Monday, November 28, 2016

In Defense of the Lionfish

The lionfish is a Pacific fish that began populating the Atlantic ocean and the Caribbean sea about two decades ago or so. According the NOAA (the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the exact date and the manner by which the fish arrived on this side of the Americas is unclear, but what is sufficiently clear is that it was humans who facilitated its arrival. The lionfish is a predator that feeds on small fish. The main issue with the lionfish is that, because of its recent introduction into the Atlantic's and Caribbean's ecosystems in evolutionary terms, the lionfish has no natural predators. Fish that would normally feed on lionfish in the Indo-Pacific, such as groupers and moray eels, do not recognize it as pray in the Atlantic.

As hard as they tried, humans have not been able to teach those Atlantic cousins of the Pacific lionisfish predators, to eat lionfish. Every attempt of such biological control has thus far failed. For example, in Bonaire, a few years ago, people started feeding dead lionfish to moray eels. The eels ate the lionfish, being naturally immune to its venomous spines, but after a while they started becoming aggressive towards divers as they began to associate the latter with food. Also, the eels were not seen hunting live lionfish because they probably did not associate the dead lionfish with the live ones.

I remember that shortly after lionfish was first sighted in Bonaire, STINAPA (the Bonaire National Parks Foundation, Stichting Nationale Parken Bonaire) started giving divers corks attached to plastic strings so that recreational divers could mark where they sighted the fish – thus contravening the marine park rule that forbids divers from tying anything to the reef. Park rangers would then collect the marked lionfish. This type of mechanical control is possible because the lionfish is a territorial animal, meaning that it tends to stay in one particular spot. The downside of this strategy was that within a few months the reef started to look like a surreal giant holiday decoration. On every dive one could see several corks floating around the reefs. Even worse, sometimes the corks would detach from the reef and float to the surface, thus posing a hazard to turtles who could choke on the plastic string believing it was jelly fish. Needless to say, this plan was also scrapped.

Thus far, I summarized the history of attempted mechanical and biological controls of lionfish in Bonaire. The reason why I am mostly concentrating to attempts in Bonaire is because I have first hand experience of it during the many years I have been visiting the island. Yet, it is likely that similar overzealous attempts to control the spread of lionfish are being tried elsewhere in the Caribbean and on the Atlantic coast of the United States. In fact, I recently saw a video on YouTube of a Divemaster feeding a dead lionfish to a toadfish in Roatan (below). I have also personally witness this on the Mexican island of Cozumel.

Today, PADI – the Professional Association of Diving Instructors and by far the largest association of its kind with more that 50% of SCUBA dive certifications – promotes the Invasive Lionfish Tracker distinctive specialty course, where the student is taught to "safely and humanely capture and euthanize these fish." (Notice the clearly speciesist language wrapped in seemingly neutral terminology. I wonder if any human being would be amenable to be deprived of life through no fault of their own if it were done safely and humanely. I would think not, but that's the crux of speciesism: the idea that humans are somehow superior to other species by virtue of their might.)

According to the Cayman Compass, in 2013 PADI had some misgivings about promoting the indiscriminate killing of beautiful sea creatures such as the lionfish. But then, still according the the Compass, it reversed itself once more (perhaps bowing to the pressures of Caribbean dive operators who believe that lionfish are bad for business: i.e. no fish, no divers). In the story, Norma Connely quotes Brad Smith, training manager of PADI Americas, saying that "in light of the destructive nature of the invasive lionfish [we] determined that it was worth making an exception" to their no-take approach to marine conservation. This would help explain PADI's sanitized course description I quoted in the previous paragraph. In addition, still according to the Compass, PADI has also approved the more 'inhumane' spearfishing of lionfish by individual Caribbean operators. One such operator is Ambassador Divers in Grand Cayman:

In Bonaire, STINAPA promotes its own 'inhumane' version of yet another PADI approved Lionfish Hunting distinctive specialty course. On Bonaire's VIP Diving's website, for example, one can see a student practicing his spearing skills with al E.L.F. removal tool (Eliminating Lion Fish tool, basically a trident shaped spear with a fairytale-sounding name) with a smirking partner (instructor, perhaps?) at his side (below). For $150 one gains the privilege of having a license to kill fish on otherwise protected reefs.

