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Freediving Opinion

Ethical & Sustainable Mindsets of Harvesting

By Chris Adair, with Kirk Krack

Correct species ID, fish size, population density, and diversity of your harvest should all play a role in your freedive harvesting choices. Photo: Lyle Berzins

The process of harvesting, fishing, and gathering your meal from the ocean and bringing it back to share at the table with friends and family is something that has been passed from generation to generation, and something we hope to continue to pass down the line as time progresses. It’s a mind-set that’s commonplace and widely shared among spearfishers and freedive-harvesters around the world, be it something new they aspire to enjoy or something that has been shared by elders throughout the ages.

Being able to go out and successfully harvest your own catch on one breath, to select a fish without any by-catch, and to form a true connection with the reefthis is where the passion lies for most spearfishers.

Like many of my students today, I got into freediving to spearfish. As I put more students in the water and grew into my role as an instructor and owner of a freedive instruction and charter service company, I realized within my first season of operation how important it would be to take some sort role in guiding my students with their freedive-harvesting and spearfishing, in order to ensure our reefs would be well managed, respected, and cared for.

Spearfishing is an amazingly selective way to harvest fish that has minimal impact on a reef when the right choices are made. But the act of owning a speargun does not make you an ethical or sustainable harvester; it’s making the right decisions in the hunt and harvest.

When it comes to fishing and marine harvesting in the world today, you only need to purchase a license and you are granted the power to remove anything from that marine environment as long as it’s within the regulations. You can have minimal to no knowledge of what you are, in fact, harvesting. The Conservation Outdoor Recreation Education (CORE) program ensures its students have the basic knowledge and skills required for safe and ethical participation in hunting of land-based animals. So why does this not exist for our oceans?

Owning a speargun does not make you an ethical harvester; it’s making the right decisions in the hunt and harvest

The lack of a similar program for our local marine environment is driving increased interest in the availability of sustainable and ethical harvesting courses, such as Bottom Dwellers’ Freedive-Harvesting Course and the Ucluelet Aquarium’s Sustainable Harvesting Program. These courses provide a platform to give students the skills and knowledge to make the right choices on their own, and thereby the power to grow into a sustainable harvesters.

Ethical, sustainable, or selective harvester—whichever words are being used, it always comes back to making the right decisions. Having the proper knowledge allows the freediver to make right decisions to better protect the longevity of all reefs. This knowledge base includes:

Species Identification

Learning to identify a species doesn’t just end there. Specific species characteristics, such as life span and rate of maturity, play in to making the right choice. When you take the trouble to learn about them, it becomes apparent very quickly that some rockfish, for instance, are not the most sustainable choices for harvest because of their very long (120+ year) life spans and slow maturity rates (some not reaching maturity for approximately 20 years).

Fish Size

The decision of what size of fish to harvest as a spearfisher is one that would be easily done and dealt with, if not for external reasons coming into play such as getting caught in the mentality and adrenaline of the hunt. Most minimum harvestable fish species sizes are set at a baseline for them having reached maturity. The goal with being a selective and ethical harvester would be to harvest fish that have sufficient meat on them but not harvesting the really large ones, known as the “big breeders”. Big fish are known to have higher reproductive rates and targeting solely the largest on the reef will hamper fish populations for the future. Targeting “good eaters” rather than “big breeders” would be a far better, more sustainable approach for the future longevity of a reef. You might not get as many likes on your Instagram page, but that’s not what sustainable harvest is about.

Population Density on Reef

One of the greatest benefits of harvesting from beneath the surface is being in-tune with the reef and thus accountable for what you remove from that specific location. Freedivers have the power to descend, observe, and become aware of the overall state and health of a reef in general. This allows us to be more connected to the reef. This, in turn, gives freedivers the power to make the right choices on whether or not to remove a certain fish from the reef based on what’s been observed of the reef as a whole, in addition to specific fish characteristics.

Diversity to the Harvest

Targeting a single species over and over again becomes a very dangerous game with any type of harvesting or foraging. Locally in British Columbia, there are targeted and sought-after species for spearfishing such as lingcod, which is why it is so important recognize how fortunate we are to have such biodiversity in our waters. Underwater harvesting/foraging need not be limited to the sought-after fish driven by public opinion and that next selfie shot. From the long laundry list of urchin, sea cucumber, gooseneck barnacle, giant acorn barnacle, greenling, rockfish, lingcod, seaweeds, scallops, clams, mussels, limpets and so on…one of the best things a freediver-harvester can do for sustainability while harvesting is to diversify their catch.

Other factors that come into play while making ethical and sustainable harvesting choices include the time of year (i.e. taking fish species’ nesting periods in to account), as well as the impact of frequency of removing fish from one specific reef or location.

Many factors play into being an ethical and sustainable harvester in our waters today. The majority of people I encounter want the same thing: to be able to enjoy the experience as well as the harvest, and to share both with family and friends for generations to come. It’s not about filling the freezer, it’s about an authentic harvest and knowing where your food is coming from, knowing that you made the right choices during the hunt, and knowing that you have minimally impacted the local environment in doing so. It’s through shared knowledge and education that people will gain the power to make the right choices with their harvest and allow us all to continue to be able to do so for the future.

For more on author Chris Adir visit:

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