We film a lot of different people around the country. And in each situation, we try to get a glimpse of the reality behind their food. There have been times when I wished what I was seeing were different — but my job is to show what is real, and to not adjust the situation to one in which I feel more comfortable. Usually I stick to that rule of thumb. But every so often, I falter.
The filming of episode 58 was one such situation. We got up very early that morning to go out with the shrimp fisherman (side note: the insanely kind folks at Maison de Macarty got up even earlier to fix us coffee for the trip). Camera in hand, and dramamine in pocket, we drove south from New Orleans…past small fishing towns with trailer homes scattered on the brownish/green blankets of grass. Daniel and I picked up a quick breakfast at a cute little diner where truckers obviously called home in those early hours. I had a biscuit, grits, eggs and more coffee… which was probably too much for that 4am wakeup, but who am I to turn down grits?
We arrived at the dock and stepped on the boat, past highways of shrimp riding along a moving runway to their destination in a large vat filled with ice and all their peers. No matter how many times I see them, Im always surprised by the natural, translucent color of fresh shrimp. I watched them until the boat pulled away. And then it was just me, 2 cameras, 3 fishermen (well, one fisherman and his two friends) the wide open ocean, and Daniel.
And the action began. Trying to maintain my level of non-seasickness, I sat and watched as shrimp upon shrimp — and other ocean dwellers — made their way onto the boat. The term bycatch doesnt mean that much until you see it. And thats what I saw that day: hundreds of crabs and fish — big and small — carried to the surface in large nets, set in salt water and sorted. The shrimp went into baskets, the bycatch tossed on the boat floor where they would eventually die. Thrown a couple inches further and they would have made it back into the water. But for some reason, they didn’t.
It was shocking to see that such a “sustainable” source of food would create so much waste. The fishermen didnt plan to eat the bycatch, or sell it; it wasnt a nuisance, it was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. I get it that small fisherman do the best they can, and bycatch is an inevitable part of harvesting shrimp. And I also know that the small amount I saw was nothing compared to the big commercial boats out there. But it just felt like on that day, in that moment, the killing of the bycatch was avoidable.
We’ve been filming stories before where bycatch is killed because it eats the bait of the actual fish they want to catch, or because its annoying, invasive or a nuisance. And in those cases, I don’t feel its ok to step in (though I still want to). But the life or death of these little disoriented crabs didnt affect the fishermen at all… so I had to do something.
My “filming station” (ie. chair) was about 5 feet away from a little keyhole on the side of the boat which had direct access to the water below. Every ten minutes, with camera in hand, I would walk very carfeully (trying not to slip on the sliminess beneath my feet) and gently nudge the little guys through that hole to the safety of the water below, then return to my seat and continue filming. I did this for an hour or so, before being noticed by one of the fisherman’s friends who was sorting the catch: A woman in her late 30s with a wonderful bouyant laugh. “You cant save them all”, she said kindly. And I knew she was right. I wasn’t even making a dent. Feeling defeated, I nodded, made my way to my seat and continued filming. A few minutes later I was up again, ushering the little sea creatures through that hole, and off the boat.
Maybe I wasnt helping anyone at all. Maybe I was just postpoing the inevitable. But each crab was a little life that I felt was worth saving.
The fishermen were very interesting, kind and thoughtful people — working hard to make a living, and follow the traditions that they had learned growing up. They took us out that day for just a few hours to show us what shrimp fishing was like. This was the truth behind it, and I knew we were lucky to get to see it. So I stayed filming — silent, and truly appreciative — and captured that reality… and every few minutes gently nudged little crabs to safety.