When my mother was a little girl, she lived on the Pacific shore of Oregon every summer for the months of June, July, and August. When the tide was low, she and her sister would take wooden rakes out to what she called “crab pools” and rake in crabs for dinner. My grandmother would boil them and the family sat on the porch picking crab and eating their fill.
Picked crab costs $25 a pound locally these days, though you can sometimes find whole crabs on sale for $8. I don’t like to think what people inland or in the east pay for Dungeness crab. When I was a girl, my mother used to argue with a neighbor about the relative merits of Dungeness crab compared to lobster. The family across the street who had been raised on the east coast and insisted that lobster was superior. My mother confessed to me that she’d had never actually eaten lobster, but insisted with stubborn NW pride that nothing was superior to Dungeness crab. A few years before my mother died I ate lobster at Legal Seafood in Boston, and when I came home I told my mother she’d been right all along. Dungeness crab is better—more flavorful, tender, and easier to pick.
The days are long gone where you can rake in a crab from the pools along my shore. Commercial over-harvesting and toxins released by septic systems, agriculture, and logging have done their damage. The students I teach don’t know to call these pools by their older name, because my mother’s “crab holes” no longer provide sanctuary for crabs. They are (more accurately) called tide pools because they are the result of the action of tides on continuously shifting sand. They house sand dabs and sand fleas, the odd minuscule life forms caught by a receding tide. Nothing edible. The crab boats fish off on the horizon, never coming closer than a half mile to shore.
This week we’ve seen at least two dead seals on the beach, probably shot by fishermen. The seals follow boats, feed off refuse cast back, interfere with nets and traps. The attitude of those involved in commercial or sport fishing is that the seals and sea lions should be eating something people don’t care about. As if you could reason with them, convince them to eat what humans won’t. Every spring when I teach persuasive writing to 16 year olds, someone whose father fishes writes an essay about why sea lions and seals should be shot to keep them from interfering with the industry. They want the sea lions who fish at the base of dams on the Columbia River to be shot to protect endangered salmon. I don’t have to agree with their thesis. So long as they make a good case and use objective sources (not their fathers) I support their arguments. It’s my job to teach them to write reasonably, not to be fair.
Though they are very intelligent, seals and sea lions can't be taught to choose the fish we wish they’d eat. Their populations have dwindled along with whales, and the species humans most prize on their own plates. Dead zones on coastlines, rising ocean temperatures, polluted waters, and disappearing fish species are the result of human effects on the natural world.
Einstein said, “The significant problems we face cannot be solved at the same level of thinking we were at when we created them.” I’m certain he wasn’t talking about crabs or seals. He wasn’t worried about the fishing industry that has suffered so much damage in my lifetime. But it’s fair to point out that the sea lions causing havoc fishing at the base of dams could not cause the problem if we hadn’t built the dam to begin with. And the missing crabs aren’t the fault of sea gulls or seals or any other wild life. Most of the changes I’ve witnessed in my 57 years acquaintance with the Pacific Ocean are the result of human action, not nature.
We tend to think of ourselves as aloof and independent from the natural world, and continue to act as if there were no consequences to ourselves for the choices we make and our overwhelming presence on this planet. Maybe it’s time to demand a higher level of thinking if we want to solve these problems. We should be asking what we can do ourselves to solve the problems we’ve created.