A short story of the ones left behind

As part of my writing course we looked at a poem called ‘A Short Story of Falling‘ by Alice Oswald and were asked to write a poem following her structure. I don’t normally write rhyming poems, let alone rhyming couplets so this was a challenge for me. It took a lot of work and tweaking and editing but I enjoyed stepping out of my comfort zone.

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Rugged rocks standing in the tide

A short story of the ones left behind

It is the story of the ones left behind
between ebb and flow of tide

As waves retreat, new worlds emerge
fleeting glimpses, soon submerged

Black rocks gleam, spray kissed, like jewels
stand tall between impermanent pools

Acorn barnacles cling tight
to mussels’ pearly blues and whites

Conical spirals of periwinkles
littered through the seaside shingle

Bladderwrack entangles limpets
cigarettes and fishing nets

Crab’s hermitage, a bottle cap
first cosy home, then prison, trapped

Translucent sea jelly
tentacles of vermicelli

Bag for Life, or Bag of Death?
suffocating final breath

This is the story of the ones left behind
by sea, and, by humankind

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Limpets and barnacles cling to black rock

The sex lives of aquatic animals

Today I’m going to be looking at water and sex as it pertains to non-human creatures but later this month I’ll be looking at how water interacts with men and women.

Gendered language

Before we even dip our toes into this topic, we must acknowledge that how we talk about water is not gender neutral.  We find some rivers that are considered female, and some that are male.  There are no rules in the English language to stipulate this, although there often is in other languages. But how we talk about our bodies of water does matter, the language we use has a ‘profound influence on how we see the world’.

Fish

Fish are way ahead of us when it comes to thinking about sex and gender.  Whereas the majority of humans seem set that there can only be two genders and they cannot be changed, fish are rather flexible in their attitude.  They can undergo one or more sex change in their life and they can even have both sexual organs at once.  Sex changes tend to occur if a population becomes too biased to one sex or to improve genetic fitness.  One example of this is the clown fish which generally forms a monogamous relationship.  If the female dies, as in Finding Nemo, instead of hanging around feeling sorry for himself, the male will change into a female.  They will then pair up with a single male.  But that would have made for a more controversial film…

Other examples of sex changing fish include the Kobudai, made famous in Blue Planet II, which slowly but surely morphed into a male.  For the blue headed wrasse, it is the loss of the dominant male which triggers a sex change, usually in the largest female of the group.  This involves dramatic changes in behaviour, anatomy and colouration.  What I really like about this fish is that whilst most juveniles are female, there are a few sneaky males which look like females and then go ahead and mate without the dominant male noticing!

Interestingly, the population size of a fish and the direction they change sex seem to be linked.  There are more than 400 species of sex changing fish, some change from male to female and some from female to male (as well as those which can also change back).  Species who change from female to male have smaller population sizes than those which change from male to female.

As well as aquatic life which can change sex, we also have those creatures which forgo the need to change and make life easy and interesting by having both sets of genitals.  For example, there is a type of sea slug which has both penis and vagina. After it’s had simultaneously fertilising sex (basically some sort of epic 69 position) the penis falls off.  And then, as if that wasn’t enough drama, it grows another one!

Pollution

No one wants to have sex in polluted water… but for the fish and other aquatic creatures that have to, the consequences can be dire.

For this topic, we need to understand what endocrine disruptors are and where they come from:

What? Endocrine disruptors are chemicals that can interfere with endocrine (or hormone) systems.

Where? Endocrine disruptors can be found in plastics, cosmetics, medications, pesticides and even in food as a contaminant.  More than 800 man-made chemicals have been found to interfere with hormones.

We started to get a sense of the impact endocrine disruptors were having back in 1985 when a study on male alligators in a lake affected by chemical pollutants were found to have testosterone levels three times lower than those of males in a similar but uncontaminated lake.  The levels were so low they were close to those of females and females in turn had twice the amount of oestrogen.  Further, the males had poorly developed testes and smaller phalli and females also exhibited abnormal sexual organs. This was over 30 years ago.

“Chemicals are disturbing normal hormone-controlled development, affecting gender, sex, and reproduction.  And we are now seeing, low doses are disruption enough.  Fish appear particularly at risk of hormone disruption.”
– Janisse Ray, 2007

In areas where they are exposed to endocrine disruptors, fish have been found with lower levels of hormones, found to take take longer to mature, develop smaller sexual organs and produce fewer eggs, some of which don’t grow.  An example from Florida is that of the mosquitofish where effected females developed a male sex organ and attempted to mate with female fish.  Fish have also been found in the UK with both genitalia (unnaturally) occurring.  More often than not, these were found downstream of sewage treatment works and other industry.  But more recent studies show that the medications we consume are entering the water cycle in amounts which, whilst not of concern to human health, are altering the health and behaviour of animals in our rivers.

The impact of the endocrine disruptors is greater as the chemicals accumulate in animals up the food chain, for example gulls have been affected and a beluga whale has been found with two ovaries, two testes, male genitalia and partial female genitalia.  Female black bears have also been found exhibiting some degree of male sex organs.  A report (I lost the link) from 2003 stated that over 200 animal species were known, or suspected, to have reproductive disorders which might be attributed to these chemicals.

