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A thousand thousand slimy things lived on and so did I

February 2019

‘A thousand thousand slimy things lived on and so did I’ is a research project about sea cucumber fishing off the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico. It is concerned with implementing theories of non-human representation in engaging and politically-driven storytelling and investigative journalism. The goal is to turn it into a collection of creative writing, an academic article and a film.

In China, sea cucumbers are used as a medicine and fetishised food. There, they bring a promise of health, fertility and sexual vigor. However, this association does not come cheap: a kilogram can sell for anywhere between €120 and €2600.

With bountiful supplies off the coast of the Yucatán peninsula in Mexico, local fishers are keen to profit from their ‘black gold’. A day sea cucumber fishing offers them double their usual profits. However, with easily accessible sea cucumber habitats already depleted, the fishers need to keep diving deeper.

Lacking technical equipment, they hand local boys a hose and air compressor and take them out to sea. The pepineros stay at depth for hours. Sometimes their hoses become twisted. The boys shoot up from as deep as 20m in one breath. Many suffer partial or complete paralysis. Many die.

With reports of gangs and bribes for illegal catches, the scramble for sea cucumbers has also left a mark on the environment. At least 16 species of sea cucumber are now threatened with extinction. This is especially problematic given Yucatán’s proximity to the critically endangered Mesoamerican Barrier Reef System, the second largest in the world.

Amongst this theatre of sex, teenage death and political corruption sits the sea cucumber. They are as close to an embodiment of Timothy Morton’s “strange stranger” as you can imagine: slug-like maybe-sentient blobs with legs. Most have no distinct sensory organs. Even more than the average sea creature, their appearance encourages academic and journalistic texts to treat them only as fungible objects, important only up to the point of working out how many can be caught and how much they can be sold for.

‘A thousand thousand slimy things’ instead views sea cucumbers as intrinsically entangled with the wider political system surrounding them. Inspired by actor-network theory, the project takes sea cucumbers as mediators rather than intermediaries, making it relevant to engage with their biological specificity: their diet of decaying organic matter, their commensal relationship with certain fish, their lack of face. From this perspective, understanding the sea cucumber becomes essential to understanding the totality of the story, including the deaths of teenage boys.

The project was initially inspired by discussions with Dr. Stephen Spencer about his expedition to the Yucatán, focusing on paralysis in teenage divers. Its combination of critical yet under-investigated politics with a fundamentally unknowable creature provides the perfect backdrop to pursue my research into representing non-humans in investigative journalism. Further, the project brings together my professional experience both as a data scientist in fisheries science and as a filmmaker. It offers the chance to continue in the rich tradition of activist/writer/fishery scientists such as Rachel Carson and Daniel Pauly.

There are two key ways the project will expand existing scholarship. Firstly, existing attempts to tell this specific story - either through fisheries science or journalism - have fallen short by considering a single-level and monodisciplinary approach. This is an injustice to those oppressed. Secondly, and more broadly, many of the most important stories of our age involve non-humans in critical ways. It is essential to find a robust theoretical foundation for integrating non-humans into political stories in a way that adds to a more holistic understanding whilst neither commodifying nor anthropomorphising them.

The program outcomes will focus on a thirty minute film, part investigative documentary, part ‘nature’ documentary. It will also lead to an academic article that will cross the boundaries between fisheries science, anthrozoology and critical theory. Finally there will be a collection of creative writings.

‘A thousand thousand slimy things’ is part of a wider research theme, ‘Dominion’, that explores the intertwining of oppressions of humans and non-humans in food production. It will be the second project after ‘Once in a field in Indonesia’, which explored palm oil.

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