Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Eat Lionfish!: saving our seas by consuming invasive species

Lionfish are a rapidly advancing invasive marine species. They eat juvenile fish, reducing the diversity and native fish population on some species by up to 95%. So, what to do with these creatures?

As with all problems, my own personal answer involves food. So I have always been interested in the idea that we can best manage these invasive species by eating them. Proponents of this plan don't just want to get people to eat lionfish occasionally, but instead they want to develop a cultural and social acceptance of the organism as a commonly consumed species of fish. This is a lot harder than it might seem. 

In the middle of the 19th century, two things happened in parallel: 
The first was a large influx of immigrants from Europe (and especially Germany).
The second was a noticeable decline in native fish stocks (I say noticeable because they were probably declining for some time and it wasn't until this period when fishermen sounded the alarm). 
These two occurrences (increased immigration and decreased fish stocks) were not causal (no, immigrants didn't steal our fish)  but they did mean that there were more people and less fish to feed everyone. 

So the newly created U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries decided to do something about this: they would farm carp and release it into nearly every part of the US. 

Carp was already a popular ornamental and food fish in Germany- so the US Commission thought that the introduction of this species would be a win-win. They already knew that immigrants considered this an acceptable food source and they assumed that the fish would become popular with other Americans as their native fish stocks declined. What could go wrong? 

Initially, citizens responded favorably to carp introductions. According to Robin's Dougty's history of carp farming in Texas during this period:  

"Texans were expected to find carp delectable-especially European
immigrants or first- and second-generation Americans of German stock,
who were supposedly accustomed to the practice of carp culture in the
Old World. Initially, people reacted very favorably to their stocks of
young carp obtained free from the U.S. Fish Commission ponds in
Washington, D.C., or, after 1882, from state carp ponds in Austin. In
July, 1883, the U.S. Fish Commission sent out a survey to 2,ooo recipients
of earlier carp shipments across the nation. Sixty-seven respondents
from thirty-three Texas counties replied positively to the set
of fifteen questions. The number of responses from the Lone Star State
matched that from Ohio (Texas ranked fourth in the nation); the response 
was about half of that from Virginia, which ranked number

But excitement about carp was quickly replaced by disgust and annoyance. Farm bred carp were kept in squalid conditions: the fish are hardy and thrived in muddy, murky ponds on basically any food. However, they also take on the taste of those muddy, murky and garbage filled locations. Complaints flooded into the Commission that the fish were inedible. 

In addition, the stocking of lakes and rivers lead to an overabundance of the species. The German carp began to push out the already declining native species. For those fisherman interested in trout, the carp was a less beautiful and sporting fish, regardless of taste. 

As public opinion turned against the carp, the Fish Commission continued to try to make it a thing. They posted pamphlets on cooking methods 

This poster seems a bit informal, exasperated, and slightly grasping. I'm not sure it's particularly convincing all things considered. 
And they were particularly interested in promoting all fish during WWI and WWII because of meat shortages. 

But alas, similar to fetch, carp was never really going to happen. 

There are other instances of trying to interest people in eating invasive species, especially when those species have overtaken and threatened the food source upon which those populations used to thrive. For instance, the oyster and mussel populations in Cancale, France are being crowded out by the invasive Atlantic slipper snail. While locals refuse to eat the snail, which they consider little more than disgusting vermin, one entrepreneur is trying to interest high end Parisian restaurants in the species. 

No one quite knows how the lionfish, native to the Indo-Pacific found its way into the Atlantic. The first sightings in Florida occurred as early as 1985. What we do know is what has happened since then. Lionfish have invaded the Caribbean and Atlantic seaboard. They have been spotted as far north as Rhode Island and are beginning to work their way into estuaries. The hope that lower salinity would stop the spread of these fish inland has been smashed by the realization that they have broad salinity tolerance, meaning that they will have an impact on both reef ecosystems and broader littoral and coastal ecosystems.  

Some scientists, activists, and environmentalists think that the best form of control could be to make it a popular food fish. The January 2016 updates to the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch lists lionfish as a "best catch" and states that "When you buy lionfish you are helping to prevent the spread of this invasive species in US waters." Earthinvaders.org  points to Cuba's success with eating these fish: 

"The Cuban government promoted harvesting lionfish in 2011–and when we visited in 2014, we saw only one pez león over five days of snorkeling on the reefs. Although the invaders persist in deeper waters, the fishing pressure appears to be working." (They do not cite this assertion so take it with a grain of salt)

One of the concerns with harvesting and processing lionfish is understandable: they have poisonous spines. Those spines can remain poisonous up to an hour after they are caught. Learning to properly clean the fish is the first step to eating them. 

After they are cleaned, they can be cooked like any other fish. Many people compare them to grouper or other salt water fish. 

I was lucky enough to get to try lionfish this winter while vacationing in Cape Canaveral, FL. Grills bar and restaurant has started serving lionfish and I was excited to get to contribute to ecosystem conservation by eating and drinking beer on a deck in 80 degree weather. This is the type of conservation that Americans really like!

 Grills prepares their lionfish by frying it and then broiling it (something they call froiling) and they serve it with a type of teriyaki sauce. 

The fish is a huge amount of meat- in fact, we shared the appetizer above and it was overwhelming how much of the fish is actually meat. The flesh is similar to any white fish you might have had- it doesn't taste "fishy" (a common complaint about fish because apparently people like to eat food that doesn't taste like food and while I find that confusing I accept it). In fact, it doesn't taste like much at all, so I think that would be a great hit with consumers. There are a lot of tiny bones if you don't fillet it first, but the fish is so good it is worth the effort of weeding them out. 

One of my favorite things about the lionfish is that its skin is edible. While many people don't like to eat fish skin, I absolutely love it. The taste and texture are something that appeal to me (I love trout and catfish for this reason). Lionfish skin is really good and on a fried fish like the one above, it was probably my favorite. part. 

All in all, I hope that the lionfish catches on in the US. If it doesn't, it won't be because it isn't good to eat. I would order it as a regular entree, even without the added incentive of eating invasive species. 

It's fetch. 

Thursday, October 1, 2015

The historical precedent to Mickey and Jay

If you're on the internet, you might have been introduced to the above video of two guys freaking out about a sunfish they've spotted near Boston. If you haven't watched it, it's lovely for a few reasons but also not exactly safe for work (the cursing is epic). One of the reasons I was so excited when viewing it was that one of the first reactions is to "call the aquarium." I study the interaction of aquariums with the public and it's great to see that people see what they think is either a new creature or an injured creature and want to call their local aquarium.

