Thursday, September 23, 2010


No. Clue. Where. To. Start. So, I guess I'll backtrack to the beginning.

Today started out really slow, very tired. We got to our Environmental Policy class and luckily our professor gave us a more interactive assignment. We were divided into groups to assess how to solve the problem of litter on the island. Back story: people don't use garbage cans here. At bars, you can give the bottles back behind the counter, but there's not really trash cans or anything. Litter just gets thrown outside wherever, and by whomever, and the DECR (Department of Environmental and Coastal Resources, I'll mention them a lot in the future) pays tons of money to get the trash picked up. See, the locals will tell you, when you ask them why they just throw stuff on the ground, that their buddies are the ones getting paid to pick up trash, and if all the trash was gone, their friends would be out of a job. However, the DECR says that if there wasn't trash, they would reassign the garbage men to other more important jobs, and save a large amount of their budget. They need their budget for other things like protecting their marine areas and reducing illegal fishing practices. Our assignment is to come up with ways to reassign opinions about trash and propose a method to tackle the issue. So far we don't have too many ideas yet, but we walked around town to gain more insight into the problem. Litter is noticably more dense around restaurants, bars, and stores, and also in piles of rubble leftover from Ike.

After lunch was another fish ID session back at Admiral's Aquarium, a gorgeous, stereotypical "reef" snorkel site. It still amazes me how beautiful the fish are! They have so many spots, stripes, striations, blotches, and lines of different brilliant colors, its absurd. My favorite, Microspathodon chrysurus or, yellowtail damselfish, is a cobalt blue as a juvenile with electric blue spots. When it gets older it is a dark brown/black/purple color with the same electric blue spots but a golden yellow tail.
(Not my pictures...) Pictures cannot accurately depict the shine, brightness, and brilliance of these fish underwater. They are quickly becoming a favorite of mine. At Admiral's we also saw a Hawksbill Sea Turtle and an assortment of weird looking fish in this ID group. I wish I had my camera, but we're not allowed to bring them on educational snorkel/dives.
We came back exhausted from our dive around 4:15, as the current was fairly strong still from tropical storms, and I was attempting to write my blog, when my one of my roommates Leah burst into the computer room completely out of breath, scrambling for her camera. She managed to eek out "Dock. 10 foot. Tiger shark. Fisherman" so we all bolted to our rooms to put on community appropriate clothes and shoes, grab our cameras and raced down to the fishing docks to see what she was talking about. What I actually saw I was unprepared for. The shark was a massive 10 foot beast, writhing around on the cement of the boat launch, with a rope tied around its caudal fins.The fishermen were sharpening their knives, getting ready to skin and slice the shark before dark, its meat contributing to a great night of feasting. It seemed like all the students were there, crowding around taking pictures of the fisherman that caught it, the shark itself, gulping for air on land. We took turns getting close to it, touching its tail fin. Tiger sharks are very inflexible so touching or holding them on the tail is fairly harmless as they lack the movement to turn around quickly. Especially after being on land for 30 minutes. However, the sheer size of this female shark was ominous and it was frightening to even get within touching distance. I feel that the mood of the group shifted throughout the 2 hours we were down on the docks from an initial giddiness and awe that we could see such a shark up close, to pity and horror at the following events, to a final acceptance and peacefulness towards the community and the ended life of such a beautiful animal.

WARNING, GRAPHIC DESCRIPTIONS AND PICTURES TO FOLLOW. If you are vegetarian (or otherwise animal super-enthusiast who can't stand factory farming videos), reader discretion advised.