The impact on hormones on population sizes is exacerbated by the effects of climate change.  Changing temperatures affects the sex of species such as baby turtles and crocodiles and could lead to exclusively female clutches which in turn could be the end of the species altogether, especially if males are affected by endocrine disruptors and are unable to fertilise females.

Not that it should be the only reason we act, but these chemicals can also affect humans.  Human exposure can come from ingesting food, dust and water which is contaminated but also through inhalation and through the skin.  They can be transferred from pregnant woman to fetus and from parent to child through breast milk.

Further reading:

The Polluted Seas

“Although man’s record as a steward of the natural resources of the earth has been a discouraging one, there has long been a certain comfort in the belief that the sea, at least, was inviolate, beyond man’s ability to change and to despoil.  But this belief, unfortunately, has been proved to be naïve.”
– Rachel Carson

Plastics

“Plastic is a positive thing.  We just need to learn how to value it and use it appropriately.”
– Lucy Woodall

Plastic is versatile, durable and useful.  It has revolutionised things and since it’s development has been put to hundreds of uses.  It is useful, convenient and even life saving.  But it’s durability means it poses great threats to life on earth.  It is practically indestructible which means that it breaks up into tiny pieces so even though you can’t see it, it’s still there.  These are known as microplastics, pieces of plastic which are less than 5mm long.

Where?

The ocean is filled with plastic, from the surface right down to the sea bed.  Grains of plastic nestle amongst grains of sand on the beaches we stroll on and a plastic raft more than 965,000 square miles can be found in the South Pacific.

How?

This isn’t a problem that we can try and blame on any other species.  It is not an issue that can be up for debate.  The plastic in the oceans is entirely down to humans.  Perhaps in the past we can blame lack of knowledge, a sense that the deep sea was barren and unchangeable.  We can even go with out of sight out of mind arguments but today we have no such excuse.  We can see the plastic in the ocean, with naked eyes and with microscopes.  We can see the golf balls inside the stomachs of dead birds, the plastic bags in the digestive systems of turtles.  We have no excuse.

There are two aspects of this issue.  One is dealing with the plastic that is already in the ocean and the other is about prevention.  Despite our knowledge, an estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic are being added each year.  This joins the 5 trillion or so pieces of plastic in the ocean worldwide.

When we’re thinking about rubbish in the ocean it can be hard to get a sense of timescales:

A simple apple cores take 2 months to decompose, Styrofoam cups and tin cans take about years.  Disposable nappies and plastic bottles take 450 or so years and fishing lines can take 600 years.

This means, if you take a glug of water from a plastic bottle and it ends up in the sea, it’ll still be around when your great great great…*. great grandchild are born.

*it’s a long time, about 20 or so greats.

73% of deep sea fish have microplastic in their gut.  These fish, deep in the ocean are far away from our shores and almost certainly haven’t ever come across a human and yet even they can’t escape our reach.

Ways to reduce plastic

  • Swap plastic bottles for reusable ones eg contingo autoseal bottle (I love mine, and have had it years, taken it to the other side of the world and so far it hasn’t leaked)
  • Swap one use coffee cups for flasks eg contingo autoseal flask (no, I’m not on commission!)
  • Use cloth bags instead of carrier bags
  • Instead of balloons, make homemade decorations
  • Switch disposable lighters with matches or refillable lighters
  • Consider your use of straws – This is under a bit of controversy at the moment as there is a movement to ban straws in restaurants in the uk and I don’t agree with that. Some of us need straws in order to be able to drink but there are better ways of using straws.  If possible, investing in re-usable straws such as plastic (but reusable), bamboo and metal straws.  But cleaning them can be a problem for some disabled people.

I’ve linked to products I use regularly except for the bamboo straws which I’ve not yet tried.

Think about pens, glitter, toothbrushes, razors… the wrapping on fruit and veg… and built in obsolescence, a particular bug bear of mine…

As we’ve seen with straws, reducing plastic use isn’t necessarily straightforward.  For example packaging on fruit and veg can reduce food waste, plastic bottles are cheaper to make and use less fuel to make them than glass bottles.  There are numerous medical uses for plastic including my PEG without which I can’t get nutrition.  It is not as simple as saying don’t use plastic, but I do think we should all think about our plastic use.

Chemical pollutants

In addition to plastics, we have also filled our oceans with chemical pollutants such as DDT and PCBs.  These have entered the water cycle through rivers, through run off from fields and through industrial waste and are banned by a lot of countries.  Despite this, they are still used in some parts of the world.  Pesticides, pharmaceuticals, industrial chemicals and by products may be very useful to businesses and have their benefits but as they enter the sea, they build up, accumulating at toxic levels.

PCBs were used as a lubricant in machinery and can be lethal to sea animals.  Non-lethal effects include miscarriages, low fertility and problems with immune systems. Deformities and abnormal behaviour are other ways PCBs affect our wildlife.

DDT was a pesticide well known for the impact it had on bird life.  It accumulated in the fatty tissue of birds (who ate the fish affected by it) and it disrupted reproduction and egg shell formation.

These two chemical pollutants are ones which have had a lot of publicity, awareness and research centred around them but are just the top of a very toxic iceberg.

“It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arise, should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life.  But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.”
– Rachel Carson