In the picture's foreground, we see the Zookeeper™. The device allows the certified reef killers to store the moribund lionfish for the remainder of the dive. The slogan of the manufacturer being: "until a natural predator emerges."

Given all this, it seems that the lionhish,  at least in the North American and Caribbean diving cultural cohorts, has replaced the shark as the evil creature that must be destroyed. And as divers continue to campaign in defense of sharks in order to change its unwarranted media fueled image in the popular imagination, they seem to have directed their own thirst for blood onto the lionfish.

So, why is all this problematic?

As you may have guessed by now, this post is about humans first destroying their environment and then creating even more havoc as they try to rectify the situation. Perhaps this story could be taken as a cautionary tale on the idea that climate engineering may the best and easiest way to ameliorate global warming and its nefarious effects on the environment which includes coral reefs. But this is also, as we shall see, a story of the tendency of humans to scapegoat others for their own failures.

At face value, it seems self-evident that the eradication of an 'invasive' species that appears to threaten the balance of an entire ecosystem should be deemed a top priority. (I put 'invasive' in quotes because this term is problematic in itself.) But this appearance turns out to be just that. Not because the lionfish is not a disrupting element in the Atlantic and Caribbean ecosystems, but simply because, as the NOAA and others assert, the remedies that have been implemented are ineffectual. According to researchers De Vries, Rannap, and Briggs, for example,
a well-established exotic species can be almost impossible to remove from a community. Threats posed by invasive species today are so severe that reducing the rate of their introduction needs to become a greater priority in conservation efforts.
"Most scientists agree," the NOAA writes, that "it is unlikely that the lionfish's invasion of U.S. waters can be reversed." In addition, "scientists predict that lionfish will continue to increase in abundance." However, "scientists do believe ... that lionfish can be controlled in some locations, such as some Caribbean islands and marine protected areas." In regard to this latter point, my own admittetly unscientific personal experience in Bonaire shows that lionfish is still proliferating regardless of containment efforts.

If eradication efforts of lionfish do not serve their stated purpose, what other purpose can they serve? And if these efforts are about lionfish population control, what are the costs of these efforts to the ecosystem? In my opinion, while attempt to control lionhish population is definitely a factor, the manner in which these efforts have developed and the way they have been popularized is also sign of some deep seated human psychological drives.

As mentioned earlier, one such drive is the apparent need to scapegoat and punish someone, or something, for one's own failures. In regard to lionfish, this drive assuages and redirects the anger of those who are unwilling to seriously look at what is really endangering the world's reefs – namely, global warming.

This type of tunnel vision reminds me of a scene from Jacques Cousteau's famous movie The Silent World (1956). In the scene, the RV Calypso (Cousteau's research vessel) encounters a group of sperm whales. As they follow the whales, a baby whale who cannot keep up with the group falls behind, and as it gets too close to the boat it is mortally wounded by the propeller. Here, Cousteau the narrator is quick to blame the whale's "childish carelessness" as if it should have known what a propeller is. During the next several minutes we watch the small whale in agony as it frantically swims trying to catch up with the group. As she continues hemorrhaging, one of the sailors puts her out of her misery by shooting her. At this point several sharks, attracted by the whale's blood, start attacking the whale's carcass. Cousteau continues his narration saying that "every seaman hates the sharks" and that after witnessing such an attack on the dead whale "the divers can't be held back. They grab gaffs, books, anything they can to avenge the whale" (emphasis added).

And so the carnage begins, the Calypso divers start killing one shark after another. They pull them onboard with hooks while one of the divers hits them with an axe. All this to "avenge the whale." But wait, wasn't it the Calypso that killed the whale? Shouldn't revenge thus be taken on whomever failed stop the engines before the Calypso hit her? The sharks simply did what's in their nature. Yet, the rage of the sailors was visited upon them. And so the divers not only ended up with a dead whale, but also with a bunch of dead sharks. Some vengeance. The depressing part of all this is that in the mind of the divers, as well as that of Cousteau, the killing of the sharks was entirely justified. (The scene begins at 52:04 and ends at 1:01:40).