But I was also interested in the video when I ran across this picture researching this morning:

This is a picture of a sunfish caught off the coast of Catalina Island on Sept. 3, 1919. Mr. Van Campen Heilner (The man behind the cart) describes the capture in the Bulletin of the New York Zoological Society:

The narrator goes on to say he wanted to take the fish into shore alive, but quickly found that it wasn't going to happen- it was so heavy that the drag created from the boat basically killed the poor thing (if the harpooning and gaff through the mouth and eye socket weren't enough). While there wasn't a big enough scale the weigh it when they did get to dock, they did measure its length.  The sunfish ended up measuring 10 feet 11 inches. 

The sunfish in this narrative was doing the same thing that the one in the above video is doing: basking on the surface of the water to get warm after diving to great depths (go here to read more about it).

They are found throughout the ocean and there are often sightings similar to the one in the video (minus the freaking out and Boston accent).

We should never forget that the history of marine animal sightings is usually peppered with men on boats screeching "What's that?! Let's kill it and find out?!" However, we should be happy that the first reaction this time around was 'let's help it' and 'let's call the aquarium.' That seems to be progress,  even if it devolves from there.

Friday, June 12, 2015

Beach Nourishment: Environmental Questions

When I first started researching beach nourishment for this blog, my initial question was "how does this form of environmental engineering affect wildlife?" I thought there would be some pretty straightforward answers, especially since the history of beach nourishment in the US is almost 100 years old (1922-present). But instead, I found a lot more questions than answers.

Don't get me wrong- there have been studies done to try to assess the environmental impacts of beach nourishment on both organisms in the borrow area and the deposition area. There are several articles that highlight optimal studies (Nelson, "Beach Restoration in the Southeastern US" Ocean &Coastal Management, 1993 and Petersen and Bishop, "Assessing the Environmental Impacts of Beach Nourishment" Bioscience, 2005) and after reading these and several other articles, there seem to be two different environmental questions that stem from beach nourishment: 1. what does constant sand removal and deposition do to organisms that live on or near the beach? and 2. how does a change in sand quality or quantity impact those same organisms?

The first set of questions, regarding the impact of removal and deposition of sand on organisms and the environment is probably the group of questions that spring to mind when thinking about this subject. In much of the reading, it would appear that, while rigorous research has yet to really be performed, early indications suggest deposition of sand does not negatively impact many organisms who live on or near the beach in the long run.

Based on research highlighted by  Nelson (1993), crabs and clams that live in the area closest to the beach do decrease in number after the initial deposition of new sand. For the first season, their numbers decrease and then steadily climb back to pre-deposit numbers over time.

While the impact on the beach fauna seems to be minimal, the impact on organisms in or near the borrow area might be more negatively affected. The process of dredging for sand can be destructive both to organisms directly in the line of dredging and ecosystems near the dredging area.

There are many different types of dredges, but they all basically scour a chosen area of the ocean bottom, picking up everything on the surface and either depositing it on the top of the boat for transportation into shore or directly pumped onto shore via a piping system.

Hopper Dredge
Cutterhead Dredge

Dredges tear up the seabed and they also kick up sediment that can settle on nearby coral reefs. Coral is extremely delicate and reacts to a variety of changes in the water (including sunscreen). Negligence in dredging can bury coral reefs in sediment, blocking the sun and effectively killing the reef; this type of careless dredging is less common today. However, dredging even near a coral reef can stress the corals and cause them go from slightly swollen to covered in a secreted mucus that could eventually kill entire reefs.

Stress Levels of Coral from Sand Dredging from Fisher et al "Real Time Coral Stress Observations before, during, and after beach nourishment dredge Offshore SE Florida" Oceanography Faculty Proceedings, Presentations, Speeches and Lectures (Nova Southeastern University) 2008.
According to Fisher et. al (2008), careful dredging causes minimal stress on corals. Throughout a single dredging season (2006), corals reached stress level two (exacerbated by Hurricanes Katrina, Rita, and Wilma). After dredging was completed, most corals went back to a stress level of 1 or under.

While Fisher et. al don't draw a lot of conclusions from this research- they merely report their method and findings- it is something to consider that dredging causes stress on coral reef ecosystems,leaving coral weakened and unable to fight viruses, hurricane damage, and a host of other predators or issues. Basically, the harshest effects of dredging on coral can be alleviated by choosing dredging spots and monitoring coral stress levels but the low level stress leaves coral vulnerable to other complications.

Finally, sea turtle nests can be buried when dredged sand is dumped on beaches. Hatchlings can have trouble getting out of the nest if it is buried too deep (and the temperature might also be too cold to actually incubate and hatch correctly). Careful monitoring of sea turtle nests and nourishing beaches in non-nesting season can alleviate these issues. Sea turtle nestings do go down on beaches the season after nourishment projects, but it appears as if they return to normal within a year of nourishment. (Rumbold, Davis, and Perreta "Estimating the Effect of Beach Nourishment on Caretta caretta (loggerhead sea turtle) nesting" Restoration Ecology 2001) However, the biggest threat to beach systems might not be where or how sand is deposited, but what sand is used.

Choosing sand for beach nourishment is a tricky business. There are a lot of variables to consider- location, cost, aesthetics, and ecological impact. Up to date, most borrow areas for beach nourishment have been located relatively near the fill areas. However, as of 2014, Palm Beach, Broward, and Dade counties are out of usable borrow areas. While those counties have been begging their northern neighbors to share (the answer has been a pretty resounding "no") they are also looking to other borrow areas, including an inland source from an ancient ocean near the Everglades and sand dredged from the Bahama Banks.

Most borrow areas are relatively close to the deposit site which cuts down on cost (free sand if it is in your county and you only have to pay for the dredging equipment and man hours). It also commonly means it will be the same color as the original sand- something you wouldn't think is a huge deal but aesthetics are an important part of beach going apparently- just ask the citizens of Coney Island in 1922. The dredging brought up red sand from borrow areas. Locals flipped out- no one wants a red-sanded beach- THE SAND MUST BE WHITE! If you think this is a ridiculous reaction we're on the same page imagine the reaction people would have if they showed up to the white beaches of Pensacola to find them black, brown, or red. No more postcard beaches:( Beyond ease of dredging and consistency in color, dredging close to the original beach also generally assures that the sand is of a similar mineral make up and grain size as the original beach sand. While most people think all sand is interchangeable, it's not.

