A freedivers take on spearfishing
(First published in DIVESITE Issue 3, 2011 with photographs by Roger Horrocks, Jean Marie Ghislain and Jean Treason - please read updated thoughts at bottom of article.)
It was a choppy day off South-West reef in the Cape Point Nature Reserve. The shore entry was a little hairy and I thought I was going to rip my smoothskin wetsuit for sure crabbing over the barnacled rocks. Swimming out through some crashing surf with a speargun in hand is very different from my normal shimmying out between sets. The spear got tangled in the kelp, the kelp got tangled in my snorkel, and my thoughts were already tangled around, 'why am I doing this again?
You see, I am a freediver. With one breath I leave the surface, the noises, the smells and the voices… into an underwater fairyland where sounds are muffled, the reef talks to me and I disappear into myself and the ocean. Having swum competitively all through school, I was terribly excited when my sister gave me a scuba course as an 18th birthday present. I couldn’t sleep for weeks, counting days and hours until I could become one with the world down there. We did our open water dives in beautiful Ponta Malongane, I hated it. I felt like I couldn’t move, I couldn’t glide… I was just a visitor. A clumsy one. Then I discovered freediving- on a cold spring day in a steel-grey fjord in Sweden, I took my first breathhold dive down to the sandy bottom. I’d found my home. I have now been a competitive freediver for over ten years, the call of the deep getting stronger every year, my ability to dive deeper expanding as I get older, and my love of all the ocean inhabitants; large, small, animal, vegetable, fish or mammalian becoming more and more all-consuming. I spend every minute I can in water. I surf, swim, freedive and sail. I don’t kill fish.
So what am I doing inside the reserve on a Sunday with a loaded speargun you may ask? It all started over dinner a few nights earlier with friends when somebody asked me whether I spearfish, 'of course not!' I snorted, 'I love fish!' to which one of my friends timidly replied, 'but you eat fish'. My fork stopped halfway to my mouth and I looked at the piece of white meat on my fork, deliciously prepared with lemon, fresh thyme and butter. I have no idea where this fish comes from, how it was caught and if any other ocean dwellers were injured in the harvesting of this dinner.
Human beings are physiologically adapted for freediving. We have an inner seal living inside us that wakes up and guides us when we take one breath, and dive. We are ocean dwellers, if only we choose to return. Sadly, whether it be terrestrial or oceanic, we are a species not known for taking care of it’s environment. Having dived in many of this blue planet’s vast oceans, I have seen the decrease of life at sea. I am a loud and sometimes eloquent advocate of ocean conservation, be it whales, sharks, dolphins, seals, coral reefs or fish… but here I am, completely unaware of where my dinner came from.
So that one simple 'but you eat fish' sees me tangled in kelp, armed in an ocean I've never before seen as a hunting ground. I take a deep breath and dive down, the fairyland of purple and pink urchins, kelp trunks swaying in the surge... and fish. I love fish. I love watching fish go about their simple watery lives, opening and closing their mouths as if in constant silent conversation. The wary breams scatter as I dive, but they soon grow curious of the visitor and circle back for a look. 'I HAVE A GUN! SWIM AWAY!' I feel like yelling at them. But they calmly swim up to me, around me. Stupid fish. I swim back up and take a deep breath. 'Why didn't you shoot it?' my buddy asks, 'there were a couple of size ones down there'. How do I explain to a seasoned spearo that the fish looked me in the eye, that I feel like I know that fish, that we've met before. 'I was too far away', I answer lamely. We both laugh, the fish was basically sitting on the tip of my spear.
Spearfishing is an age-old activity where man lived off the sea, hunting with primitive spears and home-made goggles for survival. The sport has developed into a specialised practice with effective spearguns, long fins and camouflage suits. In many countries it is against regulation to spearfish using a scuba tank, and this is also the case in South Africa. In some parts of America it is legal to spearfish on scuba, while in the Bahamas it is illegal to use a speargun but legal to use a hand spear. So in South Africa, to be a good spearfisherman, you need to be a good freediver. But, as I realised floating above the kelp, my speargun dangling limply from my wrist- being a good freediver, is not enough to be a good spearfisherman. In some people, and may I be so bold as to implicate men in this matter, the hunt is as much the attraction as the kill. I am not a natural hunter. I am an observer. To switch from observing to stalking didn't seem to happen naturally for me. It took me several long dives, self-sabotaged misses, self-talk and a bruised sternum from reloading the speargun before I actually shot my first fish. My only fish. I invited five friends over for dinner, and the small fish fed us all in almost Biblical terms, along with lots of fresh bread, stir fried vegetables and bottles of white wine.
I didn’t enjoy killing the bream. I remember what it looked like gracefully flitting around in the kelp, fins fanning the water, large eyes staring straight at me. Yes, I know I anthropomorphise fish, but what are we if we cannot feel for other living creatures anymore? I decided not to shoot another fish.
