I went diving and saw a fish


Editor-in-chief of Underwater photography guide NIRUPAM NIGAM went diving in the Gulf of Maine, a body of water historically known as “North America’s breadbasket” – but now, as he reports, it’s empty. He still took pictures

As a child, I was lucky enough to spend my summers with my grandparents in the state of Maine, in the northeastern United States (a.k.a vacation country).

That meant hot, humid days exploring lighthouses along a rugged coastline, occasional thunderstorms, and plenty of lobster rolls. The pungent fish markets with equally pungent people were always stocked with crabs, monkfish, haddock and lobsters – sometimes as cheap as $4 a pound!

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With their mountains of ice and proximity to the North Atlantic fishing fleet, these markets have a deep history dating back to 16th-century European settlement in North America – a time when cod remained queen of the seascape. .

But as the winds of the weather blow against the shores of the North Atlantic, cod have become overfished and replaced by other less important species. In 1992, Atlantic cod populations reached 1% of their historic levels, without ever recovering.

A lighthouse on Cape Cod, named after its legendary cod populations

After returning to the area with experience working as a fisheries scientist, I began to notice an interesting trend… the distribution of fish in the markets was very different from when I was growing up.

If you walk into a Maine fish market now, you’ll see a lot more foreign species as well as fish you’d never expect to be edible. Take the blackbird. Last month, I visited a market filled to the brim with these rather odd bony creatures. A small blackboard perched next to their frozen bodies simply read “for stews.” Obviously, the choice fish have all since disappeared.

Fish
Original New England fisherman’s hut that inspired a tavern in Herman Melville’s opening scene Moby-Dick

It was during this recent adventure in New England that I was invited to do a tour Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute – a world-renowned ocean research center and home of the VdH Alvin.

While talking to the senior scientist in the Fisheries Oceanography and Larval Fish Ecology Laboratory, I learned something that I found alarming. Experimental fisheries are being set up off the coast of New England in search of new fishing grounds in the mesopelagic or twilight zone.

That’s when I knew the health of the New England fisheries was definitely in dire straits. Fish in the twilight zone are small, slimy, and rare. When I asked the question, “Why would anyone fish there?” I received a chilling reply: “This is the next place to fish once we’ve fished everything along the coast.” It wasn’t very profitable.

wood hole
The Neil Armstrong campus and research vessel at Woods Hole

This revelation made me want to find myself with my camera under the cold, gray and capricious waters of the North Atlantic. I wanted to see this ancient seascape for myself before it was fully exploited – a seascape that has sustained North America for centuries.

After a four hour drive up the coast to the Gulf of Maine and a bout of Covid, I met two dive buddies who were finishing up their graduate research at the University of Maine.

“Don’t get your hopes up, they said, there’s not much to see around here. On a given dive, they told me, they only saw a few fish and maybe a lobster. In fact, they were studying what happened to the algae populations after all the cod had been caught and the sea urchins had been shipped to Asia. Apparently there is only a lot of seaweed left.

Starfish
Seastar and kelp on the rocky reef of Cape Elizabeth in the Gulf of Maine

We stopped in Twin Lights State Park in Cape Elizabeth, trunks full of snorkel gear. A cold ocean breeze hit my face as I opened my car door. I noticed a decrepit old lighthouse saddled on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. “That’s it,” my buddy said, “the dive site is under that lighthouse.”

Luckily the swell was calm – one misstep on the rocky shoreline could have meant a steep drop with lots of gear and heavy camera gear.

After changing into thick fleece underwear and drysuits, we entered the cold 5.5°C water and steadily backed out to sea. As we swam, I noticed a string of buoys following the outline of the coast. The water was shallow so I ducked my head to see chains of lobster traps. All were empty.

Lobster trap
Empty lobster trap in the shallow waters of Cape Elizabeth

As we drifted to the dive site, we gave ourselves the OK and descended into murky green depths. The rocky terrain below formed ridges that cut deeper and deeper out to sea. Following one of these ridges we swam around waiting for the critters to pass.

We swam and swam…and swam. Occasionally we would spot a small crab among seaweed beds or a jellyfish floating in the water. Invasive vase tunicates (Intestinal Ciona) covered the seabed. But the seascape was otherwise barren, and an eerie calm seeped into the ocean.

vase tunicates
Invasive vase tunicates cover the seabed

Most disturbingly, during our full 70 minute dive – long by most people’s standards – I only saw one fish. It was an unpretentious little sculpin, well camouflaged among the seaweed.

In my 12 years of diving experience around the world, I had never dived with a single fish. It is the equivalent of walking through a forest but seeing only one tree. Or witness the last lone bison standing in the Great Plains. The North Atlantic is witnessing the biological end of an era.

only fish
It’s not my best photo, but it’s the only sculpin I’ve seen. The only fish in the dive

Don’t fool me. There is some seasonality when it comes to fish or lobster populations. But I have dived in other areas of the North Atlantic and the Arctic Ocean. Even in traditional Norwegian fishing harbors I saw thousands more pollack, cod and haddock than I saw that day in the Gulf of Maine. It’s the ocean. There should be plenty of other fish in the sea.

Astonished
A small jellyfish floats in the empty waters

During my days spent collecting fisheries data for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), it was easy to get lost in the numbers. The catches I saw landed turned into technical files to be filed in a distant government office. It’s easy to forget that those millions of pounds of fish on our spec sheets are real, real-world events.

They result in empty oceans. And, for an underwater photographer, that translates into a lack of photo subjects.

North Atlantic cod stocks could be a lost cause. After all, they are a case study for what scientists call the “extinction vortex.” But perhaps these photos can remind us of what is at stake in the rest of the world if we don’t take a close look at our industrial fishing practices. So take a look at these empty photos. They are a reminder of what has been and what can be.

Crab
A hermit crab stares at the curious photographer watching him

There is always something you can do

Here are a few things I learned that can keep the rest of the world from becoming the Gulf of Maine:

  1. Swim without sunscreen. Sunscreen hurts coral
  2. Collect garbage. There are many
  3. Take a picture of a fish, but not too much
  4. Know where your seafood comes from. Buy sustainably caught. Use the Marine Conservation Society Good fish guide
  5. Eat farmed bivalve shellfish. It’s even better for the environment than going vegetarian. You just have to ask Ray Hilborn
  6. Eat bait fish, such as sardines and anchovies. It’s better for the environment than eating other fish
  7. Don’t eat shark fin soup
  8. Harvest as much as you need (within legal limits) but no more
  9. Try not to hit the bottom when diving. Use a finger on a rock for stability
  10. Dive locally as much as possible
  11. Support artificial reefs such as shipwrecks
  12. Keep pets away from tidal pools (you’d be surprised what they can eat)
  13. Go out to the beach. The more people, the more people care

This article originally appeared in Underwater photography guide

nirupam

Underwater photographer and fisheries scientist Nirupam Nigam grew up in Los Angeles and began diving in the Channel Islands. He works as a fisheries observer on boats in the Bering Sea and North Pacific and, when not at sea, travels with his fiancée to take photographs. His website is Pictures of the sea.

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