Le roi des récifs

Article initialement publié sur l’ARN Messager, journal des étudiants en biologie de l’Universié de Montréal. Basé sur l”article de 2013, “Spearing Lionfish”.

Le genre Pterois – ou plus communément le poisson lion – mérite bien son titre. Avec sa large crinière et son attitude impérieuse, il règne en souverain dans la plupart des récifs de coraux des Caraïbes et s’est affairé dernièrement à étendre son empire le long de la côte est américaine. Sa venue en a détrôné plus d’un au rang du plus beau pisciforme; poissons anges, coffres et clowns ont été relégués au rang de simples courtisans. Pour la plupart des plongeurs, il sera invariablement le clou du spectacle. Une photo vaut mille mots; vous n’avez pas vu beaucoup de spécimens plus élégants. Après une plongée, la beauté du poisson lion aura certainement tapé dans l’œil de la majorité des participants. Cependant, peu d’entre eux seront au courant de l’ampleur des ravages que ce magnifique poisson cause aux récifs de la région.

Un Pterois volitrans dans toute sa splendeurUn Pterois volitans dans toute sa splendeur (Laszlo Ilyes, Wikimedia Commons, 2010)

Un intrus

Les conquérants ont rarement été invités et le poisson lion n’y fait pas exception. Originaire des eaux des océans Pacifique Ouest et Indien, personne ne sait vraiment comment il s’est rendu jusqu’aux Amériques. Avec son habit d’apparat, sa majesté n’a certainement pas traversé le vaste Pacifique par lui-même. Peut-être était-ce à bord des ballasts d’un navire de fort tonnage? Plausible mais peu probable. Une théorie qui a prévalu longtemps voulait que des poissons lion captifs se soient échappés d’un aquarium de Floride brisé lors de l’ouragan Andrew de 1992. Pour autant que l’on sache, l’origine de leur venue est encore inconnue, car bien avant les ravages d’Andrew, le roi du récif avait déjà été aperçu le long de la côte floridienne. Étant des poissons assez prisés des aquaristes, la thèse qu’ils aient été relâchés intentionnellement ou par erreur par un propriétaire a récemment refait surface.

 

Un destructeur

Qu’importe, le mal est fait. Les poissons lions sont désormais légion et causent des ravages sans précédent dans tous les écosystèmes qu’ils fréquentent. Dotés d’un appétit sans précédent, ils dévorent les autres poissons des récifs sans demander leur reste. Ils ont beau traîner tout cet attirail derrière eux, ils sont néanmoins capables de formidables impulsions pour capturer leur proie. Le récif n’est pour eux qu’un simple buffet. Leur nageoires sont hérissées de dards vénéneux, alors gare à vous si vous vous y frottez. On a comparé leur piqûre à celle de se faire fermer une portière de voiture à pleine vitesse sur les doigts. Résultat : votre main enflera jusqu’à l’épaule et vous vous retrouverez agonisant de douleur dans le fond du bateau. Vos vacances? Invariablement gâchées pour quelques jours, car il n’existe aucun antidote. Pour un plus petit habitant du récif qui serait tenté de goûter au roi, c’est une mort certaine qui l’attendra au détour.

Le poisson lion n’a donc pas de prédateur naturel dans les Amériques. Les requins sont apparemment immunisés à leur poison, mais ayant malheureusement été virtuellement éliminés de la région, on ne peut pas vraiment compter sur eux pour endiguer la propagation de cette espèce invasive. On a recensé des Pterois dans le ventre de mérous, mais encore là, leur faible densité fait d’eux une piètre option. Le lion règne donc en roi partout où il s’installe. Là où il est activement chassé, on le retrouve généralement tapis dans les crevasses. Ailleurs il déambule en plein jour comme si  rien n’était, comme le témoigne cette vidéo, où un plongeur en harponne pas moins de 200 sur un seul site.

Un délice

La seule espèce capable de contrer la progression de l’envahisseur, c’est un Homo sapiens palmé armé d’un harpon. Encore une fois donc, il incombe à l’homme de réparer les torts qu’il a causé à la nature, sauf que là heureusement, le poisson lion est délicieux. Dans un burger ou en ceviche, la mort rétracte son venin à l’intérieur de ses épines et pour autant que l’on soit muni d’un bon couteau, il est relativement facile de le fileter.

