Updated: Feb 4
Do you remember the children’s story, The Three Billy Goats Gruff? Basically, three goats are longing to feast in the greener grass on the other side of a rickety wooden bridge, under which lives a mean troll who threatens to gobble up each goat as they cross successively. The first two avoid being eaten by telling the troll that their biggest brother is coming along last, and he’ll make a much heartier meal. When big bro shows up, he butts the troll off the bridge to his death. My dad occasionally told me that tale before bedtime and, man, could he terrify me every time with suspense and various scary troll voices threatening, “Who’s that trip-trapping over my bridge?!”. Afterwards, I’d make a mad dash up the creaky, non-encased, wooden basement steps in the dark and throw myself under the covers. It seems quaint now, but at the time I remember being so scared that I had trouble falling into sleep. I still have anxiety when trying to get to sleep, but now it’s the fault of some little mind troll who gets me thinking about the all the human-caused non-human suffering in the world. Worst of all is how overwhelmingly powerless I feel to do anything about it. It’s been especially rough the past few years.
I feel like I’ve been standing neck-deep in the itchy weeds that grow on the edge of an abyss of environmental despair and social isolation. I’ve been perching on the vertigo-inducing edge wondering how to cross the bottomless divide to graze, like a little hungry billy goat, in the soft pastures of hope and community I crave on the other side. But, unlike in the story, there is no bridge. So, I decided that if I couldn’t find a route made ready by some braver and wiser soul, I’d have to roll up my sleeves and make one myself. So, while spending the past few months working on our sailboat in San Carlos, Sonora, Mexico, I decided to scrounge up some weather-beaten boards of altruism and cobble together my own bridge that I’d cross as I built. So, you ask, how did THAT go, dear naïve one? I can just hear my Virginian friends saying, “Aw . . . Bless your little heart.”
Altruism Bridge Construction Part I - October 2021: I started out feeling pretty good about my do-goodery; like a bonafide part of the local community. I volunteered to help get underway a community mural for a non-profit organization that, among other things, rescues marine animals entangled in fishing gear. After creating a general design and committing a couple days off pressing boat work, I managed to round up enough outdoor acrylic paints, brushes, and willing participants to get the background painted. It was fun and beautiful and promised to be a focal point, growing the community of conservation citizens. Then, from underneath my bridge that I was nail-tapping and trip-trapping over, came the nasty, menacing voice of a mean old troll! I was, in reality, on Facebook checking to see how many virtual “likes” the mural painting event was getting, in the hopes of recruiting a few more willing hands, when the internet troll blasted: “Just trying to understand. Throw a party with toxic chemicals that will ultimately find their way into and deteriorate that which you are throwing the party to protect. A little counter intuitive isn’t it. Or is it just others (sic) footprints you are concerned about (?)”
Well poop on a white wedding cake. Aside from the blatant untruth of the first sentence, the troll was right. I was using acrylic paint, plastic essentially, that after some number of years is going to degrade, flake off, and become even more microplastic pollution, some of which will find its way into the bodies of the very same sea creatures we are hoping to help protect. But I didn’t take the troll’s bait and kept hammering my altruistic boards together. I try only to engage in arguments with the mindful goal of mutual understanding in order to actually solve a problem. I doubt the troll had any suggestions up his mean, twisted sleeve for environmentally friendly outdoor paint alternatives for well-intentioned mural-artists. But.
I would have welcomed dialogue about alternative paints because I live and work from a sailboat. Yes, in a lot of ways Triplefin’s footprint is very green while floating on the blue. We use wind to travel*, solar panels for energy, we eat mostly local produce, and are quite frugal with the freshwater we make with our desalination system. But. But the boating-collective “we”, ourselves included so far, use paint, especially bottom paint designed to slowly slough off, that is toxic to marine life. We cringe every time we are in the boat work-yard where you can watch the vibrantly colored chemicals being sprayed, sanded, and rinsed off and see directly into the rocky wash where the toxic sludge trickles from there to the sea about a half mile away. My half completed bridge over to the lush fields of hope and community was feeling pretty rickety by late November. Here’s my favorite working-on-the-bridge song (4 Non-Blondes' "What's Up" . . . . I related so much to it in 1993, but it resonates even more to me now.
