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Inquirer 23 Sep 07
Horror stories from 'History of the Sea'
By Sandy Bauers Contra Costa Times
In 2005, scientists aboard a research vessel in the northwest Atlantic -- about as far from land as possible -- waited anxiously during the two hours it took their small, remotely operated submersible to make its descent to the summit of a mid-ocean peak more than half a mile below.
What would they see?
They pondered the possibilities, but still were unprepared for what eventually came into view. They stared with horror at a "battered landscape," a mountaintop "torn up, crushed and crumbled."
One of the last bastions of the sea had not been remote enough. Russian fishing trawlers had dragged their gear repeatedly atop the mountain.
Across the world's oceans, underwater mountains -- "seamounts" -- raked by fishing gear deployed by captains looking ever farther for an ever-shrinking supply of fish are "shocking in their sterility," notes Callum Roberts in probably one of the most disturbing fisheries books written to date.
The damage, he said, "will last for generations, if indeed it can ever be repaired."
Is no fish safe, no habitat spared? Apparently not.
Most people think overfishing is a modern phenomenon. But Roberts, professor of marine conservation at the University of York in England, charts an authoritative, dismal chronology of fisheries depletion and mismanagement lasting for centuries.
As European rivers became choked with pollution and clogged with silt -- not to mention blocked by weirs that snagged every fish that dared enter -- fishermen sought new stocks of fish in the near oceans.
Steam engines granted access to more of the oceans, even as railroads created new inland markets. As aquatic species declined and market prices rose, humans simply invented better methods to extract what was left.
Stranded explorers on Bering Island in the Bering Sea in 1740 clubbed so many otters that the ever-retreating circle of animals over the course of a single winter -- two miles, five miles, 12 miles, then 25 miles -- prompted them to turn to the docile sea cow. They lived in herds, ate sea grasses and were all too easy to catch.
Word of this rich source of food, plus valuable seal and otter pelts, spread. Less than three decades later, in 1768, the last sea cow on Bering Island -- indeed, the last one anywhere -- was killed.
On and on Roberts' bleak saga goes, from the North Sea to the Gulf of California to Jamaica to, finally, the farthest reaches of the deepest seas. From cod to oysters, bluefin tuna, herring, whales, grouper, turtles.
As early as Page 52, I wrote in my notes, "depressing," and that feeling lasted for hundreds of more pages. At times, I hardly knew whether to hurl the book from the nearest window or just jump myself.
Except that it was so fascinating, so well-written, so rich with detail. And full of convincing, distressing statistics. Some people can't take their eyes off the screen during a horror movie. I couldn't put this book down.
Part of Roberts' point is to emphasize what we've lost. He maintains that with each succeeding human generation, the fisheries "baseline" shifts. Fisheries managers seek a return to what was there when they were young, not what was there decades or centuries ago.
But from historical records, Roberts paints a new picture of the planet's waters as a teeming resource.
When Capt. John Smith came to the Chesapeake in 1608, fish were so thick his crew attempted to catch them with frying pans. They failed, of course, but still: Imagine fish so plentiful that someone would think it worth trying.
And fish really were bigger way back when.
Roberts blames not just ineffective and shortsighted fisheries management, but also what is known as "the tragedy of the commons."
He says it arises "when many people have access to a desired but limited resource that nobody owns or nobody can control."
Why, for instance, should Arctic sealers of the 1800s leave any animals behind when the next ship would only take them anyway?
Fortunately, all is not lost. Why bother to write this book if it were? As with so many environmental stories of our age, Roberts tells us that while things look grim and time is short, if we act quickly and decisively, there's still hope.
Alas, after all this aquatic death and destruction, he spends only 42 pages laying out his blueprint for turning things around.
Among other tactics, including a few traditional ones like less fishing, the cornerstone of his plan is a vast network of large marine sanctuaries, intense breeding grounds where aquatic ecosystems will recover and, given that fish swim, expand beyond their boundaries.
Where they exist, they have spawned not just fish, but also success stories. Maybe he'll tell us more about them in his next book.
"The Unnatural History of the Sea"
Island Press $28 394 pp
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