The Last Fisherman: Witness to the Endangered Oceans

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9780789211910: The Last Fisherman: Witness to the Endangered Oceans

With breathtaking images and compelling stories, an underwater photographer chronicles the glory, and devastation, of our changing oceans.

When author Jeff Rotman began his adventures as an underwater photographer more than 40 years ago, he relished the beauty of the deep sea and the thrill of the hunt. A member of an elite group of photographers, he has captured iconic photographs of sharks and other creatures of the deep that can be seen in National Geographic as well as the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week television series.

Rotman’s passion for photographing marine life took a dramatic turn when he found a pile of sharks at the bottom of the sea stripped of their fins and left to die by rogue fisherman. The Last Fisherman documents the catastrophic changes in ocean wildlife and the people whose lives depend on hunting it.

Rotman has witnessed the near commercial collapse of cod fisheries in the North Atlantic and the growth of illegal poaching in the protected waters of Cocos Island which threatens this fragile ecosystem long admired by divers for the shark and ray populations. His journey mirrors our view of the oceans as places of wonder, to the fragile hunting grounds they are today. In his introduction, marine biologist Les Kaufman discusses how the emptying out of the oceans” has progressed over time. But he also includes stories of hope as scientists, fisherman—and observers like Jeff Rotman—come to agree that the time is now for a new approach to the most fundamental of human activities, finding sustenance in the water around us.

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About the Author:

Jeffrey L. Rotman is one of the world’s leading underwater photographers. His award-winning work has been featured on television as well as in National Geographic, Life, Time, Smithsonian, Natural History, and The New York Times Magazine, and in many other publications. Rotman is the author of numerous books, including Shark! and Underwater Eden: 365 Days.

Yair Harel is an author of books and materials on popular science. Harel, also a diver, lives in Tel Aviv, Israel.

Les Kaufman is professor of marine biology at Boston University. Kaufman is also a marine conservation fellow for Conservation International and research scholar at the New England Aquarium. He won the Parker Gentry Award for Conservation Biology in 2011 and recently received a MacArthur grant.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Excerpt from The Last Fisherman

Prologue
A Sunset Reflected

A second before jumping off the boat, Abu Sneida's body straightened. It seems that nobody, not even among the fellow Bedouins of his generation, remembers the seventy-year-old fisherman the way he was before his back became crooked and his gait waddling, as though the boat’s undulations had somehow infected his feet and now followed him wherever he went. Abu Sneida dove into the reef’s translucent waters and, as quickly as a shadow falls, laid his palms on the back of a huge sea turtle. He grabbed it, swirled with it for a little while, tangoing in tandem with the sunrays filtering through the waves, and, with powerful leg movements, forced it up to the surface.

For more than thirty years, Abu Sneida the Bedouin fisherman and I have sailed these waters in the Red Sea. Ras Muhammad ( the head of Muhammad”) looks like the end of the world, located at the edge of a continental protrusion separating two gulfs, the Gulf of Suez to the west and the Gulf of Aqaba to the east. Here, the unique azure seawater sharply contrasts against the red sandstone cliffs and granite mountains of the Sinai Peninsula.

Despite our long history, year after year, whenever I return to Ras Muhammad, Abu Sneida is respectfully introduced by Umbi, the captain of our diving boat, as my friend, the fisherman.” What being a fisherman means to Abu Sneida becomes clear at dinner every evening, when fish is served on the boat’s kitchen table, and Abu Sneida modestly downplays our praises by saying, Fish that's the only thing I can do.”

