The Tipping Point

John Webb
By John Webb | Follow @journojohn
John Webb began his career in journalism as a wide-eyed cub reporter at news agency Network Radio News in 1997. He joined Talk Radio 702 in 1999 as a reporter and news reader and was assigned to major news stories. John then joined Carte Blanche in 2004, where he presented current affairs programmes from the field. He [...] See full profile

I once spent 36 hours on board a shark long-liner, and it played havoc with my moral sensibilities and my faith in humanity.  There’s nothing like seeing hundreds of wild animals butchered before your eyes to underline the ethical shortcomings of the industrial food complex.  The efficiency of the enterprise, and apparent indifference of the fishermen, emphasised the point.  The victims were generally Mako and Blue sharks but Threshers and Yellow Fin Tuna would sometimes find the bait too tantelising to resist and end their lives in the vessel’s refrigerated bowels.

Tipping Point

That our crew had even made it on board was a minor miracle given the industry’s general distrust of the media.  But, shark fishing was fast falling out of fashion given the precarious state of the species, and the four or five operators left in Table Bay were desperate to justify their continued existence.  We were provided basic accommodation in the Mess, and the freedom to roam the boat and interview whomever we pleased.

I recall the Mozambican cook performing culinary wonders in a tiny Galley, and tucking into pickled Octopus, steak and crumbed pork as I tut-tutted at the brutality of the de-finning happening below decks.  That’s called exercising the moral carnivore’s privilege: indulging in the product while decrying the process. It didn’t sit well with me, but who can resist thinly-sliced octopus on a fresh baguette? At least it wasn’t shark.

That was more than ten years ago, and I’m unsure whether the Shark fishermen still head out to sea from Table Bay harbour.  Frankly, I very much doubt it. While our insert had given them a chance to state their case, the images of hundreds of sharks being hacked into export-ready pieces was always going to be more compelling. No, theirs was surely the final thrash of a dying fish.

I often think about that trip, particularly when I’m being lectured by a vegetarian or – that most annoying of adversary – the militant vegan. When I’m being ‘educated’ on the nutritional value of pulses or how many Puffins are saved with every spoonful of soy, my reflections arrive at a singular and disturbing conclusion: I really don’t have a leg to stand on.

The undeniable fact is that our planet is in a precarious state, superficially because of a smorgasbord of ideological, religious, Trumpist and Putinesque threats, and more intrinsically from global warming and a general assault on the environment.  We are, as we’re constantly reminded by experts and Michael Moore, at a tipping point.  So, when a nose-ringed environmental activist points out the threat to our continued survival of cow flatulence and plastic straws I feel compelled to listen.

In the same way that a halt had to be brought to the shark fishing industry off Cape Town to help ensure the survival of the species, the rest of the environment demands similar resolve.

Surely, then, our investigation into plans for a significant Aquaculture Development Zone in Saldanha Bay, within sight and tidal distance of the world-famous Langebaan Lagoon would require similar perspective?  The Lagoon is a revered birding site and, we’re told, already under ecological threat.  There’s a significant body of research pointing to potentially catastrophic consequences for the lagoon if the fish farming project goes.  And there’s a growing determination amongst Langebaan’s residents to ensure that doesn’t happen.

Not unexpectedly, though, this debate has more ingredients than a Bouillabaisse and both sides feel under threat of indigestion. In the absence of a ship, a shark and a machete, the Aquaculture debate is a more complex ethical minefield.  Particularly given its supporters and critics claim the environment as their biggest concern.