Grain size is something commonly debated in the beach nourishment community. When it comes to engineers, politicians, and tax payers looking at the financial bottom line, it makes sense to try to dredge and fill with a larger grained sand than that which was originally eroded. Why? Because larger grains are heavier and therefore less likely to be eroded quickly by wind and surf. However, grain size is a fine line to walk (pun alert!)- too heavy and it can crush sea turtle eggs or make it impossible for organisms buried to uncover themselves. In the other direction, if it's too fine grained (something that makes for great beach walking), it becomes too hard packed and organisms can't dig through it. This also hurts sea turtles who struggle to dig nests in tightly packed sand. So, grain size really matters. For more information on this, see Stauble's review of grain size variables in nourishment projects here.

In addition to grain size, mineral make up can also change the ecology of the beach. Probably my favorite article I read for these two blog posts was "The Effect of Beach Nourishment with Aragonite versus Silicate Sand on Beach Temperature and Loggerhead Sea Turtle Nesting Success" by Milton, Schulman, and Lutz (Journal of Coastal Research, 1997). Seriously, it's a great article. It was written because the authors already recognized the issues facing South Florida if they ran out of borrow areas. Milton, Schulman, and Lutz sought to test the impact of using another available sand source, the Bahama Banks, on sea turtle nesting. The major difference between the original sand and the new sand was mineral make up- the new sand was primarily aragonite sand instead of silicate (These two materials are chemically different but I will not try to explain this because I am quite horrid at chemistry- trust me, they are different).  So- similar grain size, different mineral make up.

The study found that there wasn't much difference in hatching success between these two types of sand. In fact, nearly the same amount of turtles hatched and made it out of the nest (there are always some turtles that hatch but aren't strong enough to make it out of the nest so these two variables are actually important to measure separately). This is awesome- no difference between these two sands means that we don't have to worry about ecological impacts of dredging, right? Wrong! Because the authors found something important- turtle nests in aragonite sand were consistently cooler than those in silicate sand.

Sea turtle sex, as is the case with many reptiles, is determined by temperature during a critical window in egg incubation. For an even sex ratio (50:50) in a clutch, the magic temperature is 29.1 C during this period. 1-2 degrees above and the majority will be female and 1-2 degrees below will be mostly male. Anything below 28 C will produce only males. This is a concern because altering sex ratios in endangered species could drastically change the availability of nesting females in this area. I loved the study not just because it was super clear, but because it really brought home something that has been bugging me about all the literature on beach nourishment: it just doesn't ask tougher questions most of the time. A simple, well the crabs came back the next year, seems to be as deep as many of these studies go. And that's a huge problem because this study shows that seemingly innocuous choices have unintended and possibly overlooked consequences.

The gaps in the literature have been clear for a long while. In 1993, Walter G. Nelson called for careful study designs for studying the impact of beach nourishment on ecological communities. In 2005, Charles Petersen and Melanie Bishop found that "A review of 46 beach monitoring studies shows that (a) only 11 percent of the studies controlled for both natural spatial and temporal variation in their analyses (b) 56 percent reached conclusions that were not adequately supported, and (c) 49 percent failed to reach publication standards for citation and synthesis of related work. Monitoring is typically conducted through project promoters, with no peer review, and the permitting agencies exhibit inadequate expertise to review biostatistical designs. Monitoring results are rarely used to scale mitigation to compensate for injured resources. Reform of agency practices is urgently needed as the risk of cumulative impacts grow." (abstract, "Assessing the Environmental Impact of Beach Nourishment" Bioscience 2005)

Much of the issues seems to be that there are a lot of communities involved- local governments, environmental engineers, homeowners, ecologists. Beach nourishment is important for a variety of interests- it should be equally important to question how much it hurts local ecosystems and how we can find a way to nourish without destroying. Right now, we haven't scratched the surface of studying something so vital to all of these communities.

Friday, May 29, 2015

Beach Nourishment: The history of building beaches

Every year, my family heads to Florida around this time of year to remind ourselves what sunshine feels like; we started planning a vacation this year around the first week of April when it still wouldn't stop snowing in Northeastern Pennsylvania. A couple weeks ago, we headed to Cape Canaveral, Florida. While I'm at the beach, I have a tendency to pick up on something I'd like to write about on this blog- usually it's a question I have about something I see and can't explain or would like to know more about. Last year, I wrote about food gentrification and the year before that, sea turtles and the propensity for crazy people in Florida to try to ride endangered species (I'm not even going to touch the new problem with people trying to ride whale sharks. What could possibly be wrong with people?)

This year, as I built sand castles with my 19-month-old, I started to think about the make-up of the beach. I'm from South Florida and went to Florida State University, so I've been on a lot of beaches in the Southeast. As a regular beach goer, you get a chance to understand something about beautiful beaches: they are a construction project not a natural wonder.

This is the first image that pops up on my google search of "beach"

What do I mean by this? It is easy for tourists to take for granted that beaches are a form of "natural" beauty. But if you hang out at the beach long enough, you'll see a set of technologies that don't bring to mind the breezy palm tree filled calendar shots we associate with the shore. Instead, they offer a glimpse of the modern beach as construction site: heavy dredging boats, ugly pipe lines, and unsightly machinery.

I've never seen a beach calendar called "tractors and tans" but it would be a little truer to life.

The practice of building up shorelines, commonly called beach nourishment, is done to replace eroded sand or to widen shorelines. Erosion of the shoreline occurs continuously- either slowly through day-to-day tidal erosion or more quickly due to large storm surges. While erosion is naturally occurring, man made structures can often disrupt the natural buildup of sand on beaches. For instance, in Cape Canaveral, FL, a jetty was lengthened in 1995 above the port entry in order to stop sand from re entering the dredged channel over time. This helped keep the newly dredged channel clear of sand, allowing cruise ships access to the port and making it easier to maintain water depth in that area. While this solved one problem, it created another. Sand usually flows southward in this region along the shoreline; basically, constant erosion of Northern beaches was replacing sand eroded on Southern beaches. However, the jetty blocked that replacement pattern, denying southerly beaches an estimated 156,000 cubic yards of sand a year. There are several reasons why shrinking beaches are a problem.

Sand protects shorelines from storm surge. Giving the ocean more shoreline to "chew" on means less damage to coastal ecosytems and property during major storm surges. In addition, it sustains populations of animals who nest in these areas. Sea turtles, crabs, shore birds: all of these animals require a beach on which to build their nests.* And finally, of course, humans like to live and visit the beach. Some studies have shown that beach nourishment has a positive impact on the tourism economy (Klein and Osleeb, Journal of Coastal Research 2010) and that oceanfront property values could drop between 17- 34% if nourishment programs were decreased or eliminated (McNamara et al PLOS One 2015).

