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After last week, you are probably thinking one thing: “what about these gobies?”

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Last week Ferrebeekeeper featured a post on the invasive round gobies from the Black Sea which have showed up in the Great Lakes.  The blobtastic little fish sneaked into the lakes by means of ballast water carried across the great oceans in international freighters and now they are wrecking up the place.   The gobies are outcompeting larger fish for resources.  They are devouring native mussels.  To quote the USGS website, “This species has been found to prey on darters, other small fish, and Lake Trout eggs and fry in laboratory experiments. They also may feed on eggs and fry of sculpins, darters, and Logperch (Marsden and Jude, 1995) and have also been found to have a significant overlap in diet preference with many native fish species.” Particularly hard hit are mottled sculpins, little round pebble-looking native fish which occupy(ied?) the ecological niche which the gobies are now taking over.  the fish horror stories contain some rather sad anecdotes of gobies biting sculpins and chasing them away and taking their lunch money and otherwise bullying them on the lake bed.  It is a rough world out there.

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This mottled sculpin looks disgruntled

So are we just fated to dwell in a gobified dystopia from now on?  Well, actually, there are some positive things which the gobies are accomplishing and not everybody is sad they are here.  I was joking about gobies eating zebra mussels, the horrible invasive freshwater mussels which are filling up the Great Lakes and causing havoc to power plant and shipping infrastructure, however, it turns out the gobies do happily eat zebra mussels.  Additionally the gobies are not just eating other animals: they are also being eaten by them.  Because of the proliferation of round gobies, the previously endangered Lake Erie water snakes (Nerodia sipedon insularum) have become more prolific in number and the snakes are much fatter and happier (insomuch as we have records for these reptilian parameters).  The water snakes have been so successful at hunting gobies that they have been removed from the endangered species list (back before the act was watered down). 

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Why, here’s a great writing mass of ’em! The world is getting better!

Larger gamefish like walleye, yellow perch, and bass and are eating the gobies, as are piscivorous birds like gulls, cormorants, plovers, and bald eagles(!).  Unfortunately there is downside to this as well.  Zebra mussels filter decaying cladophora algae out of the water.  This algae contains C. botulinum, a bacteria which contains the infamously dangerous botulism toxin.  If the predatory birds eat too many gobies they can be killed by the botulism and several mass die-offs have occurred.

What is the point of all of this (other, than, you know, the fact that it is happening in the world)?  I suppose this article is really about ecosystems–the complex webs of life we depend upon.  they are fragile in unexpected ways and resilient in unexpected ways.  We need to think about them more and learn more about them (witness what happened in all of my aquariums).  Thanks for the mindfulness lesson, ugly invasive goby!

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“Northern riffleshell, snuffbox, clubshell and rayed bean” Remember those names for soon they may indeed be nothing more than memories.  An invader has come to America from the mysterious seas of Central Asia.  This interloper stowed away and came to America 30 years ago.  Authorities are powerless to stop the rampage of terror.  It has already conquered the sinister-sounding Lake Erie, a freshwater sea which is found deep in the hinterlands of…wait…Lake Erie borders New York ? [checks notes]

What on Earth is going on here?

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You may think this absurd looking creature is a sentient hockey puck or the ghost of Jim Backus.  It is instead a goby…a tribe of fish which are sort of the prairie dogs of the sea.  This is the round goby (Neogobius melanostomus).  It is a hard-headed omnivorous fish which can live in both fresh and salt water.  Originally native to the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea, the tiny fish is thought to have come to the Great Lakes by stowing away in ballast water of a freighter.  Since its arrival in the Saint Lawrence Seaway, it has made the entire Great Lakes its home and it is now spreading along the rivers and creeks radiating from the lakes.

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This is a pretty impressive feat and nobody is castigating the ugly little fish for being lazy or weak.  In fact it is even sort of endearing in a crude 1970s cartoon sort of way.

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My god, what happened during that decade?

Unfortunately the gobies’ unstoppable appetite is leading to the extinction of indigenous freshwater mussels like the Northern riffleshell and clubshell mussels.  Freshwater mussels were already in trouble because of pollution, habitat loss, and stream degradation.  Now they have to contend with this formidable 9 inch long 2 ounce predator.  I have written this article with a joking touch, but, sadly, this sequence of events is no joke. Ecologists are worried that the gobies will continue to spread (particularly with the help of careless anglers, who use them as live bait).  Understanding and curtailing the proliferation of alien species causing havoc in unprepared ecosystems is one of the defining environmental challenges of our times (which are filled with environmental challenges), but so far nobody has figured out how to do so.  Perhaps in the future the Great Lakes will be filled with the descendants of round gobies eating zebra mussels.  Sometimes it seems like nobody and nothing can keep up with the pace of change.