After the initial picture-taking and rapid fire questions asked of the fishermen, they finally began to cut up the shark before it got too late. The hard part was that the shark was still alive. From a logical standpoint, its very difficult to kill a shark that size. There's no way to cut its head off or smash its skull to put it out of its misery. Really, your only options are to severe its notochord (sharks are made of cartilage, so hence, no vertebrae, only a cartilaginous spinal chord thing), or let it suffocate to death. The fishermen chose the latter, and began cutting a wide strip from the caudal fin (tail fins) past the dorsal fin (the triangle one at the top that you always see sticking out of the water in shark horror films) up to the base of it's neck. The strip was tossed into the shallow water to get cleaned by fish and retrieved later. This was to expose the skin on the sides to be removed from the body, allowing the fishermen to access the meat of the shark. It was difficult to see the shark sputter, wriggle and twitch as fishermen cut off its fins, alive. There was no time to waste though, and it had to be done. The shark was clearly struggling for air and its gills were leaking blood. At this point, one of our professors who was with us asked the fishermen (butchers? island men? renaissance men?) why they didn't just severe the notochord. The simple reply came back, "Well the shark wouldn't put ME out of my misery if was to eat me!" But, in any case, they did just that, and the rest of the twitching came from residual nerve endings, as the shark couldn't feel anything, and was rapidly expiring. Next, the fishermen took foot-long knives and began separating the skin from the meat down the sides, and removing the rest of the fins, including the tail fins (this is the picture with the blood spout). Some students had left due to their light stomachs, and some students stayed, grimacing and wincing. The vast majority of us however, were exhilarated to be so close to an animal so big and scientifically fascinated at the sight. We got very brave and began taking pictures with the fins and other various places next to the shark. At this poitn the shark became less of a shark and more of a meat or commodity. After the skin was removed, the meat from the tail was sliced into small rounds (almost like filet mignon) and the upper body was sliced right down the middle, along the notochord. The notochord was removed and the organs were removed. 1/2 of a shark is a fatty liver anyways, used to control their buoyancy in the water, and the rest of the organs were stomach, filled with about 12 crabs. Once the skin was completely removed, it was tossed back into the ocean along with the organs, and the meat was washed off and put into a cooler. The head was sliced to remove the jaw and they were waiting for the Tooth Guy to come over and remove its teeth.

We asked some of the fishermen what was done with the meat, if it was sold, and how much they got for it. Their reply was the same: shark meat is way too expensive to buy on the island, and nobody wants to pay for it. Since catching a shark is a large, multi-personed task, everyone usually just demands their share and doesn't want to pay a cent. It is more profitable (socially and personally) to just give the meat away to whomever feels like cooking shark that night, and share it with the community. The jaws are kept by the man who speared it, the teeth are given away as souvenirs, the meat is divided up and the fins are taken to be sold illegally on other islands. Also given away free, since it is dangerous to sell illegally, so whoever wants to risk it, can. This is where the peaceful mindset kicks in. Yes, it does bother me that such a magnificent animal was killed, and slowly I might add, but the fishermen use it as subsistence. It is shared throughout the whole community and everybody gets a slice of the shark pie, if they so choose. At the end of the day, all fishermen let some of their catch suffocate to death, and this shark was no exception. It feeds their families and it doesn't happen all the time since no profit is made. That is what comforts me at the end of the ordeal. We waited around the docks for another half hour or so, waiting for the tooth guy, but he never showed up and we spent our time freaking out that we had just seen something so amazing, educational, and gruesome, and talking to the fishermen. A small child was practicing his skinning skills with one of the foot-long knives and some stomach tissue. More locals were discussing and debating the size and ferocity of the shark. It was all a community event. However, I did end up with some sort of sympathy, or empathy, or some sad emotion towards the students (and professors) that were affected strongly. I feel like I am slightly more unbiased, coming from many dissections in classes and a general awe of ocean creatures, but some students just viewed the whole thing as cruelty, and it was not our purpose to come here and witness such things. I wanted to comfort them somehow, but didn't know how because I couldn't relate. I don't know, I'm sure they're fine, but as time crawls on, looking back on the pictures, they get more and more gruesome not being there. I hope nobody reading this gets too freaked out. Sorry! The rest of the day was uneventful, as we all just studied and studied and studied and studied for our big test on Saturday. Well, besides the gun that some guy pulled out at a bar we almost went to. Again, weird fluke incidences of violence that usually is NEVER seen on this island. Don't freak out mom and dad, its fine, the police came quickly, but it happens, it happened back at Edison, and Im fine. :)

Just another Wednesday in the Caribbean. :)

Stephen getting a bearing

The fisherman who caught it, showing dominance

Chase, in the lion's den
First incision
Starting to cut the meat

Severing of notochord
Intent spectator

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what a lesson and story, so well written Hop. Felt like I was actually there. Amazing conflict of feelings and emotions. You handled it well. Dad.