Sixty years later, the similarities between the Calypso shark carnage and the hunting of lionfish are striking. Today we have so-called stewards of the oceans, namely divers – supposedly with much higher consciousness than Cousteau and his cohorts had – who are intent on killing and maiming a fish whose presence in this part of the world is solely due to human behavior. Yet, against all scientific evidence on the feasibility of eradication and, perhaps, even control, the carnage of lionfish not only continues unabated but it has become some sort of sport to be celebrated over drinks.

For example, on Saturday, June 21, 2014 STINAPA opened the Karpata Reserve (normally closed to divers) to lionfish hunters in support of the Bonaire Culinary Team. Prizes were "distributed to the biggest, smaller and most lionfish." In the hunting call, Ramón de León, the park's manager, wrote:
If you think you are the one that catch [sic] the most, you better start counting before we start drinking. 
Let's get some fish for Bonaire Culinary Team show to [sic] irresponsible FL citizen releasing exotic species in the wild what we do with the pest they start.  
This is what in psychology is commonly described a cognitive dissonance or the ability to entertain two contradictory concepts in one's mind. The concepts of the shark and the lionfish are contradictory because, on the one hand, divers have no qualms in pontificating about how other cultures – namely the Chinese and Japanese – are decimating the shark, whale, and dolphin populations; at the same time they are also eager to engage in the same type of behavior when it comes to lionfish. And while lionfish is not endangered like sharks or whales the mindset is the same.

To understand the irrational nature of the whole enterprise one simply needs to be on a dive where a lionfish hunter is present. The hunter becomes the star of the dive, a revered figure intent on performing a kind of sacred rite. Many divers willingly volunteer to spot lionfish. The excitement that ensues when a diver spots one is palpable. As the hunter approaches its oblivious victim and goes for the kill the excitement turns into a frenzy. In some ways it's a spectacle that is reminiscent of ancient Roman circuses, medieval lynchings, and more recent bullfighting. One cannot help wondering if we are actually much different than those who we look down to with patronizing disdain.

The lionfish hunters not only terrorize the lionfish, but as they try to spear their victim they inevitable hit corals, thus damaging the surrounding ecosystem and scare off any fish in the vicinity. Whenever the hunter misses, which happens quite often, the lionfish escapes by creating a cloud of silt that ends up covering the nearby corals. In addition, lionfish hunters tend to mostly hunt on islands' leeward side and at shallow recreational depths – which means that lionfish that exist in remote areas and at depths greater that forty meters are free to reproduce and proliferate.

Thus, the question ensues: are these clear damages to the reefs worth the effort, or is it just a way to attract and excite tourists like the now ubiquitous shark feeding dives? One could argue that lionfish hunting is even more exiting than shark dives. In the former we get to see someone actually die. Perhaps somebody should start a reality TV show called Lionfish Hunters.

Ineffectual and damaging efforts notwithstanding, divers all over the Caribbean and beyond have convinced themselves that it is possible to eliminate or at least contain the spread of lionfish. A lot of resources are directed in this direction while not much has been done in regard to the real threat that marine ecosystems are faced with. For example, in 2001, a study by the NOAA concluded that "the majority of the world’s coral reefs are threatened by human activities." According to the report, coral reefs could die by 2050 – with or without lionfish  – due to acidification and warming temperatures. On Australia's Great Barrier Reef scientists have just recorded the biggest ever coral die-off.

In other words, the marine ecosystem is, in latest instance, not threatened by lionfish, or by sharks, but by humans like you and me. And yet, the discourse of lionfish as an 'invader' has become somewhat of an obsession with divers – perhaps fueled by equally bogus discourses on illegal immigration. Could this be a case of false consciousness? Could it be that as we – with the U.S. in the lead – are intent on destroying the world as it is, we are trying to distract ourselves from the one thing that must be done with futile concerns such as lionfish hunting and coral restoration projects?

While it is understandable that individual divers feel powerless against the systemic threats of expansionary capitalism to the ecosystem, it is not clear how the killing of a few million lionfish is going to prevent us from destroying ocean reefs with our own polluting activities. It seems that, like Cousteau before us, we haven't learned to first look in the mirror, take responsibility for our own actions, and try to change our own systemic behavior before scapegoating some other creature or people. In this regard, the clear impossibility of eradicating the lionfish should perhaps be seen as a sobering reflection of our own systemic failure as a supposedly intelligent species.