*there's a caveat about sea turtles here and I'll talk about that in my next blog post about environmental questions about the process- dredging isn't always great for wildlife.

The first beach nourishment project was the construction and expansion of the shoreline off of Coney Island and Brighton Beach. At the turn of the twentieth century, salt water bathing and visiting the shore became a popular health cure. The combination of sun and sand was thought to cure a variety of diseases arising from the constriction of humans into dank, dark, and polluted urban spaces. As more and more people flocked to cities like New York and Philadelphia, more diseases arose including rickets, tuberculosis, whooping cough, and pellagra. And all of these illnesses were believed to be cured or at least alleviated by exposure to salt and sun. If you want to know more about this history see "They Can't Help Getting Well Here":Seaside Hospitals for Children in the United States, 1872-1917 by Crnic and Connolly in The Journal of the History of Childhood and Youth (2009) or Crnic's dissertation from the University of Pennsylvania (2013) Seeking the Salubrious Sea.

The city of New York developed plans to build a bathing beach and pier at the turn of the twentieth century, but it took almost 20 years to work out the legalities of transferring ownership of the beachfront property from private landowners to the city. It was complicated by the fact that many of these landowners were loath to give up their shore front property because they charged beachgoers to sunbath.  By October 1921 the city of New York passed legislation allowing them to transfer titles for beachfront property in the same manner that property was acquired for public road projects.

The shoreline along these areas was sparse and eroding slowly; high tide reached the base of the buildings built along the water. This meant that an enormous amount of sand needed to be relocated to construct both a bathing beach and a pier.

To secure the beach, 16 groins and jetties were built along the shoreline. This would stop sand from shifting too much. The boardwalk was built 13 feet above traditional high tide. After the boardwalk and support structures were built, the beach fill was brought in. In the image above, you can see the huge amount of sand utilized to create these beaches. In 1923, 1,700,000 Cubic Yards of sand were deposited to create a bathing beach. The new high water mark was extended 330 feet seaward. The sand was pumped from 4 separate borrow areas no more than 3500 feet off the coast. The total cost of the beach improvement was believed to be about $1,900,000 with half of that being spent on the boardwalk. (Dornhelm, R. "The Coney Island Public Beach and Boardwalk Improvement of 1923" Shore and Beach 1995)

As you can see from the image above, improvement of the beach continued throughout the first half of the twentieth century and maintenance continues today. Fill from borrow areas is required every three to four years to maintain the beachfront.

While there has been some theorizing that beach fill would eventually lead to a stable shoreline and negligible loss of sand mass on filled beaches (related to depth of closure- something I'll talk about more in my next blog), most beach nourishment projects require continuous upkeep. Brevard County, Florida where Cape Canaveral resides, has an amazing website detailing the history of their beach nourishment programs (They call it beach restoration). It tells the history of those projects from 1995 to the present day and is pretty cool.


Most information about beach nourishment projects in the US should be available given that the government subsidizes these projects heavily. Between 65 and 95% of all historical beach nourishment sand volume has been federally subsidized. It was estimated in 1998 that the US Government was spending between 100 and 150 million on beach nourishment (Trembanis et al. "Comparison of Beach Nourishment Along the US Atlantic, Great Lakes, Gulf of Mexico, and New England Shorelines"Coastal Education and Research Foundation 1998)

Seeing the differences in shorelines is pretty amazing so I've included two below- Cocoa Beach (2001 project) and Miami Beach (1981). While many beaches need nourishing, Florida is where most federal money for nourishment goes.

The 1981 nourishment of Miami Beach involved depositing 12 million cubic yards of sand on the shoreline. 
Because of their nourishment projects, South Florida has run out of borrow areas. But that's something for the next blog...

Monday, March 9, 2015

Manual and Scientific Labor in Marine Novels: Everyday Work on the Sea

About six years ago, at the very beginning of my dissertation research, someone suggested to me that I read Moby Dick. Similar to Kamila Shamsie's recent story in the New York Times,  I resisted this suggestion believing that a narrative about men, obsession, and whales had little to do with my research and even less to do with my life. I did try to pick it up, but it wasn't until I downloaded it on the Kindle that I was able to make it all the way through. I think the Kindle tricked my mind into believing the book was shorter than it is. Whatever the reason for my new found ability to make it through, I ended up really liking (and slightly loving) the book. However, I wasn't really convinced that I knew what to do with it. So I sat on the story and felt happy when I saw pop culture references to it (Scully's dog is named Queequeg in the X-Files).

Then, I ran across Margaret Cohen's The Novel and the Sea. Cohen is a literature professor at Stanford University and her specialty is the study of the Novel. The study of the novel is not merely the study of books, but the special narrative form of the novel, a genre characterized by the description of everyday events. Sometimes included under this umbrella is the Romance- a narrative that describes uncommon and marvelous events (Moby Dick is often included in this genre). I'm not a specialist in Novel studies and I'm grossly oversimplifying the field, but I picked up Cohen's book because her argument is this: literary theorists have often noted that the novel is characterized by a lack of labor in the narrative but the marine novel is different. That is, the genre of the novel was developed to be read by a certain class of people for leisure purposes. Rich people read novels. Even though the form of the novel is something that is believable, that doesn't suggest that it was everyday life for everyone. Everyday life for rich people wasn't a life of labor but of leisure. The novel wasn't about labor. But Cohen suggests that this is different in the marine narrative.  In the marine narrative, labor, the very act of knowing and surviving on the sea, takes center stage regardless of the class of the characters presented. In some ways, the suggestion is that you can't write about the sea and write about leisure only- labor is the default way of learning the marine environment.

Cohen uses a lot of examples, including Robinson Crusoe, Moby Dick,  Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Toilers of the Sea (among many others). As I read Cohen's work and her arguments about labor, I admit that I was a bit lost- not because it isn't a great book but because I wanted to actually read the books from which she drew her examples. So I did. I read all of these books in the last couple years and I've been thinking about them in relation to labor. And something interesting happened when I read these books myself- I began to wonder, not just if the marine novel was special because it contained labor, but because of the types of labor they described.

While reading the books, I noticed two types of labor descriptions involved in working on the sea: physical labor or the labor of working on a ship and mental labor or the work required to know the ocean and its inhabitants.

