Tuesday, 4 February 2014

Fish Are Friends

This blog post is on a very different subject to my previous ones, but it is about the thing that is most important to me above everything else; animal conservation. With documentaries such as Blackfish and The Cove becoming viral sensations, awareness of the dire need for marine conservation is growing. And it's about time.

Of all groups of animals in need of  conservation, marine animals get the least press, and receive the least funding. This is due to many reasons. Creatures such as fish and turtles are much harder to identify with than terrestrial mammals, which we can relate with as they are genetically much closer to ourselves and our favourite pets. They're often thought of as "cold and emotionless", and it's a widely believed myth that fish cannot feel pain. We don't think of them as intelligent creatures, in the same way we do as elephants or gorillas, even though there is a growing amount of scientific evidence to prove that they in fact lead very complex lives. We often forget completely that coral even is an animal.

Only a couple of years ago I remember memorising the fact that over 73 million sharks were being killed each year. The number is now up to over 100 million. That's roughly equivalent to one third of the population of the United States being wiped out each year. And why are we doing this to them? There are two main factors; the first being shark finning.

Picture via stopsharkfinning.net

Shark finning is where sharks are caught out at sea, have their fins removed and are tossed back again, alive. The sharks, which are then unable to swim, slowly sink into the ocean depths where they are then eaten alive by other fish. Shark meat has a low market value and fishermen don't see it as being worthwhile to transport back to the shore, however shark fins can be sold for a high price due to their being the key ingredient in shark fin soup; which according to Chinese traditional medicine holds "the essence of power, virility and wealth", as well as supposedly having cancer-fighting properties. The facts? As shark fins are primarily made up of cartilage, they have very little nutritional value and are mostly devoid of vitamins. The claim that they can combat cancer is based on a belief that sharks cannot get cancer, which is untrue. In a clinical study on the use of shark cartilage as treatment for human cancer, it was proven to be ineffective. In fact, shark fins are very high in poisonous mercury. Mercury is commonly found in fish products as it is a result of ocean pollution, and as sharks are generally at the top of the food chain, their levels are much higher. A 2001 study  by Wild Aid found that the levels of mercury in shark fins from Hong Kong were 42 times higher than the safe limit for humans. Mercury poisoning causes hearing loss, loss of eyesight, memory loss,  and the children of pregnant women who are affected are often born with severe deformities and disabilities.

Picture via change.org

The second reason that humans kill sharks is fear. Despite the fact that there are on average less than five fatalities worldwide as a result of shark attacks each year (humans kill roughly 11400 sharks per hour), there are organised culls all over the world in an attempt to keep them away from beaches and therefore reduce the number of attacks. There have only actually been 2569 confirmed unprovoked shark attacks worldwide since 1580, of which a mere 484 were fatal. 484 deaths in 434 years works out to barely more than one per year. To put this into perspective a bit it helps to know that over a million people die each year from diseases contracted from mosquitoes, more than 100 people choke to death on ballpoint pens each year, and you're more likely to be attacked by a cow than you are by a shark . It seems like we're forgetting that Jaws was fiction.

Turtles are under threat from poaching; for their meat, shells and eggs, and all forms of marine life are suffering as a result of pollution. Our consumer culture is resulting in a growing amount of pollution from plastics in the oceans. This includes everything from plastic bags and the rings from tops of multipacks of cans, to tiny plastic beads used in cosmetics designed to exfoliate the skin. Many animals die either from becoming entangled in the debris, or accidentally mistaking it for food, and the tiny pieces can often be even more dangerous as they can be swallowed without the animal even noticing.

 Picture via topnews.ae

 But the full extent of the damage that plastic in our oceans can cause isn't as obvious as all that. Plastic is made from oil and natural gas, and the production process releases petroleum hydrocarbons into the atmosphere, which are toxic to all forms of life. These toxins are also absorbed by the body in the case of ingestion, and can cause damage to all of the organ systems in the body; the immune system, nervous system, respiratory system, circulatory system, reproductive system, endocrine system and the sensory system. In total there are nearly 20 billion tons of plastic waste floating in the oceans, which also releases harmful PCB and DDT. And in case it doesn't worry you enough that the world's fish are being poisoned by all these things, just remember that the ones that survive are still a part of the food chain; if eaten by humans, any pollutants in their bodies are simply passed on up the chain.

Picture via earthtimes.org

The state of the oceans may seem like something that's easy to forget about as they're not where the vast majority spend much of our time, but they are the largest habitat on the planet and if we think we can go without feeling the impact when they're suffering, we're kidding ourselves. This is why I want to do something about it. I hope to devote my future to fighting for this cause; I'm currently studying zoology and hope to go on to study marine biology in the future, and next year I will be travelling to Central America as a volunteer, to help hands-on with restoring the natural balance of these delicate ocean eco-systems. During my time there I will be collecting important data about the coral reefs, fish and turtles that live in the coastal waters, as well as helping to conserve the breeding turtle populations, and do my bit to combat local pollution. I'm aiming to spend a total of six months working on these projects, which should then help me enter into the world of conservation as a full time vocation.

I have been working towards funding this trip for the last two years, but in order to achieve my planned departure date of May 2015, I'm going to need a little help. I have set up a fundraising webpage in order to help me reach my goal, and if any of this blog post has inspired you to want to make a change then I hope you will check it out and possibly make a donation. The webpage details the work that the ongoing volunteer projects are trying to achieve, as well as how any money being raised will be spent. In return for donations there are many perks on offer, ranging from personalised thank you cards to turtle adoption packs, prints of the photos I take while volunteering, and even some designer lingerie! If you know anyone else who cares about the conservation of our ocean species then please share my appeal (which can be found here), as awareness is half the battle. These animals need our help, and the time to act is now.

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