Monday, November 30, 2015

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Mountain Creek: Unsafe at Any Age

This is a story of profit over people.

A couple of weekends ago I went with my girlfriend and her children for a day of skiing at Mountain Creek in Vernon, NJ. On our first run of the day my girlfriend was coming to a stop on the side of the slope when she was suddenly hit by an incoming snowboarder. After hitting her, the young snowboarder – who must have been in his 20s – proceeded to disentangle himself. When I told him to stop moving to avoid compounding her potential injuries he continued as if nothing was said. It was clear at that point that the guy had no regard for the safety and health of his victim and that all he was concerned with was getting away.

Before he could manage to get up, I decided to hold him to the ground in order to prevent him from fleeing the scene until a ski patrol showed up. Needless to say, a scuffle ensued as he kept trying to escape. As I held him to the ground I repeatedly told him that he had a responsibility to stay since he had most likely injured my girlfriend. Later on, in fact, we found that that was indeed the case: a couple of torn ligaments, a flipped meniscus and no more skiing for the season plus crutches, a knee brace, hours of physical therapy and possibly knee surgery.

The scuffle went on forever, or at least so it seemed to me. As none of the supposedly free and brave onlookers mustered the courage to intervene the snowboarder eventually managed to punch me in the face. Nevertheless, I kept holding him to the ground as I resisted the temptation to punch him back. It was then that, out of the blue, a friend of his showed up. He pulled me away thus allowing the perpetrator to get up and leave. Yet, rather than following them I decided to attend to my injured girlfriend and her children as we waited for ski patrol to show up. 

Eventually ski patrol managed to arrive and little by little there were five or six of them around us. They formed a semi-circle in order to prevent oncoming skiers and snowboarders from hitting us. I have to say it was a surreal scene. Young snowboarders and inexperienced skiers kept flying by with no regard for anybody but themselves. At one point one snowboarder came down the mountain flaunting a can of beer his hand. All the ski patrollers managed to do was to yell at him. None followed him. There was no accountability.

And here lies the crux of the matter and the reason why I wrote earlier that this is a story of profit over people: there is zero accountability for hazardous behavior at Mountain Creek. As a matter of fact, one of the ski patrols at the scene of the accident told me that they are not even allowed to touch skiers. "If they want to leave we cannot stop them," he said as he checked my jaw for injuries. Another ski patroller told my girlfriend that the most they can do is to expel someone from the premises but that it is a very rare thing for them to do. In fact, only once during his 8+ years as a ski patrol on the mountain he managed to follow someone down the slope to make sure he left the premises.

With this type of non-existent accountability it is understandable that the conditions on the mountain would be unsafe. When people realize that they are not held accountable for their hazardous or injurious behavior it is to be expected that the frequency with which people will engage in such behaviors will increase. The amoral snowboarder who injured my girlfriend is a perfect case in point. He severely injured someone, fled the scene and suffered no consequences. What are the chances that 1. he would not return to Mountain Creek and 2. that he would be more careful in the future? Probably not many. In fact, I am willing to guess that as my girlfriend was being transported down the mountain on a stretcher he and his buddy were probably laughing at the incident over a cold one at Mountain Creek's outdoor bar.

The question that arises at this point is: why would Mountain Creek risk alienating those customers who end up injured because of the lack of safety control on the mountain? My guess is that the resort's accountants must have run their numbers and found that it is more profitable for them not to alienate their core customers – young snowboarders – by discouraging their behavior than to risk losing the few who get injured as a result. In fact, Mountain Creek makes sure to exempt itself from any liability occurring on its premises by making participants sign a liability waiver. One such waiver states:

I understand and EXPRESSLY AGREE to the fact that skiing in its various forms is an inherently hazardous sport that has many dangers and risks. I realize that injuries are a common and ordinary occurrence of this sport. I, or if skier is a minor, I individually and on behalf of said minor, EXPRESSLY AGREE, as a condition of being allowed to purchase a Season Pass or participate in the Student Ski & Ride Voucher Program and to use the ski area facility and premises, that I freely accept and voluntarily assume ALL RISKS of personal injury or death or property damage, and FULLY RELEASE Mountain Creek FROM ANY AND ALL LIABILITY for personal injury, death, or property damage arising out of or resulting from my participation in this sport... (emphasis added; source)