Chasser le poisson lion est une autre paire de manches par contre. Complètement indifférent face à la menace d’un trident à deux pouces de sa tête, il ne fait pas une redoutable proie. Le problème, c’est qu’un faux mouvement pourrait se solder par une piqûre, car la direction de ses bonds est somme toute imprévisible. Plus c’est beau et coloré, plus c’est toxique. En langage technique, c’est de l’aposématisme, une manière qu’a l’animal d’avertir ses prédateurs qu’ils devraient passer leur chemin.

Sur l’île d’Utila au Honduras,  le centre de plongée dans lequel je suivais une formation, envoyait sporadiquement ses  maîtres plongeurs à la chasse, à la fois pour contrôler l’expansion de l’espèce, mais aussi pour alimenter ses cuisines de chair fraîche pour le fameux « save the reef » burger. Dans les récifs encerclant l’île, les efforts de contrôle étaient assez efficaces, puisque apercevoir un Pterois était somme toute peu fréquent. Loin des sites de plongée par contre, on le retrouvait en grand nombre. C’est donc là que nous allions chasser, dans les collines marines qui bordaient la périphérie extérieure de l’île. Le stress, l’effort et la profondeur demandaient  des habilitées de plongée supérieures à la moyenne pour éviter les accidents de décompression, mais le défi principal résidait dans le fait que nous n’étions autorisés à nous servir que d’un harpon – erronément appelé sling hawaiienne – d’une longueur maximale de deux pieds, ce qui exigeait que nous approchions nos mains nues dangereusement proche de notre proie.

La sling hawaiienne est un petit trident auquel est attaché à son extrémité un élastique chirurgical. L’élastique est enfilé autour du pouce et il est bandé jusqu’à ce que la main puisse agripper la base du trident. Lorsque la poigne est relâchée, le trident est projeté vers l’avant par la force de l’élastique avec suffisamment de force pour transpercer un poisson de taille moyenne. Dans nombre de vidéos incluant celui ci-haut, les plongeurs sont munis d’une sling avec un long manche, ce qui établit plus de distance entre eux et leur proie et leur permet l’utilisation d’un plus long élastique pour une puissance accrue. En vertu des règlements en place pour limiter la pêche sur l’île d’Utila, nous étions limités à un harpon de deux pieds et des mains sans protection, le port de gants étant lui aussi interdit.

Le stockage du poisson lion harponné présente lui aussi un défi. Il n’est pas possible de se servir d’un simple sac de maille tissée, car ses dards pointus présentent encore un danger pour quelques temps après le décès. Il existe des contenants adaptés, mais pas de Fedex ni d’UPS sur l’île, alors nous devions faire avec les moyens du bord, soit des tuyaux de PVC bouchés aux deux extrémités. Pendant qu’un plongeur s’occupait du harponnage, son compagnon devait tenir le réceptacle en prenant garde de ne pas toucher ses embouts troués.

Une fois à bon port avec les prises de la journée, tous les spécimens étaient mesurés pour fin de statistiques et ensuite filetés pour le ceviche du soir. Les abats, eux, étaient répandus dans les alentours en espérant qu’il vienne à un prédateur plus adapté qu’un humain à la vie aquatique l’aspiration de détrôner le poisson lion comme roi du récif.

En conclusion

Que les premiers spécimens soient arrivés par bateau ou relâchés par un propriétaire d’aquarium qui voulait leur donner une seconde chance plutôt que de les tuer, ce n’est qu’une triste conséquence d’un manque de jugement de notre part. Il n’y a pas eu malice ou de grossière négligence de la part de personne. Je ne sais pas si globalement, les efforts pour endiguer la progression de l’espèce portent fruit. Localement par contre, sur plusieurs îles que j’ai fréquenté, la communauté des plongeurs et les habitants se sont mobilisés pour contrer l’envahisseur, car vivant de pêche de subsistance ou de l’éco-tourisme, leur source de revenus ou nourriture en dépend. Il s’organise des « lion fish derby », où tous se rassemblent un après-midi pour aller chasser sur les récifs. L’évolution des populations est suivie par des biologistes et les autorités locales et lors de plongées avec des clients, nous apportions souvent notre équipement de chasse au cas où nous rencontrerions un Pterois. Bien que faisant face à d’autres menaces, les récifs autour de ces îles s’étaient généralement affranchis de celle du poisson lion, grâce aux efforts concertés des différentes parties prenantes. Ailleurs par contre, l’ampleur des dégâts est difficile à juger. Cela peut sembler paradoxal, mais désormais, la santé de ces écosystèmes fragiles dépend en grande partie de celui qui les a mis en danger en premier lieu: l’homme.


