Musings On Markets

27/12/2015 19:36 GMT | Updated 27/12/2016 10:12 GMT

On a recent filming trip in Guyana, we took a side trip into the Georgetown market. Mannequins in gaudy dresses lurked over pyramids of mangos and sacks of ginger and turmeric. Snake-oil stalls sold potent 'scorpion chili sauce' and 'hard wine', which promised to do for male consumers exactly what it said on the tin. Piles of fish from both the Caribbean and rainforest rivers were brought in at the docks by sweat-drenched muscular porters, before being thrown onto scarred wooden tables, where they were hacked with hatchets and scrapers, as locals poked, prodded and bidded over them. These markets fascinate and repulse in equal measure. Here chunks of giant arapaima lie alongside lanternfish, tarpon and mackerel. Flea-bitten parrots and finches look down sorrowfully from tiny wicker cages at lines of giant banana catfish that could have been twenty-five years old, bigger than anything I've ever seen in the wild. These 'wet markets' can tell the naturalist an immense amount about the fauna of the surrounding country, whilst giving a dizzying sense of how fast we are losing it all.

There have been many stories of wonder from the markets of the developing world. The most hallowed resurrection in zoology occurred in 1938 when museum curator Marjorie Courtenay-Latimer came across a just-caught coelacanth in an East African fish market... 66million years after it was believed to have gone extinct. The second living species of coelacanth, was found in 1999 on the other side of the world in Sulawesi, again at a fresh fish market. Scientist Erdmann Mehta only managed to get a photo before it was bought by a shopper for the world's least appealing fish supper. And such miraculous finds continue today. A recent survey assessing the illegal trade in wild flowers revealed two new species of orchids found in a Bangkok Market. The botanist who described them was loathe to publish the find, as he believed it would increase an urge to collect them, and thus propel the flowers to extinction. The discovery of new mammals (other than bats and rats) is pretty rare nowadays, but in 2012, scientists identified a new flying squirrel after it was found in a market in Laos. New primates are found even more rarely, but photos taken in Jakarta's Ngawi market in 2009, led to the declaration of a new species of monkey called the golden crowned langur. There were a few murmurs from skeptics who believed they might just have been normal langurs who'd had their faces bleached, but other discoveries are beyond doubt. Two species of water monitor lizard previously unknown to science turned up in Manilla in a market which (according to taxonomist Rafe Brown) also sells; "everything from sea turtles, to ivory, to tiger parts and rhino horns." Brown said; "Animals are sold as food, many are slaughtered and sold as parts for 'medicinal' purposes and aphrodisiacs, and many are huge, high-stakes status symbols for the wealthy elite -- such as tigers, monkeys and Komodo dragons".

I had my own water monitor encounter in Java's notorious bird market as a green (as in naive) traveler of 18. I came across a glorious pair of the lizards on sale, but after allowing them to crawl all over me, decided I couldn't leave them there to be deep fried. I bought them both, and rode on a public bus to the outskirts of town, where I set them loose on a patch of rough ground. My joy as they scampered for safety was tempered by the fact that I was watched by a crowd of quizzical onlookers, who in all probability went straight into the bushes and caught them again after I'd gone. It later dawned on me that having paid over-the-odds tourist prices, I had increased the impetus for the sellers to go catch some more. My next attempt at being a caped crusader for critters came in the late Nineties whilst working on a conservation series with the National Geographic. We filmed a spate of wildlife rescue raids in markets and restaurants in the Cambodian capital of Phnom Penh, seizing everything from rare monkeys and bears, to civets and bats, sacks and sacks and sacks of tortoises and even king cobras. Returning a few animals to the wild was again faint solace, as the majority we found had been caught legally under license, and had to be left there. Monkeys, fruit bats and puppies, all bound for the pot.