 

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Idolatrous Floundering (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood with polymer figures and panel paintings

The art of the middle ages was meant to be viewed the way motion pictures are in the modern world. By painstakingly combining different disciplines (sculpting, painting, jewelsmithing, architecture, and calligraphy), medieval artists created emotionally fraught works which told an ever-changing story. The hidden figures, complex allusions, and frame-by-frame narrative progression invited extended contemplation.

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Idolatrous Floundering (detail)

The sculpture “Idolatrous Floundering” is crafted to mimic these epic devotional artworks. Yet, whereas medieval art was meant to highlight the centrality of hierarchical religion in people’s lives, this sculpture apes such forms in order to examine the ways in which society uses emotional hooks to manipulate people for political or economic reasons. There is no sacred miracle at the heart of the hooked fish, just a dangerous trap. The strange addled worshipers and the natural world itself all stand in peril from this deadly devotion to false idols.

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Idolatrous Flounder (detail)

Like the artisans of yesteryear, I carefully sawed, carved, sanded, and engraved the elaborate frame (and using a lathe to turn the finials). Then I painted the panels and hand-sculpted (and baked) all of the little polymer figures. Hopefully the jewel-like work possesses some of the troubling power of devotional artwork, but I also hope it won’t serve as a reliquary for a world ruined and used up by desperate adulation of coercive seductions.

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Tiger Flounder (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood and Mixed Media

Here is another flounder artwork which I just completed.  A majestic Amur Tiger is “hiding” on the pink, purple, and green stripes of a lurking flatfish.  Something which has forcefully struck me about the popular understanding of flatfish is how many people are surprised at what successful predators flatfish are (I guess perhaps people unconsciously thought they were carrion eaters because they live on the ocean bottom?). Anyway, like tigers, flounders lurk in wait, blending in with their surroundings until the perfect moment and then “snap!” they grab up their unsuspecting prey.  Tigers are of course a beloved super charismatic animal which people think about all of the time (although flatfish make up an entire taxonomical order, I get the sense that people who aren’t anglers or ichthyologists don’t think about them quite so much).  Frankly our fascination and love haven’t helped the big cats all that much though: they are rapidly going extinct in the wild due to habitat loss and poaching (mostly for moronic traditional nostrums).  This juxtaposed flounder sculpture hints at the sad fate facing the world’s brilliant animal predators.  It is also a study in the dazzling color and form of stripes!

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The Great Flounder Float at the start of the 2019 Mermaid Parade

I’m sorry about last week’s paucity of blog posts.  I was busy building a float for the 2019 Mermaid Parade at Coney Island! This annual festival to Poseidon occurs on a Saturday close to the Summer solstice and is the scene of enormous creative extravagance and burlesque merriment…all in the name of ocean appreciation, of course.  Last year I attended with a rolling flatfish float, and although that was a hard day, it was also a noteworthy success.

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Mermaid Parade 2018

Alas, parades are like Hollywood blockbuster movies…sequels require even bigger and better special effects (and it is easier to get things wrong).  Last year’s float worked and people really enjoyed the spinning wheel of horoscope signs, but it was nearly impossible to transport.  After an unhappy run-in with the front door, my roommate and I ended up death marching the thing to Coney island (which is about 7 miles away) at 2:00 AM the day before the parade.  Thus, for this year’s Mermaid Parade, I decided to build a magnificent 6.5 meter (21 foot) flounder puppet out of fabric which I could roll up and transport with ease! Genius! We could handle the flounder high above our heads with 3 meter (10 foot) wooden poles and their would be no difficulties like last year.

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A quick trip to the trimmings district provided me with hundreds of iridescent ultrasequins to use as scales. Then it was just a matter of hours and hours and hours with the scissors and the hot glue gun (coincidentally, I don’t think I have fingerprints anymore).  I bullied some hapless friends into attending the parade with me and another one of my friends, the great Lebanese artist Lara Nasser took these pictures (you should check out her brilliant but disquieting art which contextualizes the uneasy nexus of religion, politics, and gender in contemporary Beirut).