Then I saw THE END OF THE LINE, the documentary a friend of mine calls ‘the Armageddon on fish’. I watched the mass killing of fish all over the world, the by-catch, the unselectiveness of it, and the waste. And I remember the small shoal of breams in the kelp, the large one I shot, the others not affected, the sea-bed not affected, the fish killed quickly with minimal suffering- and I find myself unpacking my speargun again and wondering whether I should buy a license again this season. I asked Charles Clover, the man behind THE END OF THE LINE what he thinks of spearfishing, and his answer echoes my thoughts but also raises other questions. ‘Like everything else, it depends on the rules. I can see that spear-fishing is more selective than trawling, for example, but I'm interested to know if there are codes which influence what is caught, how much and when. Are there? I simply don't know. I do know that spear fishing has been a reason why some reefs have been denuded of slow-growing large fish.’ Charles is not a natural hunter, I can tell. But he is a resilient warrior in the battle for the oceans, his exploits having stirred up awareness and change throughout the world.
In South Africa we have very strict regulations on what can be shot, where, when and what size. Each species has a minimum size limit and a limited amount that can be shot per diver per day, there is an accumulative limit of ten fish a day. There are also no-go seasons for some species to stop people fishing or shooting them during their vulnerable times, for example spawning season. There is also no spearfishing in estuaries as fish congregate there and are vulnerable. Shooting a fish for your own pot or braai, that is size, in season and you have a license for seems to be a very selective form of fishing. However, there has been world-wide concern for the effect of spearfishing on slow growing reef fish, especially in countries where spearfishing with scuba equipment has been allowed. Like any practice that impacts on natural resources, sustainability needs to be taken into account. Samantha Petersen of the WWF SASSI (The Southern African Sustainable Fisheries Initiative) program compares fishing to farming. A farmer spends most of his year preparing the soil, fertilising, plowing, planting, watering and then harvesting. Then he lets the land rest, before starting another season of preparing the soil, fertilising, plowing, planting, watering and then harvesting. All of us involved in ocean harvest, be it large-scale fisheries to one-breath spearfishermen, need to start thinking like the farmer. How do I need to treat this reef/ shoal/ ocean for it to still be productive on ten, twenty, fifty years time? I have met many spearfishermen who are passionate ocean lovers with an extensive knowledge of the fish they shoot, practice very conservative fishing and respect the ocean environment. They are the farmers of the reef who sees the fish grow, lets them be until they are size, shoot within season and license. Unfortunately we also have the blood-thirsties along our shores. There seems to be a trend that when somebody learns spearfishing, he sees red for a few years, wanting to kill as much as he can. I have seen images and footage that makes my blood run cold. But after a few years these young guns cool down and become a more calculated and respectful hunter. However, our inshore doesn’t have the supplies for this kind of spearing, my hope is that all one-breath hunters become advocates for sustainability. As opposed to fishermen, we spend our time underwater, we see the effects on our reefs, and we are in a prime position to take responsibility not only for our own actions, but to speak up for our underwater playground.
After having seen the images of large trawl nets destroying whole ecosystems, long lines catching turtles, sharks and rays and the other effects of commercial fishing I’ve decided to not eat a fish without knowing his name, age, street address and cause of death. If a restaurant can’t answer me on those counts, I won’t eat it. Through the WWF SASSI lists where fish are classed as on the green, orange or red lists, it’s become easy to make informed choices in restaurants and supermarkets as well. If it’s not your style to learn freediving and spearfishing because you love fish, you can make sure to pester fish retailers about their suppliers and make a conscious choice.
The great thing about spearing your own fish, is you hold all that knowledge in your hand.
Now it’s just a matter of being able to look a fish in the eye and kill it. I’m still not sure if I can do that again. Can I really call myself a spearo if I’ve only ever shot one fish?
Since writing this piece in 2011, I have come to realise many things... here's 4:
1. I am not firstly and foremostly a freediver, I am an ocean lover and conservationist, freediving is my tool.
2. I am doubtful of whether sustainable fisheries truly exist anymore. In my experience of traveling around the world and freediving all the oceans since 2011 is that what the ocean needs is for us to not extract anything. Might sound radical (I know) but so are the empty oceans I have seen and the trawler nets, long lines and ghost nets I have swum alongside.
3. I shot that one fish - I ate it. And that was the last fish I ever shot, or ate.
4. In today's world, I am not sure one can be an environmentally minded person and still eat mass produced animal products or seafood... food for thought?
KELP DRONE PIC: Steve Benjamin, my good friend I shot that first and last fish with, who has subsequently also stopped eating fish and laid down his gun... now shooting amazing photos and videos.