Physical Labor:

The physical labor described in these books is the work required to keep a person alive and a ship afloat for any length of time. In all of these narratives, the reader is not just offered glimpses of what this takes, but is given an in depth lesson on seafaring. In Moby Dick, we are offered images of what it is like to ship out from Massachusetts, to bunk with strange bedfellows and stand watch on deck.Ishmael gives an in-depth portrait of the physical labor required to hunt whales, break them down, and drag them to port. Both Melville and Hugo outline the etiquette of speaking with other ships, and getting information and mail while at sea. Even a romance like Verne's Twenty Thousand Leagues identifies boring, everyday requirements of seafaring in the Nautilus- finding food, burying the dead, and surfacing for air.  Hugo's Toilers of the Sea introduces the reader to the inner workings of steam ships, navigating around the Channel Islands, the names and ways of navigation of every reef formation in the area, and a large amount of information on ropes and knots.

In addition to the everyday, the romantic portion of these novels, the uncommon, involves extreme physical labor. In Robinson Crusoe, Crusoe describes the physical labor required in salvaging from wreckage, building a homestead, raising goats and crops, and generally surviving alone on an island for forth years. In Toilers on the Sea, the protagonist Galliat also salvages from a steam boat and each backbreaking step, from building a makeshift forge to sleeping in rock crevices and scavenging for crabs on the rocks is recounted for the reader.

This type of labor seems to be the one on which Cohen focuses. She suggests that this labor is telling because it signifies the way that a form of knowing the sea through physical labor. The authors show their understanding of the marine environment by recounting how amazing their characters are at working on and in the water. All the protagonists are great navigators, they know the water and its peccadilloes because they are experienced workers in that environment. Through physical labor one becomes an expert at marine survival.  When you read these works, you see this form of the narrative and Cohen's work really resonates. But I couldn't help but think of another kind of labor that I saw in these narratives and that was mental labor.

Scientific Labor/Mental Labor:

In one of the most famous chapters of Moby Dick, the reader is introduced to a taxonomy of cetaceans. Really the chapter is just a laundry list of whale names and the reader (at least this reader) is a bit baffled- why include this in a book about hunting a whale? Amidst an adventure narrative, characterized by physical toil, we encounter this seemingly sterile way of knowing the ocean- by naming. In Moby Dick, I might have thought this was indicative more of Melville than the marine novel, but I saw a similar way of knowing in Verne and Hugo. In Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, the narrarator spends a large chunk of the chapters describing the species seen from the windows of diving suits or the Nautilus. In lieu of toiling for survival, as the crew is obviously doing everyday, the prisoners on the Nautilus perform another form of labor- that of naming the ocean creatures and observing their habits. Even in the physical act of wearing heavy gear to walk under water, we are granted a lesson on the newest marine technologies:

"It is to use the Rouquayrol apparatus, invented by two of your own countrymen, which I have brought to perfection for my own use, and which will allow you to risk yourself under these new physiological conditions without any organ whatever suffering. It consists of a reservoir of thick iron plates, in which I store the air under a pressure of fifty atmospheres. This reservoir is fixed on the back by means of braces, like a soldier's knapsack. Its upper part forms a box in which the air is kept by means of a bellows, and therefore cannot escape unless at its normal tension. In the Rouquayrol apparatus such as we use, two india rubber pipes leave this box and join a sort of tent which holds the nose and mouth; one is to introduce fresh air, the other to let out the foul, and the tongue closes one or the other according to the wants of the respirator. But I, in encountering great pressures at the bottom of the sea, was obliged to shut my head, like that of a diver in a ball of copper; and it is to this ball of copper that the two pipes, the inspirator and the expirator, open."

"Perfectly, Captain Nemo; but the air that you carry with you must soon be used; when it only contains fifteen per cent. of oxygen it is no longer fit to breathe."

"Right! But I told you, M. Aronnax, that the pumps of the Nautilus allow me to store the air under considerable pressure, and on those conditions the reservoir of the apparatus can furnish breathable air for nine or ten hours."

"I have no further objections to make," I answered. "I will only ask you one thing, Captain--how can you light your road at the bottom of the sea?" "With the Ruhmkorff apparatus, M. Aronnax; one is carried on the back, the other is fastened to the waist. It is composed of a Bunsen pile, which I do not work with bichromate of potash, but with sodium. A wire is introduced which collects the electricity produced, and directs it towards a particularly made lantern. In this lantern is a spiral glass which contains a small quantity of carbonic gas. When the apparatus is at work this gas becomes luminous, giving out a white and continuous light. Thus provided, I can breathe and I can see." "Captain Nemo, to all my objections you make such crushing answers that I dare no longer doubt."

This type of information- the scientific and technological details of marine science are integral to the marine novel narratives.  

I'm pointing this out because these two types of labor (ways of knowing), physical and mental labor, seem intertwined in these narratives. Our protagonists survive because they physically and mentally know the sea. While the inclusion of physical labor may be revolutionary in the sense that it introduces the wealthier reader to the brute physicality required of sea life, the understanding that mariners must have both this physical knowledge and an academic understanding of the environment is equally as interesting. These physical laborers are also thinking beings- they not only know the ocean physically, but they know it and name it and construct the ocean with both physical and mental labor. But what does this mean and what might it tell us about the nature of oceangoing and our image of the ocean?

One of the interesting things about this intertwining, braiding, knotting of ways of knowing to me is that is is possible in all classes of workers on the ocean. While we might be tempted to think of Gilliat (Hugo's unemployed (?) protagonist) as being the ultimate in physical laborers and someone like Professor Pierre Aronnax (Verne's marine biologist) as the ultimate in mental laborers,  the truth is that most of the characters in these novels utilize both ways of knowing the sea.

Gilliat is a perfect example: he performs great acts of physical labor to strip the engines of a wrecked steamer and these acts are described in extreme detail in the novel. Gilliat becomes weathered by the ocean- it strips him of clothing, weight, and water and leaves behind a desiccated husk; he is the closest thing to a merman one might imagine- a reluctant Tritan. But this physical labor is married with a mental labor of knowing the submarine environment. Gilliat describes not just the things he needs to know to physically survive in the moment, but all the things he knows about the sea in general- the seasons, waves, different spaces on a ship, different types of knots and sails. Half the book is a lesson in types of ships (the other half a tirade on Hugo's hatred of Catholicism but that's a different blog post on ways of knowing). In one particular chapter, Gilliat comes across a particularly disturbing creature- a "devil fish". This organism (The Monster) is described first in comparison to other land animals, and then the author goes into detail about how it is shaped, how it hunts, and then finally its scientific categorization.