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Now, people who have jobs as actuaries, account supervisors, and crooked economists do not recognize this, but when you make actual things, there are always unexpected problems.  I should have built some prototype giant puppets, or at least watched old footage of carnival in Brazil.   Although I did some test runs and reinforced the fish with some struts made of rigid plastic tubing (cough, chopped-up hula hoops), the great flounder float had a tendency to droop when there was not a stiff wind.  When there was a stiff wind, the mighty halibut was more than capable of manhandling the puny humans trying to move it around the Coney Island environment.

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The giant tablecloth was weirdly translucent, yet it was heavier than expected as well, as were the 10 foot poles.   In the disorganized scrum to line up we kept getting stiff armed by groups of majorettes and half-naked flamingos.

Then, as the parade started in earnest, so did the wind and we were suddenly wrestling a giant sky halibut.  It must have looked like a sad episode of “America’s Stupidest Catch” as we reeled around Surf Avenue trying not to get knocked down.  The fish gods were angry!

Although we tried valiantly to contain this situation, the float was stronger than the three of us.  The glistening flatfish snapped the two outermost poles and then angrily bludgeoned the woebegone attendants with its fins as the audience watched with good-natured drunken derision.  We tried to carry the flounder horizontally (like the tablecloth it originally was), but soon there were recriminations, counter proposals, and a decision to withdraw.  Arguably this was the right decision, but we were trapped in a 2 mile chute bounded by steel barricades.  There was no escape except a long sprint of shame with the now unworkable fish sadly dangling behind us.

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This stung at the time, but, in retrospect, who cares about a good competent performance? This is America in 2019 and what we love most here and now is a hot mess!  Parades are about spectacle anyway.

So, um, does anybody want to come with me next year? I am not sure how I can top being beaten up by a 21 foot long flatfish in front of 50,000 people but we will think of something (although this particular group of friends may not be into additional parades).  There is no way to know what will happen in 2020 (not without some sort of all-knowing oracle, anyway), but I have a feeling it is a year which will feature plenty of new melt-downs and unintentional floundering.

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“Glove” (Wolf Silveri, ca. 2019) Photograph

As a known fish-themed artist, I like to keep an eye on what the world’s other fish-artists are up to (these are artists who draw/paint/sculpt fish…not artists who are fish).  A couple of day’s ago, the Washington Post ran a little miniature show of works by the photographer Wolf Silveri, who became fascinated by the melancholic seafood on display at the marketplace while he was buying dinner.  Silveri read that there will be more plastic than fish in the world’s oceans within the next few decades and he wanted to create a disturbing series of unnatural hybrids to reflect this unnatural state of affairs.

Fish are the center of my art right now (albeit in an extremely different way) and I have a history of making works out of garbage too, so I am deeply intrigued by Silveri’s compositions.  Yet I am also less than perfectly happy: these poor sea creatures seem more like sad props than like complex protagonists (as opposed to certain flatfish I could name).  Also the works seem less surreal than slapdash–but maybe that is a hazard of the photographer’s super-realistic medium (although the show’s title “We’ll Sea” also seems a bit facile).  Anyway, it is unsurprising for an artist to carp about a more successful artist, so I could be giving these pictures less credit than they deserve.  Above all, anything that makes people passionate about the tragedy overtaking our oceans is worthwhile.

Let me know what you think.  I am going to go work on some flounder art!

A Filefish in Lembeh

This week is World Ocean’s Week and I feel like I have somewhat dropped the ball this year (although the plight of the planetary oceans is the principal ongoing theme of my artwork).  At any rate, for tonight’s post, I am not going to write a comprehensive essay about the watery realms which make up the majority of our planet’s surface (although we will get back to that theme).  Instead of a complex analysis of how we could help the oceans, here is a cameo appearance by another amazing Tetraodontiforme fish.

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This is Aluterus scriptus, commonly known as the scrawled filefish, a master generalist of warm tropical oceans worldwide.  The scrawled filefish lives in the Atlantic, the Pacific, and the Indian Ocean.  Its habitats are limited to warm seas, but within those seas it does not have a particular favorite niche: the scrawled filefish can be found swimming through coral reefs, seaweed forests, seamounts, rock fields, shipwrecks, sandy seabeds, or just out in the open water.  From close up the fish looks like crazy 1980s abstract art with a wild pattern of olive dabs, aqua crazy stripes  and black stipples.  Yet seen from a distance it blends into the water or the seafloor with shocking success.  The scrawled filefish makes use of some of the same impressionistic properties of light, color, and shape which are used in dazzle camouflage.  It is hard to find the edges of its oval (partly transparent) body because of the chaos of its patterns.  Also, like flounders and cephalopods, the filefish is capable of quickly altering its color patterns such that certain colors fade back or flare into prominence depending on the situation.

