The ocean provides us with approximately three quarters of the oxygen in our atmosphere, regulates the global carbon cycle, drives global weather systems, and it even provides us with a bounty of life sustaining foods. While the ocean allows for life on earth to exist and is essential for our survival, it is in serious trouble.
Yet, despite all that the ocean gives us, it has little significance in the human centric world we live in today. Throughout history, the deep blue has always provided us with a resilient source of fish and recreational opportunities. The ocean provides for us and in return, we give back to the ocean all of our unwanted waste, garbage, chemical sludge, sewage discharge, and fertilizer runoff as though it is an endless repository. After all, the oceans cover 71% of the earth’s surface and it still looks blue and wavy, so there is no harm done right? Wrong.
In recent years, it has become apparent that all of our collective insignificant actions have had a large scale effect on the health of the oceans – countless oil spills, 5.25 trillion pieces of plastic marine debris, the extinction of countless marine species, obliteration of commercial fish populations, shoreline disturbance, and even the alteration of the ocean currents and global weather patterns.
And while many people today are surrounded by technology and removed from the natural world, free divers are in a unique position. We experience the ocean from below the pristine blue surface like no one else. Every time we take that last deep breath of air and descend to the bottom, we leave behind the world as we know it and enter a new realm that embraces us. In doing so, we see a side of the ocean and its inhabitants like no other. We see the marine life carry on seemingly unaffected by our presence and we begin to understand how complex and amazing the underwater world really is. However, we also see the marine environment changing with every passing day. The once vibrant coral reefs become overgrown with indigestible algae, the void of large predators that were caught by overzealous fishermen, the scars left behind from anchors, fishing gear, and propellers. We also see what the ocean is experiencing – plastic bags drifting past in the current, crabs making homes out of plastic bottles, sea turtles munching on discarded rags, fish entangled and suffocated in abandoned fishing nets, and in some cases only seeing fields of jellyfish due to eutrophication of the water as a result of nutrient pollution and runoff from the shore.
The freedivers who engage in spear fishing – one of the most sustainable and ethical forms of fishing – take that unique experience to another level. The act of hunting in the marine environment takes you from being a mere visitor and observer and places you directly in the aquatic food chain, where you become an active part of the underwater environment. This is something that requires a tacit understanding of the underwater world and incurs a moral obligation to act in a way to preserve it. This goes beyond simply knowing how to identify a fish and understanding regulations, restrictions, and bag limits. It requires that the hunter truly understands the fish they are hunting: its life cycle, its habitat, its place in the marine environment, and also the fragility of the ecosystem in which the free diver is now an integral part. It goes beyond simply pulling the trigger if the fish is big enough, but also knowing when not to pull the trigger – especially if the fish is of a substantial size and therefore able to contribute to future of the population (something scientist call BOFFFs or Big Old Fat Fertile Fish, which produce more eggs of better quality than little fish), ensuring that the fishery stock remains sustainable. The ego can be fed with little fish too.
Being an ethical and sustainable spearfisher is also something that persists as a lifestyle on land as well. This is what makes many freedivers and spearfishermen stewards of their environment – they protect what they love. They understand the environmental impacts that human actions are having on the oceans and the marine life with whom they share the aquatic realm. Marine debris disrupts the aquatic food chain, coastal development reduces habitat for the fish they rely upon, and overfishing has drastic effects on ocean health as a whole.
So what can you do?
-Become knowledgeable about the species you might encounter and learn about their tendencies, life cycle, habitat, and ecological role.
-Have a thorough understanding of the regulations and restriction in your area (including bag and size limits, as well as protected species).
-Understand where you can fish and know where the boundaries of sanctuaries and protected areas are (this will help reduce harm to delicate marine ecosystems).
-Control your excitement and hold onto your ego – don’t harvest fish that are too small or too large. — –Always underestimate the size of a fish by two inches or so (water magnifies objects up to 30x) and never attempt to harvest a fish unless you are 100% sure about the species and size. Also, only harvest fish that you intend to eat (i.e. practice resource conservation).
-Do your best to only take shots that are reasonable, limiting the chance of harming the reef and ensuring that an injured fish would not be able to swim away.
-When diving, be aware of your surroundings and avoid damaging corals or reef structure. Don’t chase and harass the marine life and make sure to make sure you aren’t contributing to marine debris (i.e. don’t trash where you splash).
-Educate yourself and other freedivers/spearfishers about sustainable and ethical hunting practices.
-Become involved in local efforts to protect what you love. Voice your opinion if you think that something needs to change and police your own.