Amoeba’s Lorica: Of the Titanic and its Deck Chairs

This morning (27 July 2019), while he was supposed to be doing something else (as usual), Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba read about the plight of the all-but-extinct vaquita. And how wonderful this is!

Perhaps you’ll be so kind as to give YFNA a chance to explain that.

The vaquita is a tiny (read “cute”; this will be important later) marine mammal, found exclusively in (“is endemic to”) the northern part of the Gulf of California, in Mexico. Over the past twenty years, the vaquita population has declined precipitously – far more so than that of the Salish Sea “Southern Resident” orca population that’s been so much in the news lately – to the point that there may be fewer than 10 animals left alive. Anywhere – there are (YFNA reads) none in captivity, and the prospects for survival, never mind breeding, of the vaquita in captivity are poor.

This now threatens (twenty years after it was too late, of course) to become A Cause. “Save the Whales!” on whatever the opposite of steroids is (given how small these creatures are). A documentary film on the subject, Sea of Shadows, has either just been released or is about to be released (YFNA is unsure which). This documentary, and The Cause it highlights, have attracted the attention of some of the most toxic committed pundits on both the extreme Right and the extreme Left of the political spectrum in these Untied States of America, and won the support of both.

This is the wonderfulness of the imminent demise of the smallest surviving (for now) species of cetacean (“whale”) on the planet, #roomforagreement hashtag fans. That the political extremes can agree on a Cause – any Cause – and use that agreement as a basis for building far broader agreements and progress on Things That Matter.

Alas, as readers of this blog surely know by now, YFNA has the nasty habit of trying to peer behind the blinding light. He will now attempt to examine some of the things that have caused the vaquita to reach the brink of elimination in the March madness tournament of life, and whether any of those things promise either to help save these whales or serve as true building blocks for reconciliation of the armed political camps in the USA.

The agreed-upon principal cause of vaquita death is gillnetting. No, there isn’t a vaquita fishery, and apparently has never been one. The whales are a bycatch of fishing for totoaba, a fish species that is endemic to the Gulf of California, and which is, like the vaquita, also on the brink of tournament elimination. (These two cases are just the tip of the iceberg that human pressures on the unique Gulf of California ecosystem have created.) The Mexican government recognized what was happening to the totoaba fifty years ago, and banned the fishery.

Your Friendly Neighborhood Amoeba has up-close-and-personal experience with the consequences of this ‘banning’ sort of thing. Starting in the late 1980s and culminating in the early 2000s, the fishery for Atlantic clawed lobster in Long Island Sound collapsed. It has not recovered, and has poor prospects for ever doing so.

One of the symptoms of this collapse, as YFNA and numerous colleagues themselves discovered, was infestation of animals by an amoeba – the very Amoeba in the handle “YFNA”, and which he used as an avatar, on this blog and elsewhere, for many years. The true cause, though, recognized by scientists then and more generally today, is that the waters of Long Island Sound are now too warm to support a lobster population. Yes, global warming fans, this means you.

However, the folk involved in the (now-lost) lobster fishery rejected this explanation, in favor of one, explicitly rejected by the scientists, that blamed pesticides applied to Long Island Sound coastal communities to control mosquitoes (and the West Nile virus outbreak associated with them) for all the dead and dying lobsters. As was succinctly stated to YFNA at the time:

You can’t sue an amoeba. Or climate change.

You can sue a pesticide manufacturer. And you might even win, scientific evidence or common sense notwithstanding.

Consider. The lobster fishery is lucrative. But the investment in gear and expertise needed to enter and remain in the fishery is [ahem] not trivial. Adhering to the regulations governing the fishery, so that one may reap the harvest and stay out of jail and/or bankruptcy via fines, is [ahem] not trivial. Add normal human cupidity to the mix (YFNA was regaled with tales of the ‘all-chrome’ SUVs that one fisherman had bought with the proceeds of his work, prior to the collapse) and … well, you don’t just yank all the lobster out from under you without causing immediate financial disaster for the people in the industry. Who have a desperate need to find someone, right now, from whom they can Demand Compensation.

Were they going to get it from We the People, whose governments, driven by public opinion regarding “safeguarding our environment”, put all those costly regulations in place, and who thereby (one could argue) entailed a moral obligation to protect those so encumbered, in the event of calamity?

heh … heh … hehe … heheumhehi <snort>BWAAhahahahahaaaaaa!

Indeed, the scientists – including YFNA – were regarded as agents of Government, whose mission was to absolve We the People of any responsibility – especially financial responsibility – for the situation, and the plight of those affected.

