Francis Meyrick

A Blip on the Radar (Part 11) “Plastic, War, and Manta Rays “

Posted on October 18, 2009

A Blip on the Radar

Part 11) Plastic, War, and Manta Rays

In my little life, I have frequently witnessed distressing events, man-made, that made absolutely zero sense to me.
No rhyme, no logic, no sense. I’d be left thinking… why on earth… do people do and say-such incredibly silly things?
Do you have to be an enlightened soul to be able to think for yourself? To dream? To wonder? To long for something higher and better? Do you have to be super clever to realize the stress our little planet is under? Can’t everybody see?
Are we going to be like locusts? Breed and breed into huge mindless swarms, insatiable, intent only on devouring and destroying? And then to move on, until there is no more place to move to, to devour and destroy?
And then… we turn on each other?

America, my home. my work place, gives its citizens every opportunity to educate themselves. If you want to learn, anything, you can. Rich or poor. The Internet alone, affords just about everybody, except maybe the poorest of the poor, the opportunity to question, to ask, to seek, to reach out, to explore… and to come to the awareness of the fragility, as well as the breath taking beauty, of this tiny, insignificant corner of the Universe.
Why then is it, that in my local parish the illiteracy rate, if you include functional illiteracy (very, very limited skills), is estimated at sixty-five per cent? How is this possible?
I live in a nice country area. A big old rambling house, on eight and a bit acres. We have super nice neighbors.
We don’t have a whole lot of traffic past our house.
But on a regular basis, I put my work gloves on, take out a large plastic rubbish bin, and laboriously pick up, from outside my house, the empty beer cans, bottles, fast food cartons, paper bags, plastic bags, pieces of timber, pieces of cardboard…
and the odd, abandoned, and very hungry puppy….all thrown out of passing vehicles.
We live beside a bayou, and the stuff that gets thrown off the bridge, presumably under the cover of darkness, but maybe not, would fill a waste container a week. It has included cooking stoves and refrigerators, which are items the local waste management company will collect for free, if you just bother to call and ask.
It has also included three dead donkeys…

I scribble the paragraph above, with a purpose in mind. It serves as an introduction to what follows below.
It was Jesus who is reported to have said:
“He who is without sin may cast the first stone… ”
I always thought that was a remarkable statement. Very insightful. Interesting dude, that Jesus fellah.
Even an Atheist should at least admit that.

In the environmental awareness league, unless it has changed suddenly since 2000, I have to rate the Tuna Fishing Industry with a gigantic red ‘F’. All fu-fu-f…ed up. They are clueless. Simply… on another planet.

I would protest at times, and receive these blank looks of non-understanding. They liked me, I liked them, we got along fine, but my environmental concerns baffled them. Thus, for instance, plastic and garbage went straight over the side. Including the dreaded plastic “rings “, which secure beer cans in a six pack. A known and terrible entanglement for many marine creatures. Nothing got burned. It all went hoppety-splosh right into the sea. And not just the fishing boats did this.
I was on some tropical island somewhere, I don’t remember which one, and here were these tourists, lamenting all the raw garbage being tipped overboard from their luxury cruise liner. Un-believable. Small wonder then that you could fly across the Ocean, a thousand miles from the nearest land, and watch all kinds of rubbish floating in the Ocean.
What kind of dumb creature soils its own nest?
I couldn’t get the point across, and I couldn’t explain the environmental harm. They were simply not on that wave length.

I remember walking along the beach of Tarawa. The site of an epic World War Two battle I had read about.
But reading is one thing, being there, and sensing the echoes of long dead ghosts, their turmoil still ongoing, is quite another. This site was where the Marines, stubbornly trying to come ashore, in a hail of murderous machine gun fire, were mowed down with a detached, industrial efficiency. I walked past the long silent gun emplacements, and it was as if I could still hear the killing machines firing, the screams of the wounded, and the desperate pleas for help. They say the waters of that calm little bay turned red with blood. And I watched the beaches, once fine and sandy, before they were covered with the blood of the dead and the dying. Now covered with garbage, and trash, plastic, old oil drums, empty paint buckets, aerosol spray cans…
And I wondered what Our Mother thought of that. Mother Nature, Jesus, Allah, Porcelain Andy… whatever name people chose to bestow upon Our Mother, she was still hurting under this.
Time and time again, in every locale, all over the Pacific Ocean, on deserted atolls, on the most outlandish, foreign, remote beaches, I could swoop low in my helicopter, and study the trash on the beaches.