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The scrawled filefish is also omnivorous and eats all sorts of algae, small invertebrates, corals, mollusks, worms, jellyfish, tunicates, small fish, et cetera et cetera.   The fish is diurnal and makes prime use of its yellow eye to see the world, however it is also shy and solitary.  Although they are generally spotted alone, filefish are attentive parents.  A male will fertilize the eggs of 2 to 5 females who live in his territory.  The parents look after the eggs and then watch other the fry when they hatch.

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In addition to camouflage, filefish make use of the same trick as their near relatives the triggerfish: they have locking spines at the top and bottom of their body.  If attacked, they wedge themselves into tight crevices or holes and lock these spines in place.  this is also how they sleep secure at night in an ocean filled with hungry predators.

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The Sole Seed and the Space Ark (Wayne Ferrebee, 2019) Wood and Mixed Media

A month or so ago, I wrote a heartfelt post about humankind’s relationship with other living things and why I feel that our ultimate destiny lies beyond the Earth.  I am still thinking about how to say that message with all of the grace and power I can muster.  Everyone paying attention to current trends fears for the future of living things.  As humankind’s appetites grow exponentially we are bringing terrifying changes.  Yet humankind’s knowledge and abilities are growing too.   I hope you will read the post…or at least its Biblical-themed follow-up concerning the art of Noah’s ark.  in the meantime, I made a sculpture shaped like a flatfish to try to explain my conception in the non-linear language of symbols (coincidentally, flatfish are my symbol for Earth life with its hunger and deep beautiful sadness and with a known tendency to desperately snap at baited hooks).  There is the tree of life sprouting anew out of a battered ark and spreading seeds upon the cosmic wind (or are those pink stars?).  Above the ark is a mysterious figure which may be a symbol of our “life instinct” and our need to disseminate ourselves (or it may be a shrugging cartoonish new human–who can say?).  Interred in the crypt beneath the universe is the inverse reflection of the life instinct: our Thanatos death instinct (for we take it with us always, no matter where we go).  It is pictured as a strange human/lamprey mummy-thing writhing its gray fluke in its cramped chamber.

The cosmic fluke has a perplexed expression.  Perhaps it is less sure than I about the wisdom of venturing out into the unknown.  Or maybe it is just hungry…like all living things.

It was a long and somewhat unsuccessful day…and there are only 13 minute left for writing a blog post, but I would be remiss if I didn’t offer something.  So here is a completely adorable juvenile green filefish as captured by the matchless camera of Tara Murphy.

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I was unable to find out much information about this particular fish…so this post might be of the adorable baby animal category, rather than the informative category.  Filefish are weak swimmers and they often try to mimic coral or plants, a purpose which this endearing baby fish seems ideally suited.

Yesterday’s post was heartfelt and quite opulent…but it was also a bit of a downer, so today let’s get back to core strengths and feature one of those amazing Tetraodontiformes which I promised we would be seeing.

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Awww! it is a juvenile yellow boxfish…surely one of the most endearing fish in the ocean.  The yellow boxfish (Ostracion cubicus) is not only as cute as a button, it is also extremely successful.  The fish ranges across the coral reefs of the Indian and Pacific Oceans and can even be found in some parts of the south east Atlantic Ocean.  Adults grow to be 45 centimetres (18 in) and, as with all of us, their bright yellow fades with age.  The fishes mostly eat algae but they are omnivores and will also sample worms, sponges, corals, mollusks, arthropods, and even other fish.

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Because of its cube shape, the boxfish is not a swift swimmer, however it can swim very efficiently and precisely thanks to swift fluttering strokes from its nearly transparent rounded fanlike fins.  Its box shaped skeleton and armored plates gives it great strength and durability which means predators would pretty much have to eat it whole.  This would be a mistake not only because it is a difficult to swallow a hard, sharp cubical fish, but also because the boxfish is capable of releasing the neurotoxin tetrodoxin (TTX) from its skin if it stressed or frightened.  This protects the boxfish from predators (or being stuck in a dead-end job in a cubical), but it also makes this a difficult fish to have in an aquarium.

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This is why the young boxfish are so colorful:  it is a warning not to eat them (or even stress them out).  Can you imagine if this were the case in the affairs of hominids?  The 80s would have been the most poisonous decade ever.  Fortunately, color denotes other things for us primates…which is why looking at yellow boxfish is such a treat.

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