Thursday, March 23, 2017

Shedd fish food for thought

 © Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez

     Today is my 30th anniversary on staff at the Sun-Times. Last year, I marked the day by posting a favorite story, and I think I'll continue that tradition.
     Though it does seem an apt moment to pause and ponder: 30 years at the paper. Quite a lot really. How did that happen? Just lucky, I guess. The opportunity arose, I gave it a try, and kept beavering away while the industry fell apart around me. Kind of like Sweet Pea crawling through a clangorous construction site in a "Popeye" cartoon. Whenever I got to the end of one girder, another arrived and swept me to safety.
     It's a good job—work at something I enjoy, with like-minded professionals, generally, plus good pay and benefits. Old salts rhapsodizing their own careers tend to overlook the latter, as if it's beneath notice. It's not. When my side of the political spectrum is ululating in horror at our fellow citizens who voted for Donald Trump—how, HOW could they do that?—I try to remind myself that I am employed, have been for decades, that whenever I jam my hand into my pocket there is money there, and how very, very disturbing it would be for me if that were not the case.  
     Still, working in the same place for nearly a third of a century can seem timidity. In my defense, I took some breaks. A year when Ross was born; three months for Kent. A few months to visit my brother in Japan. A few for a book. Some time for rehab. Close to two years away, total, which I think is beneficial in any career. Didn't earn as much as would be the case had I never stepped away, but I had a better life.
    Nor did I cling desperately to the job. I kept my eyes open. I did quit once, handing my polite resignation letter to the editor-in-chief. But he talked me off the ledge.
     I went in at 26 and now I'm 56. My whole life only to find myself on the downward slope. But not, I believe, coasting. Not yet gone too far into decay. Still pedaling hard. 
     Regrets? I am in no way a Big Cheese. No $20,000 Clarence Page speaking gigs in Paris. I bet that's nice. I would have liked to been a George Will-like player for a while, my face set in a mask of self-importance, striding into the White House to canoodle the president.  
     But as T.S. Eliot said, "For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business." I never phoned it in. This work was always important, to me if to nobody else. It was what I wanted to do with my life and I did it, and it was fun, and I like to think I was good at it, and am still good at it. The Trump enormity reminds us that this stuff is important, or can be, if people only pay attention to it.
     I didn't write to cause change, which is good, because I didn't. My highest goal is to hold the interest of readers, and I think I do that. To think about life, and sniff out compelling facts. An ideal story, in my eyes, has three things: a good lede, a few astounding facts, a few strong quotes. This story has all three. A concise, surprising start. One of the favorite facts of my career—what the Shedd Aquarium uses to make seawater. The "oh wow" moment when I noticed the big boxes of the stuff. And the ending quote, I'm proud of drawing that line out of her. 
    And I'm also proud of how the story came about. It didn't arrive as a press release. It was my idea. I had to badger the Shedd. The notion that someone would write about how they feed fish, well, it just didn't scan.  "Most people can't keep a goldfish alive" "I implored. "You feed tens of thousands of fish every day." Eventually, over years, I wore them down, or more likely just found the right person to ask, and someone relented, allowing me to look behind the scenes. The Sun-Times gave it the space it required, and played it prominently—pages 2 and 3.
    Anyway, to the story. Thanks for reading these past 30 years. I think I have another decade left in me. I hope you stick around.

© Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez
     Fish eat fruit. And vegetables. Some do anyway. Lungfish nibble lettuce. Stingrays eat their peas, though floating peas will clog a tank's filter if you're not careful. The Shedd Aquarium goes through about 4 tons of fruit and vegetables a year.
     Aquatic creatures have a range of surprising eating habits — some turtles like bananas. If you asked which eats more, an 80-pound sea otter or a 2,000-pound whale, most people would probably guess the whale — much bigger — and they would be wrong. It's the otter. Otters have no blubber, and thus must consume a quarter of their body weight every day to stay alive.
     When you think of feeding fish, what do you imagine? Tapping a small canister of dried fly flakes over Goldie's bowl? Just doing that can be enough of a challenge. What must it be like to feed the roughly 32,500 animals housed at the Shedd Aquarium? Seven days a week, 365 days a year?
     How do they do that?
     "Everything is compartmentalized," said Michelle Sattler, the Shedd's collections manager. "We have reptiles, birds, mammals, invertebrates, fish. We have everything." (People might forget the Shedd's birds: 20 penguins, plus two owls and two hawks).
     Sattler's particular responsibility is the Caribbean Reef, a 90,000-gallon tank housing hundreds of fish, from 60-pound stingrays to butterflyfish weighing a few ounces. Divers go into the reef to feed the fish, which I always thought was purely for show, but has a practical purpose — some fish are aggressive and territorial, and if aquarium personnel just dumped food into the top of the tank, as with goldfish, half of the fish would starve to death while the other half got fat.
     Yes, fish can get fat. That's why the Shedd keeps track of what many animals in its care eat, particularly larger species, and uses clickers to train some fish to eat on cue.
     Piscine competitiveness makes hand-feeding less fun than it looks — it isn't all floating around and answering tourists' questions. Divers can get beaten up by hungry rays.
     "The stingrays in the Caribbean Reef, they're big and they're strong and they can be bullyish," said Sattler. "They weigh 60, 70 pounds and they can push you around, if they feel like they can get away with it."
     What else do fish eat? Just about everything. The Shedd uses 100,000 crickets a year. Plus tons of a seafood gel. Then there's regular seafood — the Shedd buys a quarter million pounds of restaurant-grade seafood each year — shrimp, herring, squid, mullet, mackerel. The staff checks over every last smelt in the Shedd's five kitchens.
     "We have a crew that start at 5 a.m. We do a quality sort that usually takes four hours," said Madelynn Hettiger, senior trainer, of the marine mammal department. "We look through every single fish, to check for missing eyeballs, to see there are no tears or breaks in the skin, no freezer burns" (important because bacteria that could harm the Shedd's fish could settle in the cuts).
     If you've ever grumbled about the admission price at the Shedd ­— and who hasn't, with an adult pass being $28.95? ­— think of those ravenous sea otters.
     "It costs more to feed five sea otters than all the animals in the oceanarium combined," said Hettiger.
     Increasingly over the past decade, the Shedd raises its own food for its animals.
     "If we can grow our food here, we do," said Mark Schick, manager of special exhibits. "There are several advantages ­— one, we know we always have it." Which isn't always the case when grub is jetted in. The Shedd has had some nervous moments in the past due to shipping snafus, suddenly out-of-business fisheries and the occasional gulf hurricane. It isn't as if you can serve your sea lion a few TV dinners while waiting for FedEx to track down that shipment.
     "If you want to get a cheeseburger, there are many places out there," said Schick. "If you want mysid shrimp, there are very few places out there."
     Thus hidden from visitor view, in low spaces behind the tanks, is a burgeoning effort to raise food — water fleas, crayfish, rotifers — for the Shedd's collection.
     "It's far less expensive to grow food here than to ship it priority overnight," said Schick.
     Living food is necessary, because some fish will eat only moving food and won't touch prepared food. They also have to raise food to feed the food that feeds the fish. That explains the 24 bubbling gallon bottles of algae, the various shades of green denoting degrees of maturation. (The Shedd also makes its own sea water using — what else? — crates of Instant Ocean, "The World's No. 1 Sea Salt.")        

     One mainstay of the Shedd food program has an unexpected nostalgia connection — mysid shrimp — which have the benefit of being able to stay alive in suspended animation until needed and mixed with water, a talent developed in dry African lake beds, which gave them a passing fame under a different name in the back of comic books.
     "Sea Monkeys," said Schick. "Remember when you were a kid?" He feeds the quarter-inch-long brine shrimp — which, contrary to the comic illustration, do not have faces or hands, but look like tiny translucent grains of rice — to the Shedd's sea horse and sea dragon collection.
     "If we were buying them, it would be hundreds of dollars a week," said Schick. "Raising them is a fraction of that."
     As with most people, fish crave variety in their diets.
     "Salads are great for you, but you don't want salad every day," said Schick. "With fish, it's the same way. We like to spice up their diet and enrich them with living moving targets." Sometimes food is frozen into ice blocks, or tucked inside feeder balls, just to keep it interesting.
     As much a routine as feeding fish at the Shedd is, as with human food, there is an aspect to feeding that transcends the physical. The staff, which sometimes names the fish under their care, develops attachments to certain fish and demonstrates those attachments through food.
     "I have a fish that, for me, is very coveted," said Sattler, who has been at the Shedd for 14 years. "It's a beautiful little fish, When I took the exhibit over there was one individual of this specifies, I saw it, it was smaller, hanging out in the corner, I asked, 'What is that fish?' They said, 'That's a boga.' It's beautiful."
     She encouraged the Shedd to collect more bogas.
     "I have a group of them, kind of like my babies," she said. "Even though the exhibit gets fed four times a day, I like to go up to the top and sprinkle food for them."
     Because you love them?
     "Yes," she said. "Because I love them."