Références

The quest for Durian

The title of a science-fiction novel I’m writing recounting the search by a brave group of space explorers for a mysterious planet.

No durians!No, I’m kidding, it’s just a post about this strange fruit and my attempt at trying it. It all started in the Singapore metro when I noticed a sign, that on top of advising the riders that it was prohibited to smoke, eat or carry inflammable goods also banned durian. Curious, I documented myself on the thing as soon as I got to my hostel and realized it was a fruit. A fruit? That you can’t have with you in the metro? I must try it. Upon discussing it with my Singaporean friends they informed me that it was indeed a delicacy, but a smelly one with a peculiar “love it or hate it” taste. So smelly and incommoding to some that for this reason it was banned from public transportation. Regrettably, all my attempts at finding some provided futile in Singapore, as it was not the season.

From that point on, the durian would come back and haunt me from time to time. It was a recent afternoon while walking in Chiang Mai, Thailand, with Jesse that I told him about this coveted fruit and its strange properties and instantly he was convinced that we should attempt to find some. So we asked at a nearby Thai restaurant where we could find it in town and the lady kindly directed us to the produce market on the outskirts of the old city.

Once at the market, it took us some time before we could lay our eyes on some prepared durian but eventually we spotted it. In fact, we had seen the entire fruit numerous times before, but since we had no idea on how to prepare it, not even sure we would like it and not forgetting that its about the size of melon, we figured it would be more reasonable to get its precut in small quantity. Not a whole lot we found and it was very expensive. According to a expatriate also purchasing some there, also not of the best quality, but we had not walked this far to come back durian-less. So we purchased the smallest piece we could find, some rice, some meat skewers and ate that small dinner on the curb and had the durian for dessert.

Finally, durian!

Finally, durian!

To our great surprise, it was delicious. Tasty but with a lot of character. To quote the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace: “A rich custard highly flavoured with almonds gives the best general idea of it“. Satisfied by our durian experience, we decided to leave some for later so I wrapped the rest back in its plastic tray, put it in a plastic bag which I tied in a knot and stuffed the package in my backpack. It was not that smelly anyway, so we started to wonder what all the fuss was really about. Back at our hostel, I moved the durian to a drawer and we headed out for a night out in town.

When we came back the whole dorm was filled with the strong stench of the fruit. An odor akin to smelly feet but with a touch of sweetness. There it was, the famous durian smell we laughed, but since it was nothing unpleasant to our noses we went to bed (without much consideration for our roommates). The next morning, we decided to make it up to those who had to endure the smell the whole night so I pulled the durian out of its packaging and offered some to everyone in the common area, including the owner of the hostel, who upon seeing the fruit cried: “So that’s what it was! The Thai cleaning lady has been telling me all morning that there was a durian in the room.” And then he kindly refused our offer as he was not really a fan but warned us that the next time, we should keep it outside.

To our delight, the durian was even tastier that morning than it was the day before.

 

Arcade is not dead!

And in fact, it is thriving in Japan. Where the few machines that are still to be found in America have not really evolved past the Street Fighter era, the Japanese have been putting their very fertile imagination into developing systems that are very much 21st century.

An entrance to an arcade. How colorful and appealing!

An entrance to an arcade. How colorful and appealing!

Video games

The variety of games that could be played was mind-boggling. Some of them I was not even able to figure how they worked.

UFO games

The general goal was to nudge or pick up something in order to make it fall inside a conduct. Still a common sight in America where in most cases cuddly toys can be won, the Japanese, true to themselves, have pushed the concept much further than we have. Most arcades had entire floors devoted to UFO games, where things ranging from food to anime characters could be won.

UFO game

Cutifying yourself

Worry not ladies, the Japanese arcades also has something for you too : photo booths big enough for you and all your friends that apply some digital imagery trick to make you look cuter. Bambi eyes (western looking eyes), skin defect correction, makeup or black and white, whatever fits your mood of the day. Once satisfied with the result, the machine lets you pick a background and a layout, sends the photos to an e-mail account and then prints stickers so you can show the world how kawaii (cute) you are.

