Thinking Like an Ocean: Sharks

Posted on August 19, 2011
Written by: Samantha Whitcraft

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Aldo Leopold’s A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (1949) was one of the first popular books in the American conservation movement. It includes an iconic essay, "Thinking Like a Mountain"  that focuses on the vital role of wolves as apex predators in the delicate ecological balance of a mountain ecosystem. Leopold details the impacts to the foodweb and the mountain itself when the wolves are extirpated by hunters: deer populations explode and the herbivores denude the mountain of the vegetation that holds the very soil in place.  As Leopold states, "Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of the wolf."

The parallels between wolf and shark conservation are unmistakable. In the oceans, sharks play the same vital role as apex predators in the ecological balance and functioning of their ecosystem as wolves do in the mountains. Today sharks face the same fear, ignorance and near-extermination that wolves have faced at the hands of humanity. With great respect for Leopold’s original essay, I have rewritten it as an homage to his vision, and applied his ecological lesson to our oceans and its sharks. I have kept the wording as close to the original as possible in order to more closely draw parallels between the stories of predator extirpation both on land and in the oceans, both past and present.

Thinking Like an Ocean: Sharks

By Samantha Whitcraft

A fast silvery streak flashes from reef to reef, cruises along the ledge, and fades into the deep blue of the ocean. It is a symbol of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every swimming thing (and perhaps many on land as well) pays heed to that symbol. To the reef fish it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the kelp a forecast of midnight hunts and blood in the water, to the ‘cuda a promise of gleanings to come, to the aquaculturist a threat of red ink at the bank, to the fisherman a challenge of teeth against hook. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lays a deeper meaning, known only to the ocean itself. Only the ocean has lived long enough to witness objectively the symbolic majesty of the shark.

Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nonetheless that it is there, for it is felt in all shark waters and distinguishes those waters from all other ocean realms. It tingles in the spine of all who dive with them at night, or who fish for them by day. Even without sight or sound of shark, it is implicit in a hundred small events: the midnight shadow of a ghost net, the rattle of the rigging, the bound of a jumping fish, the way shadows lie along the seawalls. Only the ignorant and careless can fail to sense the presence or absence of sharks, or the fact that oceans have a secret opinion about them.

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a shark die. We were eating lunch on a Bertram 410, making passage from Midway to Kure Atoll. We saw a wahoo following our lure, its tail a flash of white water. When it closed the distance between us and took the bait, we realized it was also hunted: by a shark. A half-dozen others, evidently schooling, swam up from the depths and all joined in the hunt. What was literally a pile of fishes writhed and tumbled in the wake of our Bertram.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a shark. In a second we were reeling in the line, but with more excitement than skill: how to work a rod the first time is always confusing. When our line was in, the big shark was exhausted, and all the others scattered in fear back into the impenetrable blue.

We landed the big shark in time to watch a fierce black fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes - something known only to her and to the ocean. I was young then, and full of science; I thought that because fewer sharks meant more fish, that no sharks would mean a fishermen’s paradise. But after seeing the black fire die, I sensed that neither the shark nor the ocean agreed with such a view.

Since then I have lived to see nation after nation extirpate its sharks. I have watched the face of many a newly sharkless sea, and seen the reef ledges wrinkle with a maze of algae. I have seen every reef and estuary, first resplendent with fish, and then destitute. I have seen every edible fish and fin extracted by commercial fisherman. Such an ocean looks as if someone had given God a massive fishing net, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the ungrazed reef overwhelmed by the too-muchness of unhuntedfish, chokes and bleaches and recedes under the hot sun.

I now suspect that just as a school of snapper lives in mortal fear of its sharks, so does an ocean live in mortal fear of losing them. And perhaps with better cause, for while a snapper taken by a shark can be replaced in a season, a reef taken down by too few grazing fish may fail in replacement in as many decades. So also with fisheries. The fisherman who cleans his grounds of sharks does not realize that he is taking over the shark's job of balancing the ocean foodweb. He has not learned to think like an ocean. Hence we have dead zones, and reefs’ futures crumbling into the sea.

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The snapper strives with his spawning, the fisherman with rod and reel, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau's dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the symbol of the shark, long known to the oceans, but seldom perceived among men.