This definition, which goes on for an entire chapter, intertwines ways of knowing and identifying the organism- folk understandings from mariners and academic understandings from zoologists. But it is done seamlessly so that the reader believes that Gilliat knows these things because he knows the ocean.

These marine narratives make me think of Anne Secord's work on Science in the Pub. Secord's work suggests that not only did a wide variety of classes participate in science, but they did so because it meant something important to their everyday lives. In her study, artisans participated in the scientific practice of finding and naming new botanical species because the practice was meaningful in their culture. Horticulture, herbalism, and floriculture were part of the everyday life of artisans in the English countryside. Far from only being an academic pursuit, the ability to identify, find, and cultivate a variety of botanical species could mean extra money or even health to these individuals. While many individuals cared about this knowledge, scientific naming offered a common ground on which to build commonalities with other people of like mind. The very act of naming and acknowledging formed groups.

As I was reading these marine novels, I kept coming back to Second and thinking about her artisan botanists, sitting in a pub passing specimens around a group and naming. These artisans formed part of the scientific process, but they are unnamed and unacknowledged. That is, their contributions to scientific knowledge isn't particularly well understood. But also, the importance of scientific understandings to their everyday lives is also not well understood. What does the scientific naming of these plants mean to them? Secord explores both of these lines of inquiry and the paper (linked above) is worth a first, second, or third read.

We can apply these ideas to the marine world and just think about it- Yes, the physical labor of being on the water is important, but it appears that the scientific understanding of that environment is equally as important. There have been far more sailors than scientists on the water. Their knowledge of the environment has contributed much to scientific understandings of that vastness; but their scientific understandings might also have contributed to their survival in that environment. Marine novelists seem to recognize this by intertwining the physical and mental into a seamless narrative about the sea.  While it might initially seem as if the scientific language is thrown in to appeal to the possible audience of novels (middle to upper classes), we can also read it through the lens of Secord's work to see that it is an important way of knowing the sea for anyone who works on it. It is part of the everyday life of sailors, this knowing and naming.

This doesn't mean that all mental labor on the ocean is scientific naming- we need not only point to Linnean taxonomy to suggest that scientific work is happening. Gilliat's (Hugo's) knowledge of the Sea Devil is half scientifically informed and half folk epistemology.  And of course, I'm reading the author's knowledge as the character's knowledge. So I'm welcome to suggestions of how wrong this might be.

However, what I'd like to emphasize is that it seems, as I read more in this genre, that knowing the sea requires physical and scientific knowledge. Of course, we can say this about everything in life, but it is important to me that the marine space and novels about it are where this is laid bare for the reader.  And it might be more important to ask why a narrative about this space can do that (since Cohen suggests that this is rare and special).

Saturday, December 20, 2014

Isinglass: The history of a useful but invisible marine product

Recently, the "Food Babe" (real name: Vani Hari) has called attention to the fact that alcoholic beverages (beer and wine) do not adhere to the same labeling requirements as other foods in the US. Many of the ingredients and flavors, as well as the process of brewing alcohol, is considered proprietary information for companies- they do not have to disclose these to the public under current law. In Hari's opinion, alcohol companies should post their ingredients for purposes of exposing possible allergens, health concerns of consumers, and personal dietary restrictions (such as vegan and vegetarianism) . Her biggest issue seems to be with two specific things. One is an ingredient and the other is a product utilized in alcohol fining/clarification: corn syrup and isinglass.

The issue of corn syrup is not of particular interest to me, but isinglass is something I have run across in my research and my historian ears always perk up when something I previously thought of only in a historical context enters current conversations.

Isinglass, a term that probably comes from the Dutch word huisenblas or German hausenblase (meaning sturgeon bladder) is a gelatin product made from fish swim bladders (often known as 'sounds'). The fish swim bladder allows fish to control their buoyancy.

In 1908, George White of the US Bureau of Fisheries described the process for making gelatin from the collagen contained in swim bladders. The collagen of the trachea of a mammal generally requires heating to 100 degrees Celsius to transform into gelatin and the ear collagen requires heating to 110 degrees. Fish swim bladders convert to gelatin at room temperature.The sound contains a thin outer layer and a thicker layer which contains most of the collagen. The swim bladder is removed and the thicker layer is separated from the thin layer. Then the thick layer is pressed and folded into books or 'leafs'.  The majority of production should be done during winter months, due to the nature of the sounds: heat liquefies and putrefies the organs pretty quickly. Check out the images below to see the process of turning hake swim bladders into strips of isinglass.

I first encountered isinglass when I was researching at the Smithsonian Institution in the records for the International Fisheries Expositions. Similar to World's Fairs, these Expositions were divided by countries. Each country sent people and objects to an exposition in order to introduce their fishing culture to the wider world. More importantly, they sent a variety of products in order to interest merchants in trading in their particular goods.  For example, records show that America sent fishing boats and nets, harpoons, stuffed fishes and mammals, furs from seal rookeries, and jewelry and household objects made from aquatic resources. Tiffany & Co. sent pearl jewelry and a variety of bejeweled shells and corals.

This is the Fishing Exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution, but it closely resembles the objects and arrangements at Fisheries Expositions during this period. 

In addition to all of these objects, the biggest displays often revolved around industrial products. America sent tons of canned and dried fish, prepared and preserved in the newest fashions for the widest audience. And, they sent isinglass.

When I entered the archives in Washington, D.C., I kept running across the word isinglass. I had no clue what the heck it was, but I knew that the US sent isinglass to the Berlin Fishery Exposition in 1880. Quality isinglass could be used for a variety of purposes, including as a fining agent, glue or cement, and for food (think jello but with a slightly fishy flavor). The best isinglass was made from sturgeon sounds in Russia and could be used for envelope and stamp glue, as a fining agent, or as a food. The cheapest, often made from fish species with less natural collagen in their sounds, was used for glue or heated and mixed with other products to form a rough cement.

The isinglass America sent to Berlin was probably made from hake, although by the early 20th century the US Fish Commission began pushing for the use of tile fish for public consumption- including in isinglass production (a whole other blog). As cod and hake stocks fell in the Atlantic, tilefish began to become more prevalent. In 1908, the USBF tested tilefish sounds in the production of isinglass and found that their collagen levels were as good or better than hake for isinglass production. While it might have been the case that they could have taken the place of hake in production, America eventually stopped producing most of its isinglass and imported most of it from other countries.  While we might have been proud of our isinglass production, America was never a large producer of the substance:

Russia was the largest producer of isinglass at the turn of the 20th century. Sturgeon sounds were considered the best swim bladder to produce isinglass- don't forget that sturgeon also produces caviar. So you might see why sturgeon are so endangered these days- producers of two very large Russia exports. Iceland also produced isinglass with cod sounds.

