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Oceana Magazine Winter 2010: CEO's Note: The 'Fishing Ape'

Talk to people every day about the oceans, as I do, and you encounter a paradox. People love the oceans. Yet most of us are oblivious to the many clear measures showing  ongoing ocean collapse.

Perhaps the cause of this paradox is dimly visible in the mists of our early evolution as Homo sapiens.

Evidence of popular love of the ocean is easy to find. Consider where many of us go when we are granted the freedom of summer vacation: to the water’s edge.

People also like to eat the creatures in the sea. And consider the benefits to human health of the fatty acids present in many fish.

Why aren’t more people loudly insisting on strong action by our policymakers to stop ocean collapse?

There are many reasonable answers. The last ten years – called “The Decade from Hell” in a recent TIME cover story – brought a slew of new and difficult international challenges, including terrorism, financial collapse and climate change. People are understandably distracted. Moreover, the creatures of the sea are invisible to most of us until they show up on our dinner plates.

If you live in the USA, Europe or Japan, assessing the state of the world’s oceans by the range of choices at your grocery store is deeply misleading. Because the developed world pays the most for fish, the last fish in the world will be served on its plates.

Which brings me to the “aquatic ape” hypothesis. Several iconoclastic thinkers have offered a controversial, but intriguing, hypothesis about what factors drove humans to evolve differently from other primates. Why, for example, are we hairless compared to our primate cousins? Why are we bipedal? Why do we store fat differently? Why are the fatty acids in fish so very good for us?

Their hypothesis is that more than two million years ago, ancestors of ours spent a lot of time in a coastal environment, and  that got them interested in capturing and eating fish and other marine creatures. Going into the water in search of seafood drove selection that rewarded hairlessness (for the same reasons that dolphins and whales are hairless  mammals),  the ability to stand on two feet (it was easier to breathe and the water helped support early efforts to become erect), subcutaneous fat (for underwater warmth, again like a dolphin or a whale) and tuned our metabolism to the benefits of a heavily seafood-based diet.

This hypothesis is highly controversial, and although intriguing to many biologists, is soundly rejected by most paleoanthropologists. They point out that there is no fossil evidence consistent with the theory.

Oceana is not taking a stand on this question – we have our hands full winning policy changes that will restore and protect abundant oceans. But the idea that we are descended from a group of ancestral apes who discovered fishing is appealing to me. It might explain, for example, our apparently limitless ability to prey on the creatures of the sea. It might also explain why we are drawn to the water’s edge on our vacations. If this is indeed an ancestral attraction, it’s time for us “fishing apes” to stop loving the oceans to death.


For the oceans,


Oceana is grateful for the grants, contributions and support it has received from dozens of foundations and companies and thousands of individuals. Oceana wishes to thank all of its supporters, especially its founding funders as well as foundations that in 2008 awarded Oceana grants of $1 million or more: Arcadia Fund, Oak Foundation, The David and Lucile Packard Foundation, The Pew Charitable Trusts, Rockefeller Brothers Fund and Sandler Foundation. For more information, please see Oceana’s annual reports at