I remember, years later, walking along a beach beside the Gulf of Mexico. And watching this group of angry young -incredibly privileged- Americans, drunk, quarrelsome, swearing and shouting. They were frightening other beach goers away. When a man finished his booze, he would lob the brown bottle as far and as hard as he could. There would be jeers and laughter. When, every so often, a bottle smashed, there would be loud cheers. I stupidly walked over, outnumbered, ten to one, and asked them -politely- to stop. I explained to them that children play there, and they were likely to cause someone a serious injury. One of them, high on Crystal Meths, (I had seen it all before when I worked for the Sheriff’s office), got in my face. He was emaciated, unshaven, hyper, and psychotic. I knew he wanted to fight. I said nothing, walked back to my truck, and returned with a plastic bag. Slowly I walked around, picking up their discarded bottles. And the broken pieces of brown glass. There were jeers, nasty laughter, some threats. Then the Meth head, in a fury, threw a bottle right at me. It whizzed past my head. I stood up, and gazed him hard in the eyes, without saying a word. I thought of my gun, my Glock Semi-automatic, that I had deliberately -and wisely- left in my truck, in its usual hiding place. What he had done constituted the beginning of an assault.
I wonder if the situation would escalate, and if I would regret my decision to return to the scene unarmed.
His mates grabbed him, dragged him into their truck, and they sped off, whooping and screaming, doubtless adding DUI to their littering and intimidating achievements.

And I wondered, then and now, if the privileged youth of America, with all their access to information about the environment, couldn’t care less, or give a tinker’s damn, then who...
dares criticize those simple Chinese, Korean and Taiwanese fishermen….?
And what… does Our Mother think of it all? Nature has a strange logic, which we ignore at our peril. Any species that gets to be too dominant, too plentiful, too burdensome on its surroundings, sooner or later gets clobbered.
Some way, some how.

I remember many instances that happened on the boats. I often sure wished there would be a viable independent observer program. For instance, every so often a whale shark would get in the nets.
They are huge creatures. They look fearsome, with incredibly wide mouths. In fact, they are pussy cats. Harmless.
And endangered. The net would be brought in, until the whale shark was beginning to suffocate. The crush of fish, the lack of oxygen in the water. Panic, stress. Eventually, limp and lifeless, a sailor would hop in and attach a cable around its tail. The crane would be brought to bear, and slowly, slowly, the lifeless shape would be hoisted up. They were massive. Usually they were unceremoniously dropped back in to the water, outside the net. On two occasions I remember they first swung it, suspended, over the deck. So everybody could look at it first, and satisfy their curiosity. Then it would be casually tossed overboard. The creature they so admired, briefly, was now dead. The irony never seemed to strike them.
On one occasion a whale shark was swung up, that was so large and heavy, that it broke the crane. There was a horrible screeching noise, and it juddered to a stop. It was like that for hours. The weight on the end caused them some serious difficulty. It was a strange revenge.

Sharks were frequently caught. Their valuable fins would be quickly cut off, and the still living but now helpless creature would be kicked and pushed overboard. Once you have seen a shark’s desperate struggling and wriggling, as it sinks deeper and deeper, you will never order shark fin soup again. Sharks too have their rightful place in the complex eco system of the world’s Oceans. Disturb the balance, pay the price.

Dolphins, of course. Nowhere near as many as in the Western half of the Pacific. Where we fished, in the Eastern half, dolphins and porpoises did not follow the tuna. They were therefore rarely caught in the nets. Maybe two here, three or four there. It probably amounted to thirty or forty dolphins every six months. I have a story to tell some day, about being in the water trying to save some dolphins. I risked my neck, and all to no avail. The fishermen couldn’t care less. I’ve seen dolphins killed for very, very small catches. Maybe two tons of fish. I would ask the captain if they couldn’t just let the nets go. Save the dolphins, and make me happy. I’d promise them the next day I’d find them a much bigger foamer. They’d look at me as if I was strange in the head. None ever obliged me. Strangely, on the one occasion that I can remember that we did have an observer on board, a young, ragged Papuan, the crew couldn’t have been more obliging. They’d let the nets go with a hundred ton of fish, if there was a single dolphin trapped.