Together, we venture onto the deck to gaze at the sunset’s reflection on the waters of the Red Sea. Nothing seems to change in this place, or so I like to believe. Abu Sneida disappears momentarily into the depths of our boat, and he reemerges to serve us fissikh, a salted fish delicacy. He blows over a steaming cup of tea and talks of his extended fishing expeditions along the Red Sea coast. Here, in this time, in old Abu Sneida's voice, the ten-year-old boy who ventured on his first fishing trip lives on. Abu Sneida’s father fell chronically ill after his boat capsized in a storm, forcing him to swim all night and until he finally arrived at the shore exhausted. Despite being treated with all kinds of traditional brews of medicinal herbs and goat butter, he never regained his strength. It should have fallen to Abu Sneida's elder brother to take over for his father, but he had already drowned in these waters, his body never found. So young Abu Sneida was sent out to forge a living on the sea. He continues sailing in his world of stories until in his voice lives the veteran fishing boat captain he is now.

Abu Sneida’s large sailboat drags a small fleet of smaller boats called feluccas, their fabric sails folded. Under these skies, in the light of the sunset, he sends out his feluccas to deploy their nets. Come morning, the feluccas will return with nets full of fish, some scared into their webbing by the commotion of the fleet. At the end of a successful fishing trip, they typically return to shore caring 150 wooden barrels with some 450 pounds (over 200 kilograms) of fish stored between layers of salt. The salted fish become the same delicacy which we now, sitting on the deck, squish in our hands as we savor each delicious mouthful down to the salt that we lick off our fingers.

Abu Sneida turns to look at the turtle he has brought aboard. It is a male. Two crewmen are already carving it with huge kitchen knives, dissecting its organs. Abu Sneida smiles as they remove the genitals, and, as if reciting a recipe, says, You let it out to dry, then grind it into a paste with a little honey and some herbs a very powerful aphrodisiac. Then you sell it to a big sheikh up there in the mountains.” He points to the red granite peaks in the distance and laughs. He will pay a lot of money for this and he’ll want more.”

The empty turtle shell emits a pungent odor, momentarily erasing Abu Sneida’s semi-permanent broad smile. Then he shrugs his shoulders, saying, To make that kind of money, you need to catch a lot of fish. Try to find that many fish in the sea today.”

His few teeth are hidden behind sealed lips and his years suddenly show. He looks at the lights beginning to wink on along the beach as the sun gradually sinks behind the ridge, and nods. Perhaps, by using his powerful imagination, he's trying to strip the sea before us of all the cruise ships, yachts, and diving boats anchored to the beach; empty the extended coastline and riverbeds of the hundreds of new hotels with their myriad suites, nightclubs, malls, and entertainment centers brimming with the hundreds of thousands of people who frequent them each year. Perhaps the old fisherman is unaware of his exact age, and maybe the scenes of his life are laid out in a flat firmament of time, but at this moment, magic fails him. His aging eyes cannot ignore the see changes in the world around him.

Anyway,” he mutters, no matter how many fish you catch, you will get the same exact amount of money you used to get only now it is worth a thousand times less.” Once again, he smiles at me. Come to think of it,” he says, what do you know about it? You've never caught a single fish in your life.” Laughing, he adds, But, really, you also catch fish, only yours never stink.” Pulling on the strap of the camera hanging on my neck, he sighs. And never grow old.”

I've lived on the sea for over forty years. When asked about my profession, my late father used to say, He takes pictures of fish,” then would proudly add, and sells them too." Like Abu Sneida, I, too, sometimes try to use my imagination to strip away the signs of change in the twilit reflection on these waters. But in my photographs, filtered through the portals of time and trapped in the web of memory, I see the story of my life, and the change to which I have been witness is impossible to imagine away.

When I look at the pictures, each photograph I have taken comes alive and reveals its tale. I collect these tales and bind them together: a compilation of the distant places I have reached and the strange creatures I have met above and below the sea; a frightening anthology of my near-death experiences underwater; a recounting of the hasty decisions I have made in my career my failures and my successes.

But beneath these collections of photos, which together chronicle my career, lies a story of change that is reflected in each and every picture I have taken as if this had been my original intent from the first moment I dove in with my camera. It is a story where, before my very eyes, causes and effects inhabit the same plane; a story and which our human actions live side by side with their impact on the oceans I have known and loved.

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