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Klaserie Sands River Camp

Eating the oceans

Ian Michler

According to a recent IUCN Red Data press release, sturgeons, one of the oldest surviving fish families, are the most critically endangered group of species on the planet. There are 27 species within the Acipenseridae family, and of these 17 are listed as critically endangered and four as possibly extinct.

And the primary reason for them being in this precarious state? Overexploitation by humans, primarily because of the world-wide demand for caviar, the sturgeons’ unfertilised eggs. Quaffing caviar is regarding as some sort of status symbol amongst the wealthy of the northern hemisphere, and they will go to great lengths in order to obtain this indulgence. The most expensive variety, white *or* almas caviar, comes from a fully mature albino beluga sturgeon. The word almas is Russian for diamond, and fresh caviar of this type is priced at approximately US$40 000/kg.

In the words of Dr M. Pourkazemi, chair of the IUCN/SSC Sturgeon Specialist Group, “Sturgeon have survived dramatic change over the past 250 million years only to face the serious threat of becoming extinct as a direct result of human activities. Illegal catch, overfishing, the breaking up of the migratory routes and pollution are the key elements that have driven almost all species to the brink of extinction.”

What is it about us humans that we continue preying upon wild species knowing that our behavior is condemning them to extinction? Is it some sort of uncontrollable primal instinct that drives us to feed, regardless? Is it a sense of superiority over all other living creatures that leads to arrogance and an attitude of non-caring, or given our ability to reason, is it simply a state of stupidity?

Sturgeon fish are merely one example. Annually, between 30 and 40 million sharks are killed so that some people can eat soup. It is only the fins that the soup eaters want, which by the way comprise nothing more than cartilage and are tasteless. As a result 25 species are listed as threatened with extinction.

Blue-fin tuna, another critically endangered species, continues to be caught across the oceans to supply the sushi and sashimi restaurants frequented by the showy business and social sets of the world. The freshest fish can fetch over US$1 000/kg.

Other examples of endangered species being plundered, the tons of abalone poached annually in South African waters that end up as a delicacy for Far Eastern tables, *or* the boatloads of Patagonian toothfish that find their way onto the tables of glitzy American and European restaurants … and so the list continues. And for those of us that still love to overdose on our favorite prawn dish, just remember that for every kilogram that ends up on your plate, another nine kilograms of ‘by-catch’ is killed, all so that you may fill your stomach.

It is widely reported by all major conservation agencies and marine research institutes that 75% of all marine reserves are being fished at full capacity *or* are already in steep decline. And since the 1950s, 90% of all large fish have disappeared from the oceans. Yet we continue to eat these species on a daily basis.

Those living a subsistence lifestyle and surviving on seafood as their only source of protein have a partial excuse, but for those of us that visit restaurants and supermarkets, there is no excuse. And in today’s world of instant information, ignorance no longer absolves us, which makes me think it’s mostly a deadly broth of arrogance and stupidity.

[If you want to make sure that you’re making sustainable fish food choices, consumers in South Africa can consult the South African Sustainable Seafood Initiative, or SASSI. Visit or text the name of the fish to 079 499 8795 to find out whether you should, or shouldn’t be eating it. – Ed]

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Ian Michler

Ian has spent the last 24 years working as a specialist guide, photo-journalist and consultant across Africa, including a stint of 13 years based in the Okavango Delta, Botswana. When not guiding, he writes predominately for Africa Geographic covering topics on conservation, wildlife management, ecotourism, and the environment, and has been writing his popular monthly column since 2001. Ian is also the author and photographer of seven natural history and travel books on Africa, and is a past winner of the bird category in the Agfa Wildlife photographic competition (1997). He has also worked as a researcher and field coordinator on various natural history television documentaries for international broadcasters and as a consultant on ecotourism to various private sector and government agencies. Prior to his life in the wilderness, he spent eight years practicing as a stockbroker in Cape Town and Johannesburg.