Leopold’s lesson to us was simple: "Conservation is a state of harmony between men and land" …and the time has come to apply it, with equal passion, to the oceans and its sharks. Together we can help bring harmony back to our oceans by saving sharks.

Thinking Like a Mountain

by Aldo Leopold

A deep chesty bawl echoes from rimrock to rimrock, rolls down the mountain, and fades into the far blackness of the night. It is an outburst of wild defiant sorrow, and of contempt for all the adversities of the world. Every living thing (and perhaps many a dead one as well) pays heed to that call. To the deer it is a reminder of the way of all flesh, to the pine a forecast of midnight scuffles and of blood upon the snow, to the coyote a promise of gleanings to come, to the cowman a threat of red ink at the bank, to the hunter a challenge of fang against bullet. Yet behind these obvious and immediate hopes and fears there lies a deeper meaning, known only to the mountain itself. Only the mountain has lived long enough to listen objectively to the howl of a wolf.

Those unable to decipher the hidden meaning know nevertheless that it is there, for it is felt in all wolf country, and distinguishes that country from all other land. It tingles in the spine of all who hear wolves by night, or who scan their tracks by day. Even without sight or sound of wolf, it is implicit in a hundred small events: the midnight whinny of a pack horse, the rattle of rolling rocks, the bound of a fleeing deer, the way shadows lie under the spruces. Only the ineducable tyro can fail to sense the presence or absence of wolves, or the fact that mountains have a secret opinion about them.

My own conviction on this score dates from the day I saw a wolf die. We were eating lunch on a high rimrock, at the foot of which a turbulent river elbowed its way. We saw what we thought was a doe fording the torrent, her breast awash in white water. When she climbed the bank toward us and shook out her tail, we realized our error: it was a wolf. A half-dozen others, evidently grown pups, sprang from the willows and all joined in a welcoming melee of wagging tails and playful maulings. What was literally a pile of wolves writhed and tumbled in the center of an open flat at the foot of our rimrock.

In those days we had never heard of passing up a chance to kill a wolf. In a second we were pumping lead into the pack, but with more excitement than accuracy: how to aim a steep downhill shot is always confusing. When our rifles were empty, the old wolf was down, and a pup was dragging a leg into impassable slide-rocks.

We reached the old wolf in time to watch a fierce green fire dying in her eyes. I realized then, and have known ever since, that there was something new to me in those eyes - something known only to her and to the mountain. I was young then, and full of trigger-itch; I thought that because fewer wolves meant more deer, that no wolves would mean hunters' paradise. But after seeing the green fire die, I sensed that neither the wolf nor the mountain agreed with such a view.

Since then I have lived to see state after state extirpate its wolves. I have watched the face of many a newly wolfless mountain, and seen the south-facing slopes wrinkle with a maze of new deer trails. I have seen every edible bush and seedling browsed, first to anaemic desuetude, and then to death. I have seen every edible tree defoliated to the height of a saddlehorn. Such a mountain looks as if someone had given God a new pruning shears, and forbidden Him all other exercise. In the end the starved bones of the hoped-for deer herd, dead of its own too-much, bleach with the bones of the dead sage, or molder under the high-lined junipers.

I now suspect that just as a deer herd lives in mortal fear of its wolves, so does a mountain live in mortal fear of its deer. And perhaps with better cause, for while a buck pulled down by wolves can be replaced in two or three years, a range pulled down by too many deer may fail of replacement in as many decades. So also with cows. The cowman who cleans his range of wolves does not realize that he is taking over the wolf's job of trimming the herd to fit the range. He has not learned to think like a mountain. Hence we have dustbowls, and rivers washing the future into the sea.

We all strive for safety, prosperity, comfort, long life, and dullness. The deer strives with his supple legs, the cowman with trap and poison, the statesman with pen, the most of us with machines, votes, and dollars, but it all comes to the same thing: peace in our time. A measure of success in this is all well enough, and perhaps is a requisite to objective thinking, but too much safety seems to yield only danger in the long run. Perhaps this is behind Thoreau's dictum: In wildness is the salvation of the world. Perhaps this is the hidden meaning in the howl of the wolf, long known among mountains, but seldom perceived among men.

Aldo Leopold

A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There (1949)

 

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