                  —Originally published in the Sun-Times March 3, 2013

© Shedd Aquarium/Brenna Hernandez


  1. Thank you. I really enjoy these types of columns. From the paper tube company to the concrete, your interest is evident and makes reading them enjoyable. Thank you for choosing Chicago (or Chicago choosing you). Your columns and blog posts are a very important part of my day. And while that kind of admiration doesn't put any money in your bank account, i hope you appreciate the sincerity of my thanks.

  2. In recent years the internet has allowed us to read newspaper columnists around the world. For me, Neil Sternberg is the best of the best. Neil, in a just world you would be the most read and best paid columnist on the planet.

    Of course the world is not just. For an exercise in understanding how to become the most read and best paid newspaper columnist, go to the DailyMail and read Piers Morgan's column. Resist the urge hit yourself in the head with a hammer.

    Neil, you've chosen the correct path. Keep up the great work.

    1. Thanks Dennis, I appreciate your comment more than you realize. NS

  3. Mazel Tov! You continue writing and your faithful will continue reading.

  4. In your intro alone, I found much to take away, being at a similar stage of life. Thanks.

  5. Happy Anniversary, Neil... and thanks for your great work.

  6. Congrats and best wishes for many more. A true talent or you wouldn't
    have lasted that long. Even if one doesn't always agree, it makes for good reading.

  7. You're one of the reasons we subscribe to daily delivery of the ST.

  8. Neil, I worked with you briefly, long ago, at the Barrington Press. Even then I could tell you were a special talent and am not surprised by your success. I am surprised that you could last that long at one job, given the turmoil in the industry in general and the Sun-Times in particular. Glad things have worked out so well for you there.

  9. When I was working for the Navy, I accompanied a visiting Thai Admiral, who was on a quest for information helpful to that nation's nascent shrimp industry, on a daylong backstage visit to the Aquarium. Where Neil unearthed a world of information I only emerged knowing that maintaining proper salinity in artificial sea water is tricky.

    I worked in three diverse fields over the years and eventually found each repetitive -- the same challenges presented, the same obstacles overcome. That is the ususl portion in a working life but Neil has managed a gig that allows him to also wallow in what John Aubrey called "the sweetness of learning." That he is also a fine, vivid writer is, of course, the reason he's allowed to share what he learns with all of us and get paid for it.


    1. Very nicely said. Maybe reading Neil's blog does improve our grasp of the intricacies of our world and serves as a guide for those of us who struggle to express the inexpressible.


  10. Congratulations on your anniversary Neil. I look forward to my daily dose of EGDD. Thanks for your fine writing.

  11. We are rewarded with the variety and excellence of your columns. Keep up the good work!

  12. Great writing! Interesting topics that other columnists would never think of. Here's to another 30 years. Congratulations!

  13. Hi Neil. Congratulations on your 30 year anniversary! What a terrific accomplishment. You're the best!

  14. Congrats Neil! Thank you for giving me a reason to return here every god damn day.

  15. Thanks everyone for your kind remarks.

  16. Thank you. I really enjoy these types of columns. From the paper tube company to the concrete, your interest is evident and makes reading them enjoyable. Thank you for choosing Chicago (or Chicago choosing you). Your columns and blog posts are a very important part of my day. And while that kind of admiration doesn't put any money in your bank account, i hope you appreciate the sincerity of my thanks.
    and mine as well Neil

  17. And good info on the Aquarium as well.

  18. What FME said above goes for me as well!


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