Shift: an adventure in marine science from the not-too-distant future

FleetCover1-REACHAs I never stop telling you, I’m writing a book. Fleet is a dystopian maritime adventure in which sea level rise and disease has driven the last survivors of the human race to sea. I’m releasing the story in serials — 3 chapters per month — on Amazon. Loyal readers who can’t wait for the next installment can slate their thirst with a series of short stories set in the world of Fleet that will be published on Southern Fried Science every few weeks. Please enjoy the second of these distractions, Shift, a story that takes place before the main events of Fleet and fills in some of the backstory surrounding the fleet.

A version of Shift appeared last year in Eno Magazine, but this iteration has been revised to fit into the world of Fleet.

150 years before the Great Hurricane.

The old winch groaned under the strain of a full net. Captain Willis sighed. A heavy haul was a bad sign.

“Well, that’s the last cast this season, probably the last I’ll ever do.” He said the same thing last year.

The net cleared the ship’s deck. It bulged with the unmistakable quiver of a thousand tire-sized jellies, each one a tiny ecosystem. We dumped them into the shaker tray that violently separated the worthless goo from the precious catch.

I grabbed a few jellies to measure before tossing them over the side. They were smaller this year, a good sign. Something was eating them.

I turned back to the shaker. The captain was smiling. At the bottom of the catch bin were eight hollow-eyed shrimp, the largest haul we’d had all week. Hollow-eyes were a luxury, favored by the new international elite, who, despite living in massive floating cities that circled the world, imported more seafood than any other demographic. Hollow-eyes were particularly desirable, as they had the dual caché of being both new to the world market and already extremely rare. At current market price, they would cover the repairs to the winch, with a little left over for fuel. We counted sixty-seven hollow-eyes in the Miss Amy’s hold. It had been a very good week.

Once we dealt with the catch, carefully measuring, weighing, and bio-tagging each shrimp, it was time for me to do my job. The bycatch hopper was a veritable menagerie of biodiversity, a cross-section of one of the richest regions in the Atlantic Ocean. Scuttle crabs make their home inside each cavernous bell, feeding on the detritus that floats down from the jelly’s last meal. Thumbnail sized copepods bounce around the basket, searching for nematocysts left over from the shaker. Crag shrimp, those gentle cleaners, carefully scrape the algae from dangling tentacles. Blink squid, hiding amongst their soft-bodied conspirators, wait for foolish predators that would mistake them for medusae. Pacman snails, living within their hosts gut, extract precious calcium from the paralyzed prey.

All these creatures lived among the jellies, creating a community that more eloquent biologists than I refer to as the largest organism on the planet: The Great Jelly Atoll of the Hatteras Front.

I was not here for the jelly atoll community. Armies of graduate students were already dedicating their careers to that. But, of course, I had several requests from co-workers and colleagues to bring back samples for them, so I began the arduous task of carefully sub-sampling the collection into containers, some alive for behavioral studies, others carefully dissected to preserve the physiology or specific organs, still others preserved whole for molecular work. Fortunately for me, nothing was terribly large, and the 1 liter bottles were more than sufficient. I felt sorry for the recipients, despite being graced with a years worth of samples to work through, they never had the opportunity to go to sea. Now, for my own research.

“Hey Spat!” the captain’s nickname for me, from the old days when oyster reefs were his main source of income, “I got one for you!” He was beaming as he held up the cigar-shaped iridescent fish, only the second we had found all week: Brevoortia plastiphage – the Atlantic Plastivore. Over the last several decades these lab-grown menhaden, engineered to solve one of the greatest environmental challenges of the previous generation, were gradually increasing in abundance. They were unbelievably successful in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, but were just now getting a foot-hold, or, I guess I should say fin-hold, in the Atlantic. Their cells were swollen with hydrocarbons as plastic-devouring endosymbionts reduced complex compounds into usable food for their hosts. As they adapted to new environments, their efficiency increased faster than anyone predicted. Their rapid evolution may hold the key to a new source of petroleum production refining. At least, that’s what I told my funding agency, Vee Diesel Enterprise. Really, I’m just interested in the explosion in genetic diversity that Brevoortia plastiphage populations are undergoing throughout the world.

Captain Willis fired up the engines and pointed the Miss Amy towards home. As the ship creaked up to 14 knots, a dolphin leapt through the bow wake, a rare and welcome sight. The old timers like to weave yarns about pods of dolphins, five or ten at a time, playing in their wake. But as with all fish stories, the gray beards like to exaggerate. They even joke about schools of bluefin tuna, as if the ocean’s most enigmatic predator were anything but a solitary hunter, the ocean’s tiger.

Tall tales aside, the doomsayers have yet to be vindicated. By any reasonable metric, the oceans are at least as healthy as they were half a century ago. Biodiversity and biomass are high. The jelly atolls rival coral reefs in richness and abundance, and are far more resilient. The fisheries collapse never came. Fishers just kept finding new fish, fishing deeper or longer, or creating new markets for previous trash species. The hollow-eyes follow in a lone line of crustaceans once considered trash, now celebrated for their meat among the wealthiest. The Republic of Maine still has a law on the books that lobster can’t be served to prisoners more than 6 days a week. I guess there’s no reason to change it now. Captain Willis put his daughter through college and law school on hollow-eyed shrimp. In the five years I’ve been working with him, his catches have only increased.

The setting sun illuminates the inlet leading to Marshalberg Harbor. The Miss Amy rounds the point and eases up to the old dock. I help the captain make fast the lines and tie off the last cleat while he calls the harbor master over to inspect his catch. He turns back to me, a grin as wide as the ocean across his weathered face, and says the same thing he’s said to me every year, as we hang the nets and secure the boat for winter.

“You know Spat, I think I got on more season in me.”

If you’re interesting in reading more, please check out Fleet: The Reach and check back on October 7 for the second installment, Fleet: Wide Open.