Manta Rays were routinely caught. They would be dropped on the deck, alive, where they would make these swimming motions. They could survive on the deck for remarkable long periods of time. Fifteen and twenty minutes, even more.
Dry swimming. A beautiful motion. Almost like a ballet. I would ask the crew if they couldn’t save them, and push them over alive. Nobody did. Nobody cared. It was by catch. They were just a nuisance. There was no beauty there.
And so I would watch these amazing creatures slowly die. The working deck was far too dangerous a place for me to be during the net recovery. There was nothing I could do, except watch them struggle to swim off the deck. I can see them still, endlessly repeating their swimming motions. I have scuba dived with Manta rays, and they are awesome to watch.
The worst day I remember we had five Manta Rays on the deck. Ranging in size from huge to small. I was standing on the intermediate working deck, watching, looking down. By some weird quirk, all five were facing towards me. And all five were trying to swim out of their distress. They were making these amazing swimming movements, over and over again, all five of them. A Manta Ray has no expression. They can’t smile, or show terror. But you knew they were stressed. Dying.
But still, over and over again, like a cheerleader squad, they made their movements.
Rhythmic, trying to swim.
Rhythmic, trying to swim.
Rhythmic, trying to swim.

I couldn’t leave. And I watched them all die, slowly. And I sensed something, that day. It’s hard to put into words.
A call for help. A plea.
Maybe it was my imagination, but I felt guilty. As if I was a murderer.
There was nothing I could do, but I vowed that one day I would tell their story.

A neighboring ship caught a turtle one day. In the middle of the Ocean, a thousand miles offshore, a single solitary turtle. Repeating an ancient journey, tens of thousands of years old, to or from a beach somewhere, one particular sand dune, there to lay its precious eggs for future generations. The disgusted helicopter pilot told me afterwards they force fed it with red wine. When he asked why, they told him it was to improve the flavor. Then the cook killed it, and they all dined in grand style on a stupid old turtle. Which has no value other than one good meal. And tastes of red wine.
Most whales were too big, but one day we caught a small one. It too died of stress and suffocation as the nets were being brought in. They hoisted it up on the deck, and cut large chunks out of it. The rest they dropped overboard.
The following night I was eating some tasty meat. It was really remarkably good. It took me a while to figure out I was eating whale meat. I knew if that ever got out, that GreenPeace would print up a ‘wanted – dead or alive’ poster of me.

In fairness I have to say, the toll of damage inflicted upon Our Mother by the purse seiner fleet, probably pales into insignificance compared with the environmental banditry of the long liners. It is a strange experience, to be in a helicopter, and to see for yourself how it works. They trail out long lines, miles and miles in length, with hundreds and hundreds of baited hooks. Whereas the purse seiners at least target tuna, and make their set on tuna, the long liners are wholly indiscriminate. Anything and everything that is hungry and bites, gets dragged along and drowned. Including penguins.
It seems insane to me. But what do I know, I’m just a helicopter jockey.

The day came I thought even the sailors, the perpetrators of so much unnecessary environmental carnage, would realize the folly of their actions. And take remedial steps.
We were fishing in an area where there was simply an outlandish amount of plastic floating about. As I flew over it, all you could see was plastic, plastic and more plastic. In the middle of the Ocean. Somebody must have dumped whole containers full of the stuff. Most of it was in a form of sheeting. It was remarkably thick, but it was also oddly brittle. The pieces ranged in size from several yards square to only inches square. There were thousands of pieces. I have no idea of the origin.
Well, the ship made a set on a foamer, and a huge amount of this stuff got caught up in the net. I pulled up a (plastic) arm chair on the helideck, and watched the farce unfold. Firstly, the net retrieval was greatly delayed. They kept having to stop the winch, to give the crew a chance to clean all the plastic rubbish out of the net. This of course started to fray tempers. Everybody became more and more cross. The winch would bring in a few more yards, and would have to stop. And the crew would be collecting yet more plastic. And so on, and so forth. The working deck was covered with the stuff, to the point people were falling over it. The captain was yelling in the microphone. Everybody was mad as hell.
If ever… there was a chance to do something environmentally sensible, then this was the moment.
To wit: collect the pernicious stuff, and burn it. Once and for all. It would have taken a while, but it sure would have done some good.
Wanna guess where it all went?
Yup. Straight back over the side…

A few days later, we made another set in the same area. We caught more of that awful plastic. Not nearly so much, but still enough to slow the job down, and make everybody mad. You could just imagine their frustration.
The question they would all be asking each other.

What blithering idiot could have thrown all that stupid plastic into the Ocean?

Francis Meyrick

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Last edited by Francis Meyrick on May 19, 2016, 6:05 am

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