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Friday, February 19, 2016

Sex and the sea

From the Economist

Sex in the Sea: Our Intimate Connection with Sex-Changing Fish, Romantic Lobsters, Kinky Squid, and Other Salty Erotica of the Deep. By Marah Hardt. St Martin’s Press; 257 pages. $26.99.

IN THE Olympics of extreme sex, the gold medal, says Marah Hardt, goes to fish and other saltwater species. Sea life depends on sophisticated strategies honed over millennia to meet and mate. The ocean covers 71% of the Earth’s surface, so hooking up in a singles bar spread over 1.3 billion cubic kilometres (0.3 billion cubic miles) is no easy task. Reproduction and survival of the sexiest is what it is about.

Though it finishes on a more sombre note, Ms Hardt’s book, “Sex in the Sea”, starts as a voyeuristic romp (“Oceanic Orgies: Getting It On in Groups” is one chapter title). Cuttlefish are cross-dressers, the male argonaut (a pelagic octopus) has a detachable, projectile penis, dolphins are in flagrante acrobats, and group sex erupts (where else?) on the California coast twice a year when tens of thousands of grunions disport themselves on the beach. Led by the moon and tides, the small fish fling themselves ashore. The female digs a hole in the sand with her tail, backs in, lays eggs, and waits while up to eight males snuggle up and release their sperm. Kama Sutra, meet Jacques Cousteau.

Oceanpornography-cute aside (the last section, is, predictably, “Post Climax”), there is a sober moral to the story. Because of the heavy human footprint, even the cleverest underwater sex strategy struggles to succeed. The sea is becoming unsustainable. A recent World Wildlife Fund report warns that the mammals, birds, reptiles and fish that rely on the sea have been reduced by half in the past 40 years, mostly because of overfishing. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation, consumption per person has nearly doubled from 10kg (22lbs) in the 1960s to more than 19kg in 2012. Other insults include global warming, plastic rubbish (which kills marine mammals by strangulation or ingestion of debris) and acid rain. The undersea reproductive race is sometimes lost before it has begun. “It is tough to perform under pressure,” Ms Hardt says.

Still, she is heartened by the number of countries willing to create protected areas. Last March the British government set aside 834,000 square km (322,000 square miles) of ocean for the Pitcairn Islands Marine Reserve—the largest single marine protected area anywhere. Other moves include implementing no-take zones, developing underwater ecotourism, recycling ocean trash and insisting on sustainable fishing. Even so, some scientists worry that it may be too late. To ensure that undersea sex is not subverted by overfishing and environmental degradation will require global co-operation. Otherwise, we are in for a very sad love story.

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