What Mountain Creek doesn't say in the waiver is that the resort does not have any meaningful safety and accountability systems in place for those who engage in hazardous behavior towards others. In so many words and as my girlfriend's incident clearly shows, it would not be unthinkable for someone to literally kill or cripple someone else on their property and get away with it. Ski patrol will not stop them (which is why I believe "Ski Patrol" to be a misnomer that should be changed to "Ski EMS"). If you think I am exaggerating read the liability waiver in its entirety. Mountain Creek has no incentive in discouraging hazardous behavior because it has totally insulated itself from all liabilities by making people sign such waiver. After being injured, customers cannot successfully sue Mountain Creek for damages and, if the person who injured them does not take responsibility, victims are left to fend for themselves.

Given the ever increasing amount of young snowboarders on their slopes – itself a much more dangerous sport for both practitioners and others than skiing – Mountain Creek's owners must have decided that it is more profitable for them to let these kids run wild and undisturbed in order to keep them coming in greater and greater numbers. This view is supported by the fact that starting this year Mountain Creek has dropped the previously mandatory safety training – the Park Pass – for all skiers who wished to enter the terrain park at South. Or, alternatively, they may simply have decided to maximize the resort's profitability by minimizing safety to the bare minimum – i.e. to the minimum level that allows them to maintain the perception of safety while counting on the fact that most people won't realize that they are entering the wild west of skiing until it's too late. And when they do, these people will realize like my girlfriend and I that they have no meaningful way of redress.

Either way, I believe it is crucial for people to distinguish reality from fantasy. In the case of Mountain Creek the reality is that people are dealing with an operation that is unsafe at any age.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Monday, January 19, 2015

Monday, December 22, 2014

Is Cuba Detente a Diversion to Protect Bush II & Co.?

Here are, in my opinion, the two most important words which may help explain the timing of the White House’s “new course” on Cuba: Torture Report. Yes, while the announcement was a very welcome, long overdue and not far reaching enough development, its timing is what makes me wonder most. It is likely no coincidence that Obama announced this historic policy correction within less than two weeks of the release of the US Senate report on CIA torture during its “global war on terror.”

As it became clear that the progressive left was not going to let it blow off and, instead, the calls for prosecution of Bush II & Co. were getting louder, particularly on the world stage, Obama and his advisers must have felt they had to go nuclear and bring something out with enough impact that would hopefully short-circuit the moral revulsion that has been ensuing in civil society. And thus comes Cuba to the rescue, the proverbial ace up the President's sleeve and perhaps the oldest, most indefensible and longest standing policy of the US government since WWII. In short, the timing of the policy shift on Cuba might be seen as a diversionary tactic aimed at deflecting the mounting outrage over the release of the US Senate Torture Report.

In this light, it is possible that despite the protestations of the usual suspects, Senators Menendez (NJ) and Rubio (FL), the incoming Republican congress might not end up fighting the White House on Cuba as much as they say they will as they may be getting some pressure from above to let this one go. Although Obama was supposedly working on this for quite some time, chances are that he would not have unveiled this important policy shift right before an incoming Republican congress without some kind of assurance from Republican quarters. It is the conjuncture of the damning Torture Report that perhaps made this policy shift finally a reality.

Given how long Obama had been working on this deal, it is clear that he intended it to be a major part of his legacy along with the ACA. And just like with the ACA – when he basically gave away the barn to get assurances from Big Pharma, Big Health and Big Insurance that they would not stand in the way – he must have sought assurance from high Republican echelons (Bush II?, Rove?) that they would not stand in the way of the Cuba deal. The perfect bargaining chip was the Torture Report: let the wolves do their work on Bush & Co. or throw them a bone to try to placate them.

Let me be clear on this. While Bush & Co. may be perfectly ok with what they did, they must also understand that the only thing that stands between them and the pitchforks is Obama. It is he who stands in the way of fulfilling US treaty and US law obligations to prosecute these egregious crimes by saying that we must look forward and not backward and thus it is he who is getting now the most pressure to drop this hypocritical and no longer tenable stance. Thus, it is not far fetched to think that after the Senate revelations he may have brokered some kind of deal with Bush II & Co. so that they could help him help them.

