Foraging from the sea: Thinking Sustainably, Acting Ethically

Staying up too late in the darkness of your bedroom. The glow of Navionics on your phone as you scouting out those new potential zones and bottom structure. Obsessively cross checking weather patterns and systems. Checking tides, currents and visibility reports for when everything might align for that window to get you and your crew out there again. Traveling and going the distance to get a little further to that new spot, that next zone. Plunging beneath the liquid curtain and laying eyes on that new reef and what it holds in the hunt for that sustainable harvest.

Driving the sustainable mindset…

The mind of the freedive harvester is ever working and focused on that sensation and that addiction that keeps drawing them back to the sea for that shared adventure and experience. The draw to this is not only fuelled by the hunt and experience within the adventure itself. It’s fuelled by the culmination of these events bringing friends and family together around the fire and around the table to enjoy the bounty retrieved from the ocean that day. 

Honouring and respecting one’s catch through the process from start to finish. Descending into the depths on one breath. Observing, understanding and making the appropriate choices before selecting the harvest. Returning to the surface and being granted that gratifying breath as the surface tension breaks in accomplishment. The connection one feels from this is undeniably strong and beautiful. It’s this underlying gratitude and respect for the liquid environment and the resources pulled from within it that cultivates and guides the thoughts and actions of the sustainable mind in ethical ocean harvesting. 

Where it begins…

Ethical and sustainable harvesting begins with the education and knowledge to support the choices that lead to the end game you are desiring to achieve. Making decisions in the hunt that will promote the long term health of the reefs from which we are harvesting drives the mindset of most freedive-harvesters, especially of those who can truly identify as sustainable and ethical hunters. This title isn’t earned by owning a speargun alone. In fact, spearfishing can have adverse effects on a reef if the wrong choices are being repeatedly made once someone becomes proficient at freediving and hunting. Where then do these ethical and sustainable choices start? 

Identifying your Target: 

A hunter should always have a strong knowledge base of species identification. This is even more important with regards to the species being harvested. Knowing the specific species you are targeting and the physical traits to identify them is where to start with this. Once you have learnt how to identify between the specific species it’s important to learn more about each of these species before you begin your hunt. Consider what facts and traits about this species make them a sustainable and ethical choice or not.

Species identification does not start and stop with the ability to distinguish between different species however. There are decisions to be made surrounding each species’ specific characteristics which take the decision making process even further. Species specific size characteristics, rate of maturity (Baby making prowess… cue the Marvin Gaye), overall knowledge of life spans of the species and seasonal habits such as nesting and mating. These pieces of information among others all play into the choices of ethics and sustainability in freedive-harvesting and spearfishing.

I.D. Resources

Some fantastic hardcopy resources to check out to get more informed are available from Harbour Publishing who have a selection of different books and field guides relevant to our waters. Another fantastic way to learn a little more about your local species would be to check out a local aquarium. The Ucluelet Aquarium, the Shaw Centre for the Salish Sea and the Vancouver Aquarium all hold exhibits which can inform you and show you real life examples of specific species you’re interested in learning about. 

This title isn’t earned by owning a speargun alone. In fact, spearfishing can have adverse effects on a reef if the wrong choices are being repeatedly made once someone becomes proficient at freediving and hunting.

Is there anybody home? 

Being present and spending time on the reefs we’re harvesting from allows us the opportunity to physically observe the state of the reef we’re hunting before making any decisions on what we’re removing. We generally have a good idea of what we’re after and the goals of our harvest before we even get in the water, however, being able to lay eyes on the reef and see the diversity in species and the population density of specific species allows us to momentarily gather information to better assist in more sustainable and ethical choices. If you are noticing an abundance of fish of a certain species on the reef, ask yourself why. Should you notice that the reef only has limited numbers of specific species, again ask yourself why and then consider if taking any of those species would be a sustainable and ethical choice.

Ongoing questioning allows us to take a step back, create correlations, make better decisions and ultimately learn from our experiences. We can learn a lot by observing from even one drop to a reef. The more drops we make in a zone, the more we learn about the area and general trends.  The more knowledgeable we become, the better decisions we will make. 

It was ‘thiiiiiis’ big… 

For freedivers that are spearfishing or hand harvesting the ultimate goal is to get out and collect what’s desired and needed for the table. We do, however, sometimes get caught up in our natural competitive tendencies which may guide and steer us further away from our ultimate goal than we’d like. Beating your own personal best (PB) or pulling out a bigger fish than your buddy did last season are some examples of the mentality that can get us caught in this scenario.

Throughout the Freedive-Harvesting courses with Bottom Dwellers Freediving we address this social dilemma and age old story as “the hunt” and acknowledge how easily it is that we can get caught up in it. The fact of the matter with fish is that with most fish species bigger fish are better and more successful breeders. There is a-lot to be said for leaving the bigger fish to swim another day to allow them to continue breeding and help sustain the reefs’ populations. Ultimately, the most sustainable and ethical choice would be to select a fish that is large enough to warrant the purpose of taking for your meal/meals but that is also not in the biggest class of fish on that reef. Limited time on each drop and that competitive edge engrained in many of us can affect our ability to make clear decisions under pressure.