What did We have to offer those in the lobster fishery in compensation for lost livelihood? Jobs in retail and tourism. We can ask citizens of Maine how well such options have served to replace high-paying jobs in textile and paper mills – sixty years after such jobs disappeared! See LePage, Paul.

Can We the People be surprised that We have trained people to ignore facts in the quest for survival, never mind advantage? Can there be any further questions about how We the People elected Donald Trump and his cabal to the Presidency and majorities in the houses of Congress, in part on a platform of gutting the programs responsible for those environmental regulations?

Dammit, Amoeba, what does all this have to do with saving those cute vaquita?”

Just this. Vaquita die as a consequence of totoaba fishing. Stopping totoaba fishing makes formerly prosperous people desperate. You compensate, relocate, or eliminate those people, at the cost of the government whose actions have contributed to the loss of income, or suffer the consequences. That cost to government means that you’ve lost, right then and there, any hope of support from the political Right for saving the vaquita, never mind for any Things That Actually Matter.

But wait, there’s more. The totoaba fishery was stopped by political action, not (yet) by a fishery collapse as with lobster. There were still fish to be caught, and strong financial incentive to keep catching them – more than US$20,000 per fish strong. The focus of the US lobster fishery could move to Maine (don’t even think of getting a lobstering license in Maine unless you stand to inherit one), but the focus of the totoaba fishery had to remain in the northern Gulf of California (see “endemic”, supra). The Mexican government made the fishery illegal, but removed neither the now-desperate people involved in the fishery nor the financial incentive for it.

So the Mexican government merely succeeded in driving the fishery ‘underground’ – and, of course, even further removed from regulatory constraints than before the prohibition. $20 grand per fish pays for a lot of ‘consideration’ to keep nosy regulators out of your business – and muscle to deter those whose noses nevertheless got too big.

Unlike vaquita, totoaba can be reared in captivity, and fish farms now exist. To what extent these farms do, or can, satisfy existing markets, YFNA has not found out. The farms, moreover, likely profit a totally different set of people from those engaged in the wild fishery, either directly for totoaba or who ‘inadvertently’ obtain totoaba (and, perhaps, vaquita) as a bycatch from legal fisheries, for other finfish or for shrimp. Moreover, the farm movement risks coming to a swift end if it runs afoul of the same prejudices that afflict efforts to farm salmon. The ideal would be to rebuild wild stocks to the point that an efficient catch can be made using gear that does not entrap vaquita, and the intent of some farming operations is to attempt restocking of the wild population.

Alas … the link between totoaba and salmon is not entirely random, or entirely based upon the perils of fish farming.

For, just as salmon live primarily in salt water but migrate to freshwater to spawn, totoaba do best when they spawn in water that is less salty than that in which they spend most of their lives. To accomplish this, today as in uncounted years past, adult totoaba attempt to swim to the estuary of the Colorado River where they will find the brackish water that they need for spawning.

Unfortunately, there are formidable land barriers between the northern end of the Gulf of California and Santa Monica Bay, where the Colorado River currently exits via the Los Angeles sewer system. The water in the former Colorado River estuary is now no less salty than the rest of the Gulf of California.

Soooo … in order to reestablish a population of totoaba in the northern Gulf of California, sufficient to establish fishing practices that are safe for vaquita without costly compensation to, or draconian removal of, the current totoaba fishing industry, one would need to restore water to the Colorado River estuary by removing most dams and water rights claims from the river, thereby:

  • Abandoning most of southern California to the San Andreas Fault
  • Eliminating Las Vegas
  • Gutting agriculture and electricity generation required to supply most of the rest of the US Southwest

The removal of its major population base, and its principal propaganda operation (Hollywood), alone would guarantee removal of Left support for the Save the Whales project.

What vaquita?

“Amoeba, as usual, you understand nothing!

Yeah?

“The vaquita are cute! Cute is good. Anything that whacks cute is evil. Sweet and simple. The Right gets to whack crime, Mexicans, and Chinese. The Left gets to whack people who do environmental damage. It doesn’t matter that neither side gets what’s really going on, the tropes are out there, and both sides get to play to them. Win win. Especially if we can use the whales to make it look like we can play nice if we wish to, even though we know, not only that we can’t, but that our peeps don’t want us to when the chips are down. Meanwhile, we get publicity! And you know what that means.”

Ka-ching?

“Precisely. And because you haven’t learned to frame your narrative and insist on these long discourses on what you foolishly believe to be the facts, and therefore nobody reads your stuff, we don’t have to kill you for realizing this.”

Right. Thanks a pantload.

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