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By Liam Steele

In an age where issues like climate change and unsustainable practices are rampant, there appears to be a severe deficit in the average person’s environmental consciousness and literacy. We live in a time where many actual human beings, not just politicians, actually resonate with the rhetoric of  “If climate change is real, how come it’s cold outside?”, and where the extent of young people’s care for the environment is putting some vapid declaration like “save the turtles!” in their Instagram bio. Part of this disconnect comes from our own disconnect from nature, and while I could turn this article the way of the “blah blah car-centric cities, blah blah kids don’t go outside anymore blah” ramble, I will instead introduce you to the glorious pastime that is spearfishing—the timeless art of striking down the scaly denizens of the deep with sharpened spears. 

One might think that something that sounds so destructive may be a step in the wrong direction, but it’s quite the opposite. The Caribbean is a region populated by economies heavily dependent on the biodiversity of its waters. From North Carolina to the Caribbean islands and southern Brazil, the lionfish threatens the balance of marine ecosystems that feed millions and support whole economies. In recent years, coastal communities in this region have dealt with out-of-control populations of invasive lionfish through their mass removal in friendly spearfishing competitions, known as lionfish derbies. The winning team of one 2022 Florida derby removed a whopping 426 lionfish, setting a strong positive example for derbies as part of a management solution. These organized efforts show great promise in fighting the issue, while also spreading awareness, supporting local businesses, and helping to bring in massive revenue in tourism. 

Spearfishing, like the pastime of traditional rod-and-reel fishing, involves the harvesting of fish for food, but it differs in execution. For one, deciding to take a fish becomes an irreversible decision—a hook to the lip does not quite equate to a spear to the vitals. This direct manner of harvesting, as opposed to doing so from the safety of dry land, forces one to fully appreciate the life of a fish, and its role in its ecosystem, before taking it. Additionally, dispatching, or to be more blunt, killing a fish in a timely manner (sometimes even without the chance for it to feel stress if one is skilled enough) is more ethical than what is done in the name of  “sport” with line fishing. Affording a fish an exhaustive and stressful fight with a hook in its mouth, sometimes irreversibly harming the fish from pressure change complications (often an incredibly grisly affair; look up some pictures) and improper hook setting, sets a poor example for nature-related engagements. Furthermore, the damage that is done to the underwater world from line fishing has long-lasting effects, with the fish that manage to win the battle against eager anglers sometimes being left with hooks in their mouths, and their homes being polluted with lost baits and tangled lines. Traditional fishing “for sport” tends to involve targeting species of fish not for their resource benefit to humans, but for how much of a fight they put up, in stark contrast to the sport of spearfishing, which stresses the sustainable and purposeful harvest of fish for sustenance.

Having gotten into the pastime myself two summers ago off the sandy shores of Grenada, I strongly recommend getting into the hobby yourself, if you can. I can confirm that spearfishing can be quite wallet-friendly, and as is the case with getting anything cheap, we can look to Amazon and find a beginner-sized polespear. (Believe me, you do not need to start with a speargun.) Usually between 4 and 7 feet, these will cost you less than 50 dollars. As for additional materials: affordable snorkels and masks, as well as fins if you prefer, can be found online. In practice, using a polespear is quite simple, and takes next to no time at all to figure out. After all, it’s just a pointy stick with a large rubber band on one end. 

The actual practice of spearfishing is an incredibly enriching experience. It taps into that primal desire in the human brain to hunt and forces the understanding of the environment that lies at the core of hunting. I recall scanning rocks and coral for scorpionfish, combing sandy expanses for flounder, even tracking the movements of sprats along the shallows to locate trevally and jacks; all experiences that afforded a feeling of having earned dinner, but also a genuine understanding of the ecology of the waters I prowled for dinner in. With every meal earned, I learned to appreciate the significance of the life lost at the end of my cheap fiberglass spear, and made full use of the fish I earned, letting none go to waste. There came a point in my near-daily spearing outings over that summer where I could distinguish individual fish I had seen on previous outings. I knew the routine of the massive moray eel who lived in a derelict fish trap, and his regular cleaning visits to the French angelfish (a species known for cleaner fish behavior in its juvenile years) situated at the shallow concrete mooring blocks. I named that angelfish Carl (I am bad at naming things), and would also make a habit of visiting his spot in a discarded boat engine, and creatures like Carl drew my curiosity and interest in nature to another level entirely. 

However, these outings also showed me everything that threatened the waters I enjoyed swimming in. I saw accumulations of plastic waste blown together by the currents, once-vibrant reefs turned monotone by coral bleaching, and the threat of the invasive lionfish moving to the shallow waters of my island home. Being informed on the functions of—and current threats to—our world’s oceans, I can apply my knowledge and firsthand witness to the politics concerning the environment and make informed decisions regarding them. If we are to care for the environment as it faces ever-mounting threats, how can we do so from a distance without appreciating its services with our own senses? How can the big decision-makers in the world continue to dictate the fate of the environment without a real, tangible understanding of everything at stake? 

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