Altruism-Bridge Construction Lunch Break:
That troll got me chewing on our human actions of cultural habit and the collateral damage they do to innocent lives. After all, my choice of both mural and boat paints was fairly mindless. I was just doing what I grew up doing and what I saw others doing, respectively. I hadn’t even considered that there could be other options. Which brings me to this seemingly non-sequitur question: What do you know about the seafood you eat? Do you know about ghost nets and by-catch? It sounds so innocuous, doesn’t it, like collateral damage in war? But. By-catch is all the “undesirable” marine animals who are caught, suffer, die, and are discarded aside from the target species being fished for our lunch break. It’s estimated that on average, around the world, each year at a minimum, over 40% of total marine catch is wasted bycatch. *****
And what ARE Ghost Nets? They’re highly durable plastic fishing nets that have been abandoned, lost, or discarded in the sea. 48,000 tons of new ghost nets begin to haunt the seas per year****** and each individual gill net can be several kilometers in length! So, quite likely, the seafood lunch we eat will continue to cost innocent lives for decades to come.
Look closer at my bridge-building lunch menu to really understand it: Shrimp tacos are tasty!
But do you know that for every pound of shrimp dredged up for lunch many other lives were dredged up and tossed out dead?
Ok then, how about the tuna?
But do you know that anyone besides my lunch who is big enough to get tangled in that drifting gill net also got tangled and likely suffered a horrendous death?
So, the fish tacos, then?
But do you know who else got caught, suffered, and died on that longline?
I know this is real. I have born witness to it often out at sea. Just the other day we went for a snorkel and found this brown booby who we rescued and successfully released:
OK, lunch is over, I may have made you upset, and I’ve got a bridge to finish . . . .
Altruistic Bridge Construction Part II – January 2022: An aging sailor friend, a gentle soul, who lives alone on his small boat, just contracted, and became bed-ridden with a potentially deadly, terribly contagious disease. Given his distrust of modern medicine he chose not to prophylactically protect himself and others. He and I have differing opinions on this. I decided to put responsive compassion ahead of reactive judgement and kayaked over, leaving some instant miso soup packets safely upwind on his bow. I asked if we should get a doctor, but he chose to wait it out. Since this fellow relies on hitching dingy rides to shore in winter and then takes the bus into town where he gets almost all his food from sit-down restaurants, I realized I had some cooking to do. For four days I cooked my tastiest and healthiest vegan dishes and paddled them over, careful to keep my distance. It was evidently my dark-chocolate-chip zucchini muffins that did the trick. The next day he felt just well enough to ask for a ride to shore, but given his still infectious state, I insisted on him giving me a shopping list for the next day instead.
Alas, the next day, as I was paddling over to get his wish list, there he was, on shore drying off and putting on his going-to-town shirt and shoes. I’d like to say that I wasn’t angry, but the truth is, I was. Angry as a troll under a bridge. I was worried about the unseen human bycatch; all the unknowing people he would come into contact with that day. The family who makes their living baking his favorite bread from their back-alley, adobe home. The construction workers on the bus who can’t afford to stay home sick for one day, much less a week, without their children going hungry. The grandmother at the market who can’t afford health insurance and is the primary caregiver for her three grandchildren. I worried about you. Your child. Your mom. My well-meaning actions in helping my friend may have ended up casting a wide, invisible, and indiscriminating net.
Construction Complete - The Other Side of Do-Goodery – A Debriefing
What a surprise, there are itchy weeds over here too! Lots of grabby little irritating seeds of uncertainty and unknowns getting stuck in my socks. Looking back across my bridge of do-goodery, I see that I began the mural project with some genuine ignorance born of habit or custom. Thinking about the toxic paints we’ve used on Triplefin, though, I have to admit to employing some cognitive dissonance. I just assumed that was how it had to be so I did my best to pretend to see no evil and just get the work done and get the heck out of there so I wouldn’t be confronted with my moral discord. But weeds be darned, I do know this: Thanks to the not-well-meaning troll I am now going in search of environmentally friendly paints. Sometimes we should listen to the troll under the bridge.
When my friend got sick with no one around to help him I just did what I felt was right in that moment. I put aside our differing opinions and did what I could with what I had where I was. What he did afterwards, going to town while still infectious, was out of my control and not my responsibility. I can dislike it and worry about the broader consequences, but I can’t let that keep me from helping others whom I judge as acting wrongly. After all, my cooking did open his seafood-oriented stomach to the fact that vegan food can be healthy AND tasty, and that can have a huge, positive ripple effect. So, who am I to claim to know what’s ultimately “right” and “wrong”? Objectively, I can’t know. Sometimes we should be the troll, but let go of expecting to be listened to.
