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|3||Run on the Banks||57|
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This may seem an unusual approach, but in 1989 it made perfect sense. In the late 1980s, many of Eastern Europe's Communist regimes thought environmental issues were a safe, apolitical forum through which the public could be allowed to blow off some steam without threatening the existing order. They unwittingly wedged an opening that would help bring down one-party rule. The first mass protests in Hungary were organized against a hydroelectric project being built by Hungary and Czechoslovakia on the Danube River. In 1989, Bulgaria's Ecoglasnost--a group formed to protest air pollution in ruse from a Romanian chemical plant--led the protests that allowed reform Communists to overthrow Todor Zhivkov's hard-line regime. By several accounts, the 1987 Chernobyl disaster prompted Mikhail Gorbachev to move faster and farther with Glasnost than he originally intended. By disclosing the details of this and other accidents and allowing the public to respond, Moscow opened a torrent of uncensored speech and triggered large environmental protest in Latvia, Armenia, and Ukraine, some with nationalist undertones.
My first environmental reporting dealt with a river that led me, with time, to the sea. Hungarians were outraged when newly independent Slovakia completed its half of the controversial Gabcikovo-Nagymaros Hydroelectric project and used it to divert the Danube--the inter-state boundary--into Slovakia for several miles. The Danube is central to Hungary's identity, the subject of waltzes, poems, and paintings. Slovakia's ex-Communist leaders chose the Gabcikovo dam as the central symbol of their nation's reawakening. Relations between the two nations turned icy but, in the end, cooler heads prevailed.
The Danube, however, did not. The sewers of Bratislava, the Slovak capital, emptied directly into the river which, once diverted, no longer passed through the wetlands region that once cleansed it. At first I focused on the implications for Budapest's water supply, which came from the river. Later I became interested in the overall health of the river system, which was very poor. Across a wide swath of Europe, cities, fields, livestock pens, and factories dumped their wastes into the Danube, which conveyed the pollution into the Black Sea. Soon news services in Bulgaria, Romania, and the USSR carried reports of a shocking environmental catastrophe. Through a combination of long-and short-term stresses, humans had triggered the sudden, rapid destruction of life in an entire sea.
On vacation in Maine I heard the news that the Grand Banks, perhaps the world's most productive fishery, had been closed for lack of cod. The Georges Bank off New England soon followed. When I got back to Europe, violent conflicts between British and Spanish fishermen made front-page news; the root problem was that there weren't enough fish to go around. A Norwegian environmental group revealed that the USSR had dumped sixteen nuclear reactors, most with their spent fuel assemblies, in to the Kara Sea. Pacific salmon, Atlantic bluefin tuna, and North Atlantic swordfish were now scarce. A college classmate said something off-handedly about how he thought people were killing the oceans. At the time I dismissed the idea as far-fetched, maybe even hysterical, yet it stuck in my mind, gnawing quietly on the edges of my attention. But back in the Balkans I had other, more immediate things to focus on.
In early 1997, I finished a stint covering the international community's operations in postwar Bosnia-Herzegovina and decided I'd finally had my fill of Balkan fascism and the response of the West. I returned home t Maine and, between short assignments overseas, found myself researching the state of the marine environment.
At first it was only to satisfy my own curiosity. I grew up on a nd around the sea and had felt its pull while living in landlocked Budapest, Zagreb, and Sarajevo; if something systemic were happening to the northwest Atlantic or the wider ocean, I guess I wanted to know about it sooner rather than later. The more I read, the more scientists I talked to , the clearer it became that the oceans were in serious trouble.
So I did what I usually do. I packed my bags and headed off to see for myself. For a year and a half I crisscrossed the world ocean, from the foggy North Atlantic to fecund bayous, from balmy island shores in the Caribbean and equatorial Pacific to the frigid, glaciated coasts of Antarctica. I talked with fishermen and scientists, officials and activists, divers and sailors, religious missionaries and government ministers. In the end, I hid away in cabins on a research ship, the coast of Maine, and the central arteries of the nation's capital to write this book.
Ocean's End begins, as did my own journey, on the Black Sea, whose near-total destruction provides a cautionary tale of what can happen when marine environments are treated with reckless abandon. Chapter 2 provides an overview of the oceans, their central role in the story of life on Earth, and the crises they confront.
People tend to think of the crises in the oceans almost entirely in terms of fish and fisheries, and chapter 3 introduces these problems, describing the sad destruction of Grand Banks cod and, in the process, the basis of Newfoundland society. But fishing is only a small part of the picture. Chapter 4 deals with the interrelationship of land and sea and shows how the reengineering of the Mississippi River basin triggered enormous ecological disruptions not only in the Gulf of Mexico but throughout Louisiana's bayou country. For chapter 5 I traveled to Belize to investigate the decline of coral reefs and to dive with scientists on both damaged and pristine reefs.
Global change dominates chapters 6 and 7. The first covers a trip to the Republic of the Marshall Islands, one of several nations that face total destruction in the face of rising seas. The latter describes my journey to the Antarctic Peninsula, which lies on the front lines of global warming and ozone depletion.
The final chapter offers some practical, real-world strategies for remedying our dysfunctional relationship with the oceans, integrating the ideas of many people who have devoted their lives to marine resource management. The political and social challenges to adopting these measures are significant, but nowhere near as huge as the emerging crisis beneath the waves. We've proved at least two age-old adages to be incorrect: The oceans are not endless, and we can't safely assume that there will always be other fish within them.