Pachinko

While looking at people playing pachinko and not understanding the point, I figured there had to be more to this game. After reading the wikipedia article on it, I realized that no, it’s just a Japanese twist on the retarded zombie slot-machine. Basically, it is played with little metal balls that fall randomly on a vertical pinball machine like surface and if one enters a specific hole, points are won and … you get more balls. In Japan, gambling for money is illegal so when you poor brain can no longer take pachinko or you get an angry call from your wife, you take your balls to a different store where they can be used to redeem prizes or cash.

Pachinko!

Pachinko!

The peeing game

The one machine that struck me as being very original and weird was one that I found in a place where I least expected it: above a urinal. An infrared sensor starts a timer upon the first squirt of urine and the longer you relieve yourself, the more points you score and the more the sexy looking anime lady on the screen undresses herself. Brilliant.

Peeing game

Case against proprietary software on government systems

This has been sitting as a draft for more than two years now so I figured I should publish it.

The modern government is an information processing entity where public servants and software collaborate to serve the people. If you take away any of those two components, governments cease to operates. So it is crucial that government maintains control over its processes to shield itself from interference by outside interests; it is at the basis of sovereignty and part of what makes its area of jurisdiction a country.

You wouldn’t hire foreigners as public servants, so why would you trust your software to outside interests?

Software was introduced into governments by individuals who had no idea of what software was in the first place. It was and is still purchased, managed and used like off the shelf physical goods, but it was already too late when people figured out that replacing a vehicle fleet is a lot less work than migrating from on operating system to another.

Nowadays, companies like Microsoft could make every developed country’s government grind to a halt very easily or severely compromise it. Take the US patriot act for instance, which lets the government request any data from companies based in the US if they deem it necessary even if that data does not belong to an american entity. Another yet even more disturbing example uncovered by Edward Snowden is Microsoft handing out the keys to its encryption systems to the NSA thus actively collaborating in their espionage projects.

The European Union is starting to come to grips with this reality and is moving towards drafting rules and regulations that will make the interaction between software corporations and governments more open and directed towards giving their citizens security and value; unless this initiative gets killed by a lobby. This has obviously positioned open-source software as a preferred choice, prompting changes such as a migration to Ubuntu by the French Gendarmerie Nationale and the creation of Trustedbird by the french department of defense and British Telecom, a more secure fork of Mozilla Thunderbird (an e-mail client) whose code they intend to contribute back to the main Thunderbird tree for everyone to benefit from.

The procurement process in its current form cannot consider open-source technologies as it depends on active bids by companies. Software developed by volunteers is systematically left out for a lack of an imperative to market itself using conventional challenges. A few consulting firms on open-source technologies are trying to turn the tide but they only advertise the tip of the iceberg when it comes to all the available open-source solutions. There has been litigation lately in Quebec following decisions from the government to award a contract to Microsoft without a call for tenders based on criteria purposely crafted to exclude other vendors. A similar conflict occurred more recently when another governmental organization decided to procure MS Office licenses using the same scheme. This begs the question of whether the procurement process is really providing the government with the best value for its dollars.

I could go on detailing how companies are consciously locking governments in their own system by not following industry standards (Internet explorer has systematically been failing the ACID test) and violating anti-trust laws but I believe the previous paragraphs have been sufficient at getting my point across. I have nothing against Microsoft, IBM, or any other software corporation, they make quality products that are most often superior to the open-source equivalent (things would be the other way around if governments took part in helping developer communities improve their software). In fact, they themselves are  increasingly embracing the open development model because they have figured out that it provides them with the best value. Individuals and private businesses are free to spend their money in whatever manner they want, but government are not. They are not profit making machines or fashion following teens; they exist to bring security and prosperity to their citizens and basing information processes on closed-source software is an hindrance towards the achievement of those goals.

The lobby is strong so it is unlikely that change will come from atop. And even down at the individual level, most are incapable of dissociating Windows from a computer as Microsoft has made it certain in concert with the rest of the industry that every new computer around will be provided with a license of that operating system for very cheap (again sparking anti-trust lawsuits), thus never giving the user a real choice. Apple is starting to grind away at Microsoft’s market share thanks to the visibility it gets from its massively popular IPods and IPhones, but at the root, this company is not a whole lot different than its main competitor and in some cases practices even worse methods of locking customers in such as with their closed platform policies.

Nuts for coconuts, the amazing ways of consuming this exotic fruit

The coconut at the stage we are most familiar with

We know coconuts as the principal ingredient of a piña colada, we know coconuts as the tasty filling of a bounty chocolate bar, we know coconuts as the crucial part of a good curry, we know coconuts for their awesome taste but otherwise, we remain pretty ignorant about its many uses and life cycle.