When you and I sit down to a meal we certainly have no desire for the cruelties of bycatch and other unseen, unintended consequences. We just want to eat. But, because we are kept in the dark by industries and confused information it is just all too easy, like me in the boat yard, to just not think about it, eat what we want, and get on with our work. We can’t know everything. But we can know some things. We can head-butt trolls, external and internal, off the bridge by being as informed as we can and by doing what we can with what we have where we are. But we need to be open to listening to something we don't want to hear . . . or see . . .
In May of 2021 Paul and I came across an awful sight; a ghost net that changed at least 3 lives, all for the better. Here’s a short video. That, just after My recent dive with a singing and dancing humpback whale changed us forever. We made those whales a sacred promise and now we are ready to follow through on it. We are changing this year’s sailing-South-to-warmth plans to sail instead up to the cold Midriff Islands to take a workshop from the non-profit organization, CRRIFS.org, mentioned earlier. We will learn how to disentangle whales, dolphins, sea turtles, sharks, birds, and more safely and effectively from those abandoned ghost nets that we’ll now be actively searching for. Best of all, we’ll be joining a team of other sailors and fisherfolk around the Sea of Cortez because we know that in order to do-good, we need to work together despite our obvious differences. Let us cast a wide net, woven of hope and community because the first doesn’t fly, and the second sure-as-goat-poop doesn’t passively grow in a field. We have to roll up our sleeves, get dirty, and make it ourselves. And remember to take joy when it comes, like this:
I now have a new go-to song to accompany my bridge building. (Dirty by Grandson)
If you have a boat in the Sea of Cortez and would like to join the team, contact CRRIFS through their website above. Or, at least, call them at this number, not if, but WHEN you encounter entangled marine life: +52 622 152 9934
If you’re not ready to go vegan but want help making bycatch-informed choices when you do buy seafood, one trusted place is: https://www.seafoodwatch.org/seafood-basics/sustainable-solutions/limit-bycatch
* There are times that we do use our diesel engine aboard Triplefin. That’s why a new electric motor with more solar power is on the top of our wish list for donations! Drop a line (no pun intended but I like it) if you’re interested in helping out: email TriplefinPaul@gmail.org
One last note: If you think my sperm whale mom and nursing calf menu cost was overly dramatic, well, it happens a lot and a friend of ours here has encountered just that . . . twice!
My sources of info: **The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) reports bycatch to catch ratios of shrimp as high as 20:1 with a world average of 5.7:1 ( Clucas, Ivor (1997). Discards and bycatch in shrimp trawl fisheries. FAO Fisheries Circular.
***Most of the world’s cetacean bycatch occurs in gillnets and the trend is increasing. The average annual bycatch in U.S. waters alone in the 1990’s was 6,215 marine mammals, with dolphins and porpoises being the primary cetaceans caught in gillnets. A study by Read et al. estimated global bycatch by observing U.S. fisheries and concluded that an average of 653,365 marine mammals, comprising 307,753 cetaceans and 345,611 pinnipeds (sea lions & seals) were caught around the world EACH YEAR from 1990–1994. I couldn’t find solid numbers on cetacean bycatch ratios for gill netting but since it’s the type of fishing with the highest bycatch, I went with the upper 20:1 ratio for the menu.
****Between 2010 and 2020 a study of the Pacific Tuna Long Lining industry found 104.8 million hooks were deployed on lines each dozens of kilometers long, catching over 2 million individuals from 117 taxa with a bycatch-catch ratio of 1:1. https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fmars.2021.720603/full
***** While bycatch percentages vary a lot depending on how it is defined, methods (bottom trawling, drift gill nets, and longlining are the worst by far), target species, and enforcement by different countries, the WWF reports this average. https://assets.wwf.org.uk/downloads/bycatch_paper.pdf
****** Ghost net statistics: Kuczenski, Brandon; Vargas Poulsen, Camila; Gilman, Eric L.; Musyl, Michael; Geyer, Roland; Wilson, Jono (30 July 2021). "Plastic gear loss estimates from remote observation of industrial fishing activity". Fish and Fisheries: faf.12596. doi:10.1111/faf.12596.