Clem Sunter

Displacing the penguins

2009-10-07 12:00

My wife and I were having lunch at a restaurant in Simon's Town. She asked the waiter what the fish of the day was. He said Dorado. She then asked whether or not Dorado was classified as an endangered species.

The waiter called over the manager who not only gave her a booklet by a marine environmental agency which answered her question (it is not on the endangered list), he also showed her a certificate verifying the DNA of the fish being served. I was impressed but it did occur to me that this interchange warranted a much bigger question: are we human beings now so successful as a species that we are in danger of wiping out the population under the ocean? Not only have we reproduced our way to a six and a half billion member club, a significant chunk of the membership (like India and China) are upgrading their diet to include exotic fish.

Think of how many tons of fish are consumed every day in every restaurant and household in every country in the world. Then ask yourself what percentage of the ocean population does this represent. Then consider how this compares with marine population growth. Are there more living things in the ocean today than there were a hundred years ago?

The reason these questions are so important is that I bet you there are no precise answers. Trying to count numbers of fish in the ocean must be similar to working out how many occupants there are in a car with tinted windows. It's only when they emerge that you'll know for sure. Likewise, it's only when the fishermen come home in their trawlers with depleted catches for a number of seasons that you know for sure the sea is less inhabited.

I can hear some of you reading this article already murmuring that population control is the only answer. There are too many people on this Earth and that is the fundamental cause of the majority of our environmental problems. But measures to curb population growth also have unintended consequences.

In China, the one-child policy has been in place since the late 1970s. It is estimated that without this measure the Chinese population would be 1.6 billion now, as opposed to its actual figure of 1.3 billion. That's a saving of the entire American population of 300 million! But it has been achieved at a cost. The streets of Beijing and Shanghai don't resound to the shouts and laughter of little children like you hear them in Hong Kong (where the policy does not apply).

On a Sunday afternoon in Shanghai, you see couples strolling down the river with their one child in a pram. Usually it's a boy and nicknamed "Little Napoleon" because he's so spoilt as an only child. Where are all the little girls? Nobody talks about that. Even the Chinese government are thinking of revising the one-child policy as a result of the country beginning to suffer the same malaise as Europe and Japan, namely a geriatric boom with fewer younger people to look after the geriatrics and keep the economy going.

So, I don't know. Maybe, we will all have to become vegetarians. On the other hand, who wants to see more fields of crops replacing natural bush? Meanwhile, I didn't have Dorado. I had steak and chips as I surveyed the harbour outside the restaurant. But I couldn't help thinking of an article in Africa - Birds & Birding which stated that, as a result of the lack of food, penguin numbers off South Africa's West Coast fell from 40 000 pairs in 2004 to 12 000 pairs in 2008. We are displacing the penguins.

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