There are few things in life that leave me feeling so powerless and hopeless. Filming in the fish markets in the Sea of Cortez two years ago, we came across not only manta rays and mako sharks, but carcasses that were clearly from protected great white sharks. None of them were yet mature, and could not have bred. The heads had been hacked off, so it would be more difficult to identify them. I'd just spent the previous week filming great whites, and we had started to recognise individuals from their characters and battle scars. Some of them were hallowed heroes that had been coming back to the same spots for over a decade. We'd heard from the global authority quite how vulnerable and scarce great whites are, yet lying here on one slab, in one market in one Mexican town, was a significant portion of the world population of this iconic shark. And there are places like this the whole world over. Taxonomist Dave Ebert has been a regular at his favourite fish market in Taiwan for 30 years. After finding scores of sharks he could not identify, he launched into a prolonged study, which has enabled him to name 24 new species of sharks, rays, sawfish and ghost sharks. Ebert also logs the apocryphal reports of the fishermen he meets, and says; 'There are species that 27 years ago were really common and now you don't really see... Twenty-five years ago these fishermen would be catching fish at depths of 100m and 200m. Now they say they have to fish down to 900m'

But the gloom doesn't end there. Biochemists in China have recently identified SARS in horseshoe bats, palm civets and raccoon dogs on sale for food in markets. Tests on human workers, support the hypothesis that SARS probably originated in wet markets. An 'astonishing diversity of coronaviruses was also discovered in different species of bats', and live-poultry markets were the source of the H5N1 bird-influenza virus that killed hundreds across Asia. Scientists found that; 'The wet-markets, at closer proximity to humans, with high viral burden or strains of higher transmission efficiency, facilitate transmission of the viruses to humans.' They suggest that SARS will re-emerge from wet markets and that a pandemic of influenza is 'probably imminent' from the same source.

To me though, the most head-spinning market on earth is not found in the developing world, but in Japan. Tsukiji Market in Tokyo is the biggest fish and seafood market in the world. The market sells 480 different species of seafood from 60 countries, from sea urchins to caviar, abalone to zebra mussels, and tuna to whale-meat (killed for 'scientific research', yet curiously still on sale here for food). Strolling round the lanes amongst the 65,000 employees, you'll see live seafood slopping around in buckets, langoustines making a break for freedom from their crates, and octopus arms lashing across their tanks. About 3,000 frozen bluefin tuna are sold every day. The last time I was there, a single fish went for a jaw-dropping £50,000. Last year a single 222kg fish went for £1million. The increasing rareness of the bluefin tuna, means these fish command higher and higher prices, and are a publicity generating status symbol for the sushi chain that manages to acquire the most perfect, most expensive specimen. That kind of cash does not exactly inspire a rational and considered approach to sustainability. Pacific bluefin tuna have lost 96% of their numbers, Atlantic bluefin is considered even more endangered, and 90% of fish on sale at Tsukiji are too young to have bred.

However the thing that really shocks is the sheer scale. Every year more than 700,000 tonnes of seafood is handled here; around 6billion US dollars worth. I think every visitor to Tokyo should visit Tsukiji as a modern cautionary tale; a city-sized aquatic abattoir, which brings home quite how much we are strip-mining our seas. If this was the only fish market in the world, our oceans could not sustain such marine genocide.

This is normally the place in my blog where I would try and find a positive spin on the story, provide a call to arms, and suggest something we can all do to make the problem better, but it's not that simple. People need to eat, and (particularly in the developing world) markets are human hubs, essential to survival and commerce. I can wander around the market in Amazonas Manaus looking in awe at huge bizarre river fish I cannot identify and will never see alive, but obviously cannot suggest to the fishermen that their catch is somehow immoral. However in rich nations the slaughter is not taking place so that poor fishermen can feed their families. Here the absurdly wealthy are driving species to extinction with utter wanton contempt, knowing the global implications of their actions, knowing the inevitable outcome, yet doing it anyway. How much I wonder will the last bluefin tuna command? My suspicion is that the sushi it delivers, will have a somewhat bitter aftertaste.