Ocean Watch

By Susan Scott

Monday, August 11, 1997



Eat yabbies or snappers,
but let sleeping seals lie

In my June 23 column, I wrote about the difference between crayfish and lobsters. In this part of the world, the animals we call crayfish live in freshwater lakes, ponds and streams. Lobsters live in the ocean.

But things are always a little different down under. In Australia and New Zealand, I've heard people call lobsters crayfish. While visiting Auckland once, a friend took me out for a crayfish dinner. We ate lobsters from the sea.

To make things even more confusing, there's a giant freshwater crayfish in Southern Australia and Tasmania that grows to about 10 inches long. I've never seen one, but in a picture I have, it looks almost exactly like a Maine lobster.

Now for the helpful e-mail I received from Beverly Kai: "In Australia's Victoria state, the local name for their giant crayfish is yabbies. They are supposed to be very good eating and the appetite appears reciprocal. The body of a drowning victim near a dam was never found. The local verdict: The yabbies got him."

I don't know the origin of the word, but yabby sure is fun to say. It's a name I'll use in the future for these giant crayfish, who apparently aren't picky eaters.

Speaking of eating, on June 16 I wrote a column about ta'ape, the French Polynesian name for a type of snapper the state Division of Fish and Game (now DLNR) introduced into Hawaiian waters in the 1950s. Officials believed this species would be a valuable commercial fish here. Unfortunately, the idea didn't catch on. Now, some believe the ever-expanding ta'ape compete with our native snappers for food and space.

We're stuck with these hardy fish. I mentioned that the state might help the situation by promoting the eating of these aliens.

They have, I was informed by a worker at the Division of Aquatic Resources, DLNR. In 1989, Jo-Anne Kushima developed the "Ta'ape Market Development Project." Included were cooking demonstrations at supermarkets, free recipe cards, a consumer survey and a promotional campaign at several supermarket chains and fish distributors.

This project may have been responsible for raising the price of ta'ape, a good thing for fishermen.

Also in June, I noticed a one-paragraph news story about Mediterranean monk seals dying off the coast of Mauritania. This West African country, near the center of the western bulge of the continent, borders the Atlantic Ocean.

The news item said that more than 60 seals were killed by a toxic algae bloom. The seals apparently ate fish that had swallowed the algae.

I waited for more news but none came. Last week I called Tim Ragen, a seal expert with the National Marine Fisheries Service, who told me that not all Mediterranean monk seals live in the Mediterranean. These seals are spread out in many different countries, many of which are hostile toward one another. Because of this, coordinating research or sharing information is difficult at best.

The details of the seal poisoning are still sketchy because of violence in Mauritania. (One seal researcher there was killed by a land mine; two others were reportedly fired at with a machine gun.) But 60 seals killed is probably an underestimation. More likely, the number is around 200. Out of a local population of 270-300, this is a true disaster for the species.

Although no one knows the exact cause of death or the precise number of seals that died, Ragen says there's a lesson for Hawaii: When dealing with endangered species, things can go horribly wrong in a very short time.

Hopefully, this isn't the end of our Hawaiian seals' long-lost cousins. The last sighting of a Caribbean monk seal was in 1952.

The best way to help Hawaii's monk seals is to spread the word that people should stay well away from seals resting on beaches. It's perfectly normal for them to lie in the sun and sleep. Never disturb a monk seal in any way.



Marine science writer Susan Scott's Ocean Watch column
appears Mondays in the Star-Bulletin. Contact her at honu@aloha.net.




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