Isinglass was used for a variety of purposes throughout the 19th century, including envelope and stamp glue and even as a source of edible gelatin.  However, by the first decade of the 20th century, isinglass was mainly used to make glues, cements, and as a clarifying/fining agent for beer and wine.

Fining agents are substances used in alcohol making to produce a clearer liquid at the end of fermentation. Yeast and other particulates from the brewing process lead to an opaque liquid. If you wait long enough, the particulates will eventually settle, but brewers often utilize a variety of fining agents to clarify their liquids. Isinglass is one and another popular one is Irish Moss.

Irish Moss is negatively charged and binds to positively charged proteins in the beer mixture before it has been completely fermented. After beer and wine is finished fermenting, a fining such as isinglass is used: it is negatively changed and binds with positively charged yeast. Basically, both of these fining agents allow particulates to clump together and form large, heavy pieces that sink to the bottom of the fermenting vessel so that the liquid can be easily strained. Using this fining agents results in a clearer liquid.

The Food Babe is concerned that little work has been done to show if any isinglass material remains in the alcohol after the fining process. While little work has been done, E. Denis Baxter et al. state in their paper "Analysis of Isinglass Residues in Beer" in The Journal of the Institute of Brewing in 2007 that

The results of the study reported here confirm that the
concentration of residues remaining in beers fined with
isinglass is indeed very low. For many bottled and canned
beers, levels of isinglass are below the limit of quantification.
Slightly higher concentrations may be found in beers
in large containers such as kegs and casks, but even here
the maximum concentrations would be likely to remain
below 5 mg/litre. There is no evidence of significant stratification
of isinglass residues in the marketable beer in
such bulk containers.(134)

Obviously, many vegetarians and vegans are concerned that any animal products have been used in their food production, so the lack of isinglass in the finished product is meaningless if this is your concern. However, if your concern is allergic reaction to fish, suffice is to say that it would be very difficult to react to such a trace amount in the finished product. 

I have no side in the fight about beer labeling. Instead, I'm interested in the near invisibility of certain marine products in seemingly non-marine foods and products. Similar to the widespread use of seaweed in food products, isinglass is an important in the alcohol production process, yet many people know nothing about it. When we think of fishing, and harvesting from the ocean, we imagine fish and shellfish- whole organisms destined for human consumption in a restaurant. It isn't until we really understand how integral invisible marine products are to our daily lives that we can understand the impact that we have on the ocean. And in turn, the impact of our destruction of the marine ecosystem will have on the way we currently live. 

Friday, August 1, 2014

Mermaid visions: the sexual politics of women and water

I have been thinking about a creature this summer: the mermaid. I've been spending a lot of time ruminating about this subject and it seems as if every time I have a handle on the nature of this cultural icon, I am presented with another story to analyze. There are so many sides to the mermaid that it is a slippery creature to study.

I picked up on the subject of the mermaid from Seanan McGuire's short story entitled "Each to Each" in the recently published "Women Destroy Science Fiction" special edition of the journal Lightspeed (Issue 49. June 2014- you should go read it now because it is that good). McGuire's narrative follows a female sailor in the US Navy, genetically and surgically enhanced with gills to explore and patrol America's national boundaries. Her story takes place in a not-too-distant future in which humans have abandoned our hope/dream of mining and colonizing distant planets and turned our attention to exploring and utilizing deep sea resources. Women, she suggests, were found to be better at working in the tight confines of deep sea submersibles (a hat tip to the breakdown of a gender barrier in the Navy: the ban on female sailors serving on submarines was lifted in 2011 in England and 2012 in the US; Female officers currently serve on 14 USNavy submarine crews. The USNavy will begin integrating enlisted women in 2016 with the hope that by 2020, 20% of submarine crews will be female). It was merely a step, the narrator states, to the creation of all-female crews. From there, the idea to keep the crews and ditch the boats lead to modifications and the navy mermaids (or mods) were created. 

McGuire's story is amazing, more so because it packs so many thought provoking elements into only a few pages. The narrator (who is in the process of conversion from dry sailor to mermaid) explains that the modified sailors serve two purposes for the Navy: they function as a tool to explore and patrol- they are sailors who value their duty. However, the Navy has also used them as symbols: both the future of exploration and national expansion and also as sex symbols. The mermaid modifications are made, not only with duty and work in mind, but also public perception: "mods" include not just gills, scales, and specialized eyes, but also breast implants and other cosmetic surgery meant to enhance the gendered profile of the mod (without the permission of the sailor). 

The mods ultimately find this sexualized and demeaning aspect of their job oppressing. In addition, the more modified they become, the less time they can spend on land, creating a desire to transition fully to an aquatic existence. At the end of the piece, the reader is left with a vision of mermaid mods "going native": a splinter group of militant mermaids recruits the Navy sailors to join them in living fully in the sea, away from national and sexualized concerns. 

What McGuire offers is a well-rounded examination of the traditional mermaid myth and its inherent complications. The mermaid is both feminized and bestial; she is both a sexual symbol for male sailors and a princess character for young girls, and also a vision of the evil and bestial nature of women. It is these opposing images that I would like to look at in this blogpost.

While there are mermen, it appears that this image has less weight and gender implications about the public perception of humans and the sea. A quick Google search shows no hits for "Jacques Cousteau merman." Michael Phelps has been photoshopped into a merman by Disney but I can't find any passing references to him swimming like a merman- even the copy for the Disney promotion says he is "part fish" not a merman, per se. 

This is different from the idea of women who explore and swim. They are commonly referred to as 'mermaids': A blog post about Sylvia Earle states, " Dr. Sylvia Earle is a mermaid. She became one when she was pushed down by a wave at the age of three." Female athletes such as Annette Kellerman and Diana Nyad are referred to as mermaids. Little girls want to be like Ariel from The Little Mermaid and books utilizing mermaids as strong figures for girls are still being written (The Mermaid and the Shoe- 2014). 

What this suggests to me is that a man who is aquatic or close to the sea might be associated with fish and maybe they swim "like a fish" but a female who is close to the ocean, who immerses themselves in this environment becomes something other than a human female in our minds: she is a mermaid. This need not have completely negative connotations, but it is something that can be explored because it points to ideas about women in nature and the dual roles of both earth goddess and beast that have plagued this relationship throughout time. 