In regard to Cuba we must also be clear about what this policy shift really amounts to. What we are dealing with is simply a change in tactic, not strategy. Regime change is still the operative word in Washington. When Obama said that the embargo had failed it is because it failed to accomplish the intended goal which is the overthrow of the Cuban revolutionary government. Thus, in a example of realpolitik brinkmanship, Obama decided to try a different approach: substitute economic strangulation for economic persuasion – to put it euphemistically – and hopefully all the NGOs that come along with economic cooperation (see Ukraine).

In conclusion, it is likely that the Cuba announcement was a bone thrown not only to the US left, but at world civil society which has been consistently and overwhelmingly voting against the US embargo for decades. In particular, it is an acknowledgement or the growing isolation of the US in the Western hemisphere – the recent invitation of Cuba to the OAS being an example. And so the Faustian bargain may be that the US left and world civil and political society got Cuba in exchange for leaving Bush II & Co. alone, at least for a while, while Obama gets to look good on the world stage after the black eye of the Torture Report and yet another disappointing Climate Summit. Given that the Pope was in on the Cuban deal – it was another Pope also with cultural credentials who spearheaded the Warsaw Pact – it is clear that the brokering was done at the highest geopolitical levels. Will it work? Possibly. So far at least Obama managed to shift the media discourse and next week is Christmas and then new year. Happy holidays.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

We Are Ruled by Fear

Today a majority of the people in the US supports strikes in Iraq and Syria. After weeks of propaganda from all sides of the spectrum the bamboozled and frightened populace capitulated in its resolve to the demands of the deep state.

Perhaps if the corporate media showed Saudi Arabia's hundreds of public executions by beheading and sometimes by stoning, the people in the US would support the bombing of that country as well. But of course we don't air our friend's dirty laundry.

The tribalism and groupthink of our supposed free press is mind boggling and it will be an object of study for future scholars, if there are to be any given the current corporate attack on education and the destruction of the ecosystem.

Such articles, and these polls are thus simply self-congratulatory PR as if to say: look how well we have done to con the people in the US into supporting yet another murderous and destabilizing military action. The contempt for democracy in the elite is almost palpable. The fact is that, hand in hand with the corporate media, the ruling oligarchs keep manipulating our emotional responses by manufacturing one crisis after another.

Yet, the disconnect in popular consciousness is also visible in the poll. Obama's ratings are nearing his all-time low. Perhaps it's a message from the true consciousness of the people saying to Obama: "You have frightened us into doing something hateful yet again and we hate you for bringing out the worse in us."

Perhaps the reason why we keep telling ourselves that this is the "home of the brave" and the "land of the free" is because we are not willing to accept the reality: that we are a fearful and frightened nation ruled by fear and that we are willingly renouncing our freedom for the false promise of protection from the very people who have taken us to the brink of extinction.

This is what happens to a nation that is raised from cradle to grave to pledge allegiance, follow orders and, of course, shop.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

1866: The Birth of the Eight-Hour Working Day

From the Resolution of the Working Men of Dunkirk, State of New York, 1866:
We, the workers of Dunkirk, declare that the length of time of labour required under the present system is too great, and that, far from leaving the worker time for rest and education, it plunges him into a condition of servitude but little better than slavery. That is why we decide that eight hours are enough for a working day, and ought to be legally recognized as enough; why we call to our help that powerful lever, the press; .. and why we shall consider all those that refuse us this help as enemies of the reform of labour and of the rights of the labourer.
Source: Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: A Critique of Political Economy v. 1 ( Penguin Books) 414n63

At the same time (the beginning of September 1866), the Congress of the International Working Men’s Association, held at Geneva, passed the following resolution, proposed by the London General Council: ‘We declare that the limitation of the working day is a preliminary condition without which all further attempts at improvement and emancipation must prove abortive… the Congress proposes eight hours as the legal limit of the working day.’
Source: Marx, Capital: A Critique of Political Economy: A Critique of Political Economy v. 1 ( Penguin Books) 414-5