Checking in… Ego or Sustainable?

It’s important to check in and remember the reasons as to what brought you to the reef, the goals you had before getting there and staying true to these as best you can. I’ve been in the position before where I have regrettably taken big fish off reefs I had said I wouldn’t anymore after having imposed my own size restriction caps on certain species for myself’. In this particular instance I ended up taking a fish that I truly didn’t want for any reason other than to attempt to beat out my previous best.

There there were plenty of other options around on the reef to put fish tacos on the table that day but the hunt got the best of me. In the end I was rewarded with nothing but a heart sinking feeling with the decision I made in taking this fish. It was exactly the same weight as my previous best. That lapse in judgement was enough to bring me back into check about where my intentions really were at the time of that dive and how I now operate on that particular reef to this day.  

Keep it diverse, Keep it Sustainable

You’re now identifying the species you’re after. You’ve made the effort and taking the time to get educated on the specific characteristics of those species. You’re observing the state of the reef and its overall composition. The next step in sustainable and ethical harvesting is to remember to switch the focus of your targets and to keep your catch bag diverse. Being diverse in your harvest takes the pressure off the specific species that you focus on and target more regularly. Taking the time to learn new species that are edible and that you can enjoy will go a long way with keeping your reefs healthier in the long run.

We’re incredibly fortunate in the Pacific North West to be able to enjoy the abundance of edible harvest accessible from our ocean. Lingcod, rockfish, greenling, crabs and prawns are the top taco contenders but by diversifying and moving away from the common targets the world becomes much more than just your ‘oyster’. Learning to enjoy sea urchins, gooseneck barnacles, sea cucumbers, sea weeds, kelp, a variety of bivalves and univalves unfolds a smorgasbord of bountiful beautiful harvest accessible with the right knowledge, understanding, skill sets and a Tidal Water fishing license.


Over Sharing…

We’ve already mentioned the negative effects that social media can have with the effects of peer pressure and competitive edge. Location mapping and landmarks however are by far the worst side effect social media has on a reef and adventure sports in general. The physical pressure that gets put on a reef as knowledge that it holds good fish spreads can have terrible side effects. Even more so as it gains popularity as a productive hunting site. For these reasons, and as my own general rule, I do not share locations on public forums, including this article.

We’ve seen reefs with once good fish populations that are now suffering due to geographic location and ease of accessibility. The unceasing and relentless pressure put on these common knowledge locations by different groups of divers being the primary cause for this. There’s nothing wrong or rude about not sharing a spot over social media. In fact, I applaud people on holding those spots close and keeping them sacred. By sharing locations I’m not just talking about saying the location name or area, it also comes down to being flagrant with your use of landmarks in social media posts.

Blowing up your spot

People are generally pretty smart. By knowing the general area you were in, using a few extra digital tools and a little local knowledge it can be pretty easy to pick spots out for their location. Prior to social media, people had to explore and find their own locations for whatever activity they were doing. The only way they found out where spots were was by word of mouth and maps. Everyone wants the quick fast track to that next best spot and keeping those spots close to you is the best way to preserve them.

I’m a big advocate of this approach with locations. Even with some of our closest dive buddies there is a “you know when you go” mentality that we run with for some locations and pride is held in keeping those zones undisclosed. The best part is that your true dive buddies will understand and respect this if they’ve ever had to work for spots of their own at some point. It’s about protecting those spots that you care about from the devil that is social media when it comes to geo-tagging and locations.

You owe it to that reef that’s provided you with those bowls of ceviche, those fish tacos and those sensual scallop medallions. You owe it to the reef and all the species on it. As sustainable as freedive-harvesting and spearfishing can be it can have negative effects. If too many people are hitting the same spot it will undoubtedly have negative side effects on those heavily targeted species if it’s easy enough to access. 

Sustainable and Ethical Mindset

There’s a lot that comes together to own the title of a sustainable and ethical harvester. This mindset and lifestyle is more than just freediving and spearfishing. It’s about utilizing knowledge and understanding so that one can make the right choices while on the hunt to promote sustainable and healthy reefs for the future. It’s about respecting and cherishing that environment and what it provides. We’re always learning, improving and bettering ourselves. Being open to conversation, and being humble and respectful of each other is what will continue to grow a healthy, positive and sustainable freedive-harvesting community. Enjoy those experiences. Enjoy those fires and meals with friends and family and do so in a way that will allow for the next generations to come to do so as well. 

Dive Safe and enjoy those bigger picture tacos,

Author: Chris Adair

@spearfishingcanada on Instagram #spearfishingcanada