Job Board Highlights
New Conservation Documents

via ConserveOnline connecting conservation practitioners worldwide

Announcements

Looking for Contributors -Contact us, if you would like to profile new studies related to your area of interest.

Sign up for our newsletter - We profile the latest conservation studies from over 100 journals plus new funding opportunities... straight to your email.

Monday
Jul202009

The unnatural history of the sea: book review

by Callum Roberts
Island Press, 2007, 495 pp.
Reviewed by Rob Goldstein

Looking at the history of fishing to understand the current state of the sea...
Callum Roberts' book, The Unnatural History of the Sea, proceeds with a logical premise - we must look at the history of human exploitation of the ocean, particularly industrial fishing, if we want to understand the extent to which we have altered marine ecology. From this simple idea, Roberts constructs an epic history of fisheries and their tragic transformation of the oceans.

The narrative begins chronologically with the origins of intensive fishing in the middle ages and continues all the way to the modern era of industrial fisheries. Certain chapters focus on specific industries - e.g. whaling, seals, cod, etc - while other chapters focus on the exploitation of particular ecosystems - e.g. coral reefs, estuaries, etc. Roberts, professor of marine conservation at University of York, conducted extensive historical research and incorporates hundreds of accounts from fisherman, merchants, pirates, naturalists and others. These accounts are particularly important in reconstructing what the condition of the ocean may have been like prior to industrial fishing given that comprehensive fisheries data collection is only decades old. In the absence of scientific records, Roberts uses these accounts as qualitative data points to support his thesis - namely that intensive fishing of the last 1000 years has led to a radical decrease in population size and range of many species critical to ecosystem health and the oceans of today are a thoroughly degraded remnant of what once existed. For example, he writes about the Chesapeake Bay:

Significantly, Smith and other seventeenth-century writers name animals that are today extremely rare in the bay. Pilot or killer whales and other even larger whales where then regular visitors to the Chesapeake. A 54 foot whale was cornered and killed in the James River in 1746, for example…Porpoises too were widespread…Diamondback terrapins also bred prolifically in the Chesapeake and other bays and rivers and were esteemed as food.

While some scientists may question the use of historical accounts for establishing past ecological conditions, this qualitative data is important for avoiding the curse of 'shifting baselines.' Shifting baselines occur when ecological degradation is large enough over a long enough period of time that scientists, policy makers, and the general public wrongly assume that a more recent degraded condition is the actual natural state. Roberts argues that this is the case with the sea given that the beginning of systematic collection of fisheries data is recent while degradation of the ocean stretches back much farther. This can have negative implications for the work of managers and policy makers who set fishing quotas or conservation targets based on assumptions of historical abundance.

American colonists posing with sturgeon, 18 feet long and weighing up to 1800 poundsWhile the devestation to the ocean that Robert's decribes is tragic, the book itself is much more engaging than depressing. As destructive as fishing has been, I couldn't help but find fascinating the colorful stories of the fisherman, whalers, explorers, pirates, and others sailing to farthest reaches of the globe with crazy adventures witnessing and describing a fertile ocean that is unlike anything we know today. Roberts really brings this history to life. He has a gift for writing and an obvious affection for the material, but he also lets these interesting historical accounts speak for themselves.

In the last several chapters of the book, Roberts sharpens his criticism of modern fishing - particularly the most destructive and unnecessary practices such as bottom trawling. He also criticizes fisheries managers and policy makers for their inadequacies such as taking a single species approach to management that ignores the complex nature of ocean ecology. Finally, Roberts offers a seven step plan for ocean recovery with the greatest emphasis given to establishing an extensive system of marine reserves that bans fishing. The most optimistic aspect of the book is that nations are finally starting to take some of these steps. Hopefully, it's not too late to recover some of the ocean's lost glory.

EmailEmail Article to Friend

References (10)

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • Response
    Response: soldes lancel 2013
    The unnatural history of the sea: book review - Conservation News - Conservation Maven
  • Response
    Response: moncler Doudoune
    The unnatural history of the sea: book review - Conservation News - Conservation Maven
  • Response
    Response: moncler donna
    The unnatural history of the sea: book review - Conservation News - Conservation Maven
  • Response
    The unnatural history of the sea: book review - Conservation News - Conservation Maven
  • Response
    The unnatural history of the sea: book review - Conservation News - Conservation Maven
  • Response
    Response: longchamp outlet
    The unnatural history of the sea: book review - Conservation News - Conservation Maven
  • Response
    Response: indexing service
    Lovely Web-site, Stick to the great job. Regards!
  • Response
    Response: alberta camp jobs
    The unnatural history of the sea: book review - Conservation News - Conservation Maven
  • Response
    Response: Kristina Vukich
    I found a great...
  • Response
    http://www.papasurvey.xyz/

Reader Comments

There are no comments for this journal entry. To create a new comment, use the form below.

PostPost a New Comment

Enter your information below to add a new comment.

My response is on my own website »
Author Email (optional):
Author URL (optional):
Post:
 
All HTML will be escaped. Hyperlinks will be created for URLs automatically.