery and rich marine life. The reality turned out to be different for us. Activities within the reserve are very much restricted to protect the artisanal fishery. Set up in 1996, there is a small no-take area at its heart, surrounded by much larger zones where fishing is permitted with traditional equipment. To protect the underwater habitats, anchoring is forbidden within the reserve. Scuba diving is permitted only at designated sites with one of the local scuba diving centres.

The reserve is patrolled daily by boat as we found out during a freedive from the shore when we first arrived. I surfaced from a dive to find patrollers interrogating my partner Tom, demanding to see our spearguns. Finally satisfied we were just taking photos they enlightened us to the no freediving rule and sent us on our way. Much to our disappointment it turned out freediving is prohibited throughout the reserve unless you are accompanied by the only freediving outfit on the island and dive at the designated sites. 

The irony that we couldn’t freedive in the marine reserve and look at marine life whilst the local fishers had free rein to enter and take fish, did not escape us. Surely a space reserved for fishing, however small-scale, is not a true marine reserve. If we are to reverse the declining health of our ocean this has to change. Protecting great swathes of our ocean from all forms of extraction will ensure that glorious creatures like the yellowfin tuna of El Hierro are left to hunt the high seas in great numbers, bringing harmony to our ocean systems and striking awe in our hearts.

Issue 20
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This column appears in ISSUE 20: Antarctica: Cousteau's call of Oceanographic Magazine

Issue 20
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_princess
Supported by WEBSITE_sponsorlogos_princess

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