Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Callum Roberts's "The Unnatural History of the Sea"

Callum Roberts is Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of York in England. He is a prolific author and researcher and has advised U.S., British, and Caribbean governments on the creation of marine reserves.

He applied the "Page 99 Test" to his new book, The Unnatural History of the Sea, and reported the following:
The Unnatural History of the Sea is an account of the effects that 1000 years of fishing and hunting of marine life have had on the oceans. Page 99 provides the opening scene for a chapter on hunting seals in the 18th and early 19th century:

On a remote island in the southern Indian Ocean in 1817, New Englander William Phelps squared up for battle:

“I knew nothing of the habits of the elephant [seal], had never seen one killed, and there I was, with a lance two feet long on a pole-staff of four feet, and seal club, a butcher’s knife and steel, with orders to kill, butcher and cook one of those enormous beasts, the smallest of which looked as if he could dispose of me at a meal. After the boats’ crews were out of sight I took a survey of the amphibious monsters, and selecting the smallest one, commenced the battle according to orders. When I hit him a rap on the nose he reared up on his flippers, opened his mouth, and bellowed furiously. This gave me a chance at his breast; plunging my lance into it, in the direction of where I thought his heart ought to be, I sent the iron in ‘socket deep’. This was all right so far, but I was not quick enough in drawing it out again, and stepping back. He grabbed the lance by the shank with his teeth, and drawing it from the wound, gave it a rapid whicking round; the end of the pole hit me a rap on the head, and sent me sprawling.…My next resort was the seal-club. With this I managed to beat the poor creature’s eyes out, and then, fastening my knife on the pole, I lanced him until he was dead…”

Page 99 gives a taste of the book, although this is one of the most graphic descriptions of the slaughter of marine life I give. Few people today realise just how much fishing and hunting have transformed the oceans, or how far back in time these impacts go. Throughout the book I breathe life back into the seas of old by quoting from eyewitnesses who experienced the abundance first hand. Historical accounts and archaeological remains show us that the oceans once supported throngs of fish, mammals, birds and other wildlife that seem miraculous to us today. The pages of ancient books provoke wonder and excitement with their descriptions. The Caribbean that Columbus sailed into supported millions of turtles. He described the sea as looking like a field strewn with stones so abundant were these creatures. Sailors told of whales so numerous they threw water on deck when they blew and stifled them with the cadaverous stench of their breath. Migrating totoaba shoals of two metre long fish made the waters of the Gulf of California boil, as if shaken by some earth tremor. In the eastern United States and Canada, alewife and salmon pressed upstream to spawn like rivers of molten silver, in some places so thick there seemed more fish than water.

In most places, the bounty has long gone. The seas of today are less diverse, less productive and less beautiful than they were a hundred years ago. But the optimistic message from my book is that marine ecosystems can bounce back when we protect them well in marine reserves. Reserves across the world have shown ample proof of the resilience of our seas in increased fish stocks, recovering habitats and better catches in surrounding fisheries. Establishing national and global networks of marine reserves, together with a few simple reforms to the way we fish, would put the oceans on the road to recovery. They are essential if humanity is to avoid a future without fish.
Visit the official website for The Unnatural History of the Sea.

--Marshal Zeringue