"The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea"

January 15, 2013

Book Shelf


The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea

By Callum Roberts
Viking Adult, $30


Whether you read only a single book or are actively engaged in reporting on marine issues, Callum Roberts has organized the material for you in The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea.

Its initial summary of the state of the oceans is a discouraging tale of assault leading to ecosystem collapse. “The scale of our ignorance of these interconnections is breathtaking,” wrote Roberts, whose first book, The Unnatural History of the Sea, won SEJ’s Rachel Carson Environment Book Award in 2008.

But after piling up facts, he presents solutions and points the way to a better future “to reverse long-term trends of depletion and degradation … and improve the quality of everyone’s lives.”

Roberts sets out to examine assaults being committed against the ocean, overfishing and acidification being among the worst. Also examined are littering issues, such as plastic garbage entangling animals on the outside and choking their digestion on the inside. Roberts wrote about how 250-decibel seismic testing for oil and gas reserves added to ship noise, and how wind turbines interfere with marine animal communication.

Other issues include invasive species and increased disease in an environment already compromised by sludge dumping, plus dead zones caused by agricultural runoff. Seabed mining is on the horizon, ready to add its destructive effects to the mess.

“The sea is becoming more hostile to life, and not just for the creatures that swim, scuttle or crawl beneath the waves, but for us, too,” he wrote.

Roberts spends the second part of the book on conservation measures that are succeeding. Ultimately, he projects that a third of the oceans needs to be protected to sustain fisheries’ production and protect diversity. That would be a big step up from the current level of 1.6 percent under protection.

“We must reinvent the concept of social responsibility for a crowded planet,” he wrote. He provides evidence that, with protection, even depleted fish stocks and bleached coral reefs can recover.

Roberts has been compared to Rachel Carson for his poetic writing. His enthusiasm shines through: News that six high-seas areas covering 111,000 square miles of ocean have been protected prompted him to write that he “felt like pulling my shirt off and running around the room in a soccer player’s goal celebration.”

The book opens by bringing the reader along on his honeymoon, doing fieldwork research on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. His enchantment is dashed over the years, as warming oceans bleach corals and devastate that ecosystem. His description of tingling skin as copepods swarmed over his body — a sea of juicy plankton that attracted manta rays in the Maldives — made my skin tingle, as well.

Photos in The Ocean of Life show how fishing has changed. From goliath groupers to snappers and grunts measured in inches, fishermen pose proudly with their catch.

The final third of his book is devoted to a bold and ambitious plan to rebuild seas. In addition to the evidence for marine protected areas, he explores the shifting political winds that influence whether they are protected well enough to make a difference. He addresses consumer confusion about consuming fish more thoughtfully, despite the pitfalls. He cites a dinner given by wealthy philanthropists for conservationists and government officials to discuss overfishing, which began with what was billed as “hand-dived Loch Fyne scallops,” but turned out to be the bounty of a scallop dredge, a wasteful and destructive method, “embarrassment served with the very first course.”

“We don’t have to look on helplessly as all that we love about the sea is sullied,” he writes. “Change for good is within our reach.”

Christine Heinrichs is a freelance writer and SEJ member based on California's Central Coast. When she isn't in the backyard with her chickens, she's out observing elephant seals and otters.

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