Allow me to enlighten you with my recent experience with this incredible fruit and the knowledge I gathered from the locals in the Carribean. While not scientifical, I sincerely hope you will remember this little piece should you ever become stranded on a lonely tropical island. Otherwise, just take it as a little how-to guide for the next time you find yourself around a lot of coconuts.

An opened coconut

Coconuts as their name implies, are the nuts (or fruit (technically a drupe)) of the coconut palm tree. They grow everywhere around the carribean coast of Costa Rica and as far as I know, their extend is very large and in some cases, their productivity can turn them into a nuisance. There is no season for these trees, they just constantly produce all throughout the year, with every batch taking a couple months to mature. Coconuts are large fruits and do not biodegrade very easily. So much so that locals have to get rid of them (and their leaves) using bonfires.

A yellow coconut palm

Coco palms come into a few varieties which are mainly differentiated by the colours of their nuts: yellow, green, or something in between. If you are after pipa, you will prefer the green variety for its sweetness but when they age, the differences in flavor dissapear and the nuts all turn the same brown.

The pipa

A green coconut palm, preferred for pipa

There is a couple of vendors yelling “pipa fria” around you but cannot quite figure out what they are selling? Its coconut water, or “pipa”. A young coconut before it becomes ripe has a lot of water in it, easily 150 ml I would say. This water is sweet, very rich in minerals and feels very healthy to drink, if you can get past the weird taste (it’s somewhat of an acquired thing). Mike, another volunteer at the association has aptly called pipa “the gatorade of the jungle”: some local guides will not bring any water bottles on patrols, they will just reach up for a pipa or two.

A yellow “coco tierno” alongside a green pipa

The pipa is probably the stage of the coconut that is easiest to consume. Vendors in the street will slice the top off, put in a straw an refrigerate pipas but in nature, you just grab, smash and drink. Grab a pipa from the palm, smash it one or two times against the trunk until the nut cracks and drink the dripping water. It’s a bit messy but even though it is sweet, pipa will not get your hands all sticky.

The older pipa (or half-coconut)

Size comparison of a more mature coconut to a young pipa (which I am holding)

As they age and ripe, pipas grow bigger, thicker, and get harder to crack open. Should you succeed tough, you get rewarded with sweeter coconut water and a gelatinous substance called “coco tierno” (tender coco) that covers the inside surface. Coco water serves as a suspension for the endosperm of the nut and as it matures, will form this deposit. This substance is what is later going to become the white hard flesh of a ripe coconut and while the taste is somewhat different, it definitely hints towards that flavor.

The white gelatinous flesh can be scooped using a slice from the skin, notice the presence of shell

This tasty flesh can be scooped using a broken piece from the shell or a slice from the skin of the husk but in order to access it the nut has to be split in half. Without the proper tools (a machete), this is quite a challenge and requires a lot of smashing around and prying. At this stage, the very hard shell which we are used to crack with a hammer has started forming.

The nut (as we know it)

The tool of choice when working with coconuts: the machete

Now we come back into known territory, the ripe and mature nut is what we are used to finding in northern hemisphere supermarkets. What we are not familiar with however is how incredibly hard it is to get to the nut itself. Covered by a dry husk made of a thick skin and very fibrous material, this one it truly a “tough nut to crack”. Once open, little coconut water remains, most of it has coalesced into the very flavorful flesh we are all so fond of.

A ripe coconut with the husk removed

When on the ground and in the presence of humidity, the nut will obviously start to germinate. From one end of the nut, leaves will burgeon and from that same end a root system will emerge, all feeding on what is inside the nut and turning the flesh and water into a coconut sponge. Very rich, this sponge when be pressed will ooze oil (good for cooking) or can simply be eaten. Be careful, common wisdom has that eating too much of this will give you diarrhea.

A germinating coconut

These nuts are nature’s own small ships, known to have traveled by sea for thousand kilometers to land on a small remote island and populate it with this awesome tree. I did not get into the great many uses of the husk (textile), shell (jewelry, combustible) and the tree (lumber) itself, I did not cover the great many culinary, medicinal and industrial applications of this plant as well. I admit to be

Coconut sponge

wholly ignorant in this matter: the list of use cases for the coconut palm and its fruits seems virtually endless, I just know how to eat them raw.

Now we need to figure out how to grow these in Canada.