TELLING OUR WAY TO THE SEA
PART I. Isostichopus fuscus / Learning to See
"After the sponges, the most ancient of animals are the Cnidaria..." The position of Ctenophora, the comb jellies, is still controversial. In my view, the preponderance of evidence places them at the base of the tree, beneath the sponges, not between sponges and Cnidaria. (See Martindale and Hejnol 2009 and Dunn et al. 2008.)
"Until about ten years ago, uncertainty in our understanding of the tree of life had obscured what is in fact a direct relationship between the radially symmetric Cnidaria and the early ancestor of echinoderms and chordates." (See Valentine 1997; and note the contrast between older canonical trees and more recent ones, such as those in Martindale and Hejnol 2009 or Dunn et al. 2008.)
It’s hard for me to imagine a reef as rich in I. fuscus as Veronica describes, and I might suspect the exaggeration of nostalgia, were it not for a few other anecdotes I’ve encountered in the scientific literature. Off the coast of Venezuela, there is a marine national park that has been relatively well protected from fishing. Inside this park, the density of I. badionotus, a close relative of I. fuscus, is just over one per square meter—the same extraordinary abundance that Veronica remembers. In nearby Panama, the abundance was probably once comparable, but in 1997, the government granted a thirty-day permit for unlimited extraction of cucumbers. In this one month, the population was obliterated, and the density in Panama is now 100-fold lower than it is in the nearby Venezuelan national park.
Thoreau’s dismaying realization—that the place he took to be pristine had in fact been ravaged long before he ever laid eyes on it—is a familiar one among fisheries scientists. Indeed, they have a term for the way each generation has lower expectations of fisheries than their parents did. They call it the shifting baseline, a term that was first applied by Daniel Pauly. The problem is documented on a sweeping geographic and historical scale in Callum Roberts' beautifully written and thoroughly researched book, The Unnatural History of the Sea. Over the past decade, Jeremy Jackson has done more than anyone to draw attention to the problem, and also to urge historical research into the former condition of depleted eco-systems. He has recently edited an excellent collection of essays documenting and exploring the problem of shifting baselines.
Thoreau's poignant expression of the idea is from his journal entry of March 23rd, 1856. The Journal has recently been republished, in abbreviated form, by NYRB Classics. The complete Journals are available in multi-volume editions from Dover or Princeton University Press.
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