Behind the shells: the strange case of the mermaid bra

One of the most interesting aspects of McGuire's piece is her focus on the politics of breasts for "mods". McGuire picks up on one of the most important aspects of the mermaid: her chest. 

Historians of science have talked about mermaids as interspecies: organisms or creatures that defy taxonomical categorization. Interspecies fall outside of conventional categories- human or fish- but because of our desire to categorize and order, we continuously seek to find a place for them. The mermaid is a difficult case (as is the merman) because, to put it bluntly, we aren't ever really offered an idea of how they reproduce. King Triton (Neptune, or any other name you want to call the king of the sea) has a billion daughters but we never meet a mother. How the heck does that happen? 

It would be much easier for us to place the mermaid into a category if we knew a bit more about their bits. Do they lay eggs and then fertilize them outside of the body (closer to fish) or do they internally fertilize, and if internal fertilization, are they oviparous (egg layers) or viviparous (live birth)? Without this knowledge, we are forced to look at other telling features of the mermaid to classify her.

The telling characteristic of every mermaid depiction, from the youngest to the oldest, is the shell bra and this might tell us something about where she can be put in taxonomical categories. Breasts are extremely important when we think about what type of animal something is. Mammary glands equal breast milk and mammals. Londa Schiebinger  has shown that the delineation of the category 'mammal' is intrinsically linked with the social and cultural history of the breast. Mammals feed their young with their breasts, so if you have breasts, you are probably a mammal. The breasts are so important because they are, in this case, a marker that tells the viewer that the mermaid is probably a mammal and closer to a human female than a fish. Interestingly, the merman has less of an identification, although they are often depicted as heavily muscled and therefore "masculine". However, muscles are much less a symbol of mammals and humanity than the breast and we are left feeling that mermen may be slightly fishy.  Because of her obvious mammalian possession of breasts, the mermaid is marked fair game for the male gaze: you aren't lusting after a fish, but something almost human. 

The breasts of the mermaid are intricately intertwined with her identity and the categorization of her as an organism close to human females. The sign of a mermaid is the upper body of a human female and sightings and reports of mermaids throughout history have called attention to breasts. The famous Feejee mermaid of 1854 was drawn with noticeable human breasts and Dr. R. Hamilton described a mermaid he had seen as having "protuberant breasts like a human woman"  and had "breasts that were as large as those of a woman."

A drawing of the original Feejee mermaid- note the breast material on the chest area.

McGuire is right to call attention to the role of breasts in allowing the objectification of this mythical creature by human males. It is through the recognition that mermaids are close to humans, marked by their possession of mammalian characteristics, that make it possible to see them as sex symbols.

Beautiful and Bestial

Cultural visions of the mermaid suggest that she is both beautiful and bestial: an organism that is closer to nature and animal than human, but can be made into a proper mate for a human male. The mermaid desires closeness with humanity, especially human males, but is inextricably linked to the sea. However, she is also physically malleable and able to be contained and changed. 

Splash- Daryl Hannah as a mermaid. (1984)

Lady Gaga as a mermaid- You and I (2011) 

Carolyn Merchant has written extensively on the understanding of women as bestial and the cultural and social perception that this closeness to nature means they need to be trained or domesticated. Jean Kilbourne has shown how minority women are often portrayed in the media as exotic beasts of prey closer to nature than civilization. The mermaid also contributes to this concept of women as bestial, but in an interesting way: it allows women to be closer to nature without being overly scary. Many mermaid figures are portrayed as delicate, beautiful, and exotic without the mammalian land characteristics that might make them unattractive to human males. Instead, they have all the characteristics of the creatures men prefer to keep in their aquariums. Captivity suits the mermaid in a way it might not the tigress. 

There is, of course, a scary side to mermaids. They were feared by sailors and other fishing communities. They have, in recent years, been shown as monsters. Joss Whedon used the merman as a particularly unattractive monster in his hit Cabin in the Woods (2012), although we never see the female counterpart we can imagine it is similar but, of course, has breasts almost as large as a human woman's. On the Canadian paranormal drama Lost Girl (Waves 4:10, 2014) mermaids are vicious creatures that bite off peoples' legs and use them to walk on land themselves. Interestingly, the television show Grimm (One Night Stand 3:4, 2013) depicts the entire mermaid culture and also seeks to answer the age old reproduction question by offering a new twist on the old tail/tale: mermen are sterile and mermaids must mate with human men to reproduce. This makes mermen extra vicious but it maintains the image of the traditional mermaid as a supplicant to human males and their virility. 

Joss Whedon's merman from Cabin in the Woods

However, the mermaid does not always stay on land. Even though the male gaze creates this creature, gives her an acceptable mammalian form and also requires her captivity and servitude, she (or the image of the mermaid) escapes this captive existence and stays wild. Daryl Hannah returns to the ocean and takes Tom Hanks with her- the wild female is worth turning wild. Lady Gaga's mermaid appears to have struck out alone instead of cleaving so closely to her capture/doctor/lover. Aquamarine becomes a symbol of freedom and growing up (okay, I won't go too far with the Aquamarine here because Disney hasn't really progressed that far in proving that mermaids can be feminist figures. But they are working on it?). In McGuire's piece the mermaid is literally created and sculpted by doctors (similar to Gaga mermaid) but she is anything but powerless. She is inadvertently given the tools needed to slip out of the net of sexuality and need meant to ensnare her for life. Her link with the ocean overcomes her link with humanity. 

Aquamarine (2008)

The mermaid is a complicated figure: she represents an image of women as bestial creatures that can be manipulated and controlled by men. The very taxonomical features that identify the mermaid are those that mark her as a beautiful possession. However, the creature is also a symbol of freedom and adventure that seems to resonate with young women- the ability to get beyond a simple understanding of oneself as weighed down by the sexual conventions of humanity- to be weightless and free and to swim beyond imposed male conventions of beauty and duty. 

It is this duality that has kept me thinking about this mythical creature all summer. I've been living a life dedicated to unpacking this creature and I'm not closer to doing so. What does one make of a creature that is both terrifyingly subservient to prurient alpha male notions of femininity and also a vehicle for women to enact fantasies of escape and empowerment beyond the masculine gaze? Only for me that it is a subject that requires more exploration because the image of the mermaid continues to be a powerful symbol of femininity in our culture.