Years ago, before the internet, smart phones, and GPS, back when we were young and spontaneous, Mitch and I paddled from Chincoteague to Wachapreague, camping for two nights along the wild, lonely Virginia beaches with nothing except a million stars and a surprising number of sun-bleached Whelk shells to keep us company.
Easy, relaxing vacations have a way of fading into a foggy-happy-memory corner of my mind. Whereas trips which require a level of discomfort remain fresh. On that trip, because I was too chicken to do a beach landing, we planned a lunch break at the first small inlet past Wallops Island. On the map, it looked to be about six miles from our starting point.
We spotted our first gill net shortly after clearing Wallops Island. A gill net is a mesh made of monofilament. The mesh is of a size to allow only the head of the fish to go through. When the fish tries to back out, the mesh catches its gills, trapping it. As it struggles, it becomes more and more tangled. Eventually, the fish suffocates because it needs water moving across its gills to get oxygen.
The gill nets off the Virginia coast stretched for miles. The sight of them broke my heart for three reasons—the number of fish in the water below me caught and struggling against this invisible thing; the amount of other sea creatures being indiscriminately killed (sea turtles, whales, and dolphin are some common species killed or maimed by gill nets – some of the dolphins recently washed up dead on our beaches were mostly likely injured from gill nets); and the fact that each gill net buoy we spotted, one after another after another, meant no inlet, no lunch, and no break (they wouldn’t stretch a gill net across an inlet).
At one point, we neared the fishing vessel. For every fish they kept, they tossed at least four dead ones into the water. We paddled among the floating corpses of what the fishing industry casually labels “by-product.”
Hours passed with the same scenery. To our right, an uninhabited shoreline with waves breaking on the beach. To our left, the wide open ocean with only the gill net buoys breaking the horizon. We gave up on the lunch inlet, realizing it must have filled in at some point. It was not until very late in the afternoon that we finally came to a different inlet and to the end of the gill nets.
The ocean is so many things to so many people – a playground, an old friend, a confidant, a therapist, an adrenaline rush, a place to prove yourself, and a place to unwind and relax. But it has also become a garbage dump, a septic system, a place where a small number of people attempt to enforce nearly unenforceable laws, where borders are fluid, where profits trump basic humanity, and where sea life is being depleted by unscrupulous players.
A journalist named Ian Urbina wrote a book called The Outlaw Ocean in which he risks his life a few times over to report on the issues facing the ocean today. His articles will amaze you. Cruise ships illegally dumping diesel-filled sludge; a months long pursuit of a notorious poacher; modern-day slavery; a man claiming an abandoned WWII offshore platform in the North Sea as his own sovereign nation. While the topics vary, the theme centers on the fact that the ocean’s bounty is not infinite and continuing our current consumption habits is not sustainable.
So many people here at the beach care deeply about the ocean. Reading this book is a way to educate ourselves about the daunting issues confronting a healthy ocean. So, in honor of yesterday’s World Ocean Day, we’re giving away two copies of The Outlaw Ocean by Ian Urbina. Sharing this post on Facebook will enter you in the drawing to win the book (must be picked up in person).
Happy (belated!) World Ocean Day!
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