Catch of the day and then some: A holistic U.A. exhibit on trawling for shrimp

Story and exhibit photos by Monika Damron

The waiter delivers the shrimp cocktail while you sip wine. You go to take your first bite and then suddenly images of hundreds of fish and other wild life caught in the process of obtaining the shrimp you’re about to eat flash before your eyes.

It isn’t a restaurant, and nobody is actually having dinner. Instead, it’s an multimedia exhibit at the University of Arizona Museum of Art designed to bring attention to “bycatch,” the additional, usually unwanted marine life that is hauled up, and usually discarded along with the target, in this case shrimp.

A pair of artist-scientists created this scene by staging a bar table with a video installation in order to increase awareness that shrimp for dinner can come with an extra price. Trawling for shrimp in the Gulf of California usually yields a lot more in the catch than shrimp. The total catch by shrimp trawlers can comprise over 200 species of bycatch fish, invertebrates, and reptiles.

The exhibit combines geohumanities, political ecology, poetics, art and marine ecology to creatively address bycatch issues associated with the shrimp-trawling industry in the Gulf of California.

It’s titled, simply, “Bycatch.” Marine biologist and illustrator Maria Johnson, and geographer and poet Eric Magrane, collaborated in this art-science display as a piece in the larger exhibit, 6&6, currently on display at the museum.

6&6 is part of the Next Generation Sonoran Desert Researchers (N-Gen) Arts and Science Initiative. Six artists were paired with six scientists to explore the patterns and processes of the Sonoran Desert and Gulf of California.

Both scientists and artists, Johnson and Magrane created the bar-scene to illustrate the disconnect between human consumers and the systems and practices that supply us with food, including the issue of fish, whales, dolphins, turtles and other marine wildlife being caught and discarded at sea. The conservation group Oceana estimates that 17 to 22 percent of what is caught every year is discarded.

“If you’re going to a restaurant and sitting at a table, you usually don’t think about the process behind your food and so we kind of wanted to bring that element into the show itself,” said Johnson.

Johnson has done extensive research on the marine ecology of shrimp trawling bycatch in the Gulf of California. She is also an illustrator. Deriving her style from old scientific drawings, she uses the ink stippling technique, the process of using small dots to develop an ink drawing, to create her illustrations.

When N-Gen put out a call for artists and scientists to join 6&6, Johnson jumped at the opportunity to collaborate and blend the two mediums together.

Johnson was paired with Magrane after an informal gathering of the artists and scientists to determine who was going to work together. The way Magrane looked at things as a geographer spoke to Johnson. She said something as complex as shrimp trawling has many layers and Magrane had a way of looking at layers of an entire system.

Johnson said they “clicked” since Magrane is also a poet, so neither of them fit directly into the categories of artists or scientists.

“We both kind of float between the two and strive to combine them when possible,” Johnson said.

On the menu of the exhibit depicting a bar setting are Magrane’s poems, which depict the different aspects of what the shrimp trawling industry entails.

The video installation is a combination of video footage Johnson collected over the years during her research, and footage of a trip she and Magrane made to Sonora, Mexico.

The rumbling of shrimp trawling boats, the sounds of the workers, splashing waves and seagull screams as well as Magrane’s poetry can all be heard as the video plays.

“We really wanted to try to incorporate both with visuals and with audio, that experience of actually being on the boat, and what each stage of the process looks like,” Johnson said.

In addition to the bar and video installation, the Bycatch exhibit includes illustrations, coupled with poetry, of specific species impacted by the shrimp trawling process.

According to Johnson’s website, for every one kilo of shrimp hauled up, nearly nine kilograms (almost 20 pounds) of bycatch are caught and wasted. Very few of the the bycaught species survive after being thrown back into the sea.

Johnson said she would have loved to have drawn and had a poem for every single species caught as bycatch, but that was beyond the scope of the project.

The 6&6 pair decided to choose species that they either had direct contact with during their research or were more tangible to them

They featured common species in the illustrations and poems as well as species that are a bit less visible in bycatch or listed as threatened or endangered.

The Pacific Seahorse is a species the pair have never seen, but they decided to showcase anyway as a representation of a species that is in danger of disappearing from the region.

“We wanted to try to highlight [the Pacific Seahorse] as well because it’s kind of a invisible species in a sense, which is why the poem and the illustration ended up being about a specimen in a jar,” she said.

Bycatch playing cards of the species depicted in the illustrations and poems are also on display in the exhibit and for sale at the museum. Johnson said the playing cards were created so people are able to have something physical to take home with them that memorializes the bycaught species.

U.A. art museum employee and third-year public-health student Armando Elis, who helped set up the installation, grew up in Brazil and has seen the effects of shrimp trawling there.

Shrimp trawlers are “trying to catch shrimp, but they catch a whole bunch of other stuff. I love that [Johnson and Magrane] bring attention to that,” he said.

According to Johnson’s research, addressing the shrimp-trawling bycatch problem requires the use of bycatch reduction techniques devices such as TEDs (turtle excluder devices), creating new marine-protected areas closed to trawlers, improving fishing technology, using shrimp pots (an existing form of harvesting shrimp sustainably) and creating economic alternatives for fishers.

As a shrimp consumer herself, Johnson said the best we can do is educate ourselves and make informed decisions about the shrimp we chose to eat from a restaurant or supermarket.

The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program offers an online seafood watch guide and mobile app to help consumers and businesses chose seafood that is fished or farmed in environmentally sustainable ways.

Bycatch, with 6&6, will be on display at the UA art museum until March 31st.

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Arizona Sonora News Service offers the best written and multimedia journalism being produced by students at the University of Arizona School of Journalism. Writers produce original content during the fall and spring semesters, and also draw original material from Journalism School media: The Tombstone Epitaph, El Independiente, Arizona Cat’s Eye.