FISHING REVEALS ENVIRONMENTAL PROBLEMS

by Whit Gibbons

November 29, 2015

Several years ago I wrote about a research project in Antarctica that described an unusual association between a small invertebrate called an amphipod and an even smaller bright orange swimming snail called a sea butterfly.

The study revealed that fish living under the ice at the South Pole find amphipods, which are related to sow bugs aka roly-polies, delectable. However, fish that try to eat sea butterflies find them highly distasteful and spit them out.

The researchers discovered that amphipods actually capture sea butterflies and swim around with them on their backs, which provides an effective disguise because fish avoid attacking amphipods carrying a brightly colored, bad-tasting snail.

The marine biologist who led the study is Jim McClintock, a professor at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. McClintock is also an avid fisherman who has worldwide experience with fishes and fishing.

By combining his fishing expertise with his ecological knowledge of saltwater and freshwater habitats he has written an outstanding book, "A Naturalist Goes Fishing: Casting in Fragile Waters from the Gulf of Mexico to New Zealand's South Island" by Jim McClintock (2015, St. Martin's Press, $26).

The book is framed around nine chapters covering the author's experiences with particular fish, beginning with redfish around the Chandeleur Islands of Louisiana.

Other chapters focus on fish and locations as diverse as tarpon in Costa Rica, rainbow trout in New Zealand and anchovies in France. Each chapter is a personal narrative blending adventure and ecological information about the fish encountered with environmental messages and philosophy.

Although each chapter is anchored around a particular type of fish, the habitat the species lives in also receives attention since any organism's existence is dependent on its environment.

The chapter on spotted bass in the Cahaba River of Alabama is captivating not only because of information about the fighting spirit of spotted bass and the real story behind the 22 1/4-pound world record largemouth bass but also because of facts about the river itself.

The 194-mile-long Cahaba River, which flows from Birmingham to Mobile, is estimated to have "the highest diversity of freshwater fish in North America" as well as "an astounding diversity of invertebrates." The mix of fish tales and environmental accounts scattered throughout the book is both entertaining and educational.

Not surprisingly, considering McClintock's previous research, one of the chapters focuses on fishing in Antarctica, with a spotlight on an awesome creature that thrives in the subfreezing ocean waters. The author explains that the salt waters at the South Pole reach temperatures below freezing, to levels that would flash freeze a warm water fish that was dropped into them.

The explanation of how a type of biological antifreeze protects fish species living in the region is fascinating, as is the author's account of fishing for Antarctic toothfish, which can reach a length of 6 feet and weigh more than 400 pounds. The chapter discusses some of the negative environmental changes in the Antarctic caused by human activities, including high ocean acidity, unsustainable commercial fishing and rising temperatures.

The last chapter, titled "Fishing for Solutions," provides some hard-hitting facts about the state of the world's fishes and the human activities that adversely affect them. Some of the man-made environmental hazards addressed are "toxic metals from mining, pesticides from agriculture, and airborne chemicals from industrial smokestacks." McClintock further notes that fish today face new perils from "rising temperatures and ... ocean acidification," both of which "owe their origin to increased levels of greenhouse gases." On a positive note he offers a thoughtful discussion of programs from Alabama to Alaska that could successfully address the problem of how to maintain sustainable fisheries and unpolluted aquatic habitats.

If you like to fish, you will certainly learn some new ways to enjoy your hobby. But you needn't be a fisherman to enjoy reading "A Naturalist Goes Fishing" and learning about fishes of the world, their natural habitats and human impacts on their environments and populations.

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