The Unnatural History of the Sea

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Overview

Humanity can make short work of the oceans’ creatures. In 1741, hungry explorers discovered herds of Steller’s sea cow in the Bering Strait, and in less than thirty years, the amiable beast had been harpooned into extinction. It’s a classic story, but a key fact is often omitted. Bering Island was the last redoubt of a species that had been decimated by hunting and habitat loss years before the
explorers set sail.
 
As Callum M. Roberts reveals in The Unnatural History of the Sea, the oceans’ bounty didn’t disappear overnight. While today’s fishing industry is ruthlessly efficient, intense exploitation began not in the modern era, or even with the dawn of industrialization, but in the eleventh century in medieval Europe. Roberts explores this long and colorful history of commercial fishing, taking readers around the world and through the centuries to witness the transformation of the seas.

 
Drawing on firsthand accounts of early explorers, pirates, merchants, fishers, and travelers, the book recreates the oceans of the past: waters teeming with whales, sea lions, sea otters, turtles, and giant fish. The abundance of marine life described by fifteenth century seafarers is almost unimaginable today, but Roberts both brings it alive and artfully traces its depletion. Collapsing fisheries, he shows, are simply the latest chapter in a long history of unfettered commercialization of the seas.
 
The story does not end with an empty ocean. Instead, Roberts describes how we might restore the splendor and prosperity of the seas through smarter management of our resources and some simple restraint. From the coasts of Florida to New Zealand, marine reserves have fostered spectacular recovery of plants and animals to levels not seen in a century. They prove that history need not repeat itself: we can leave the oceans richer than we found them.

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Editorial Reviews

Jonathan Yardley
What informed scientists now know, as Callum Roberts writes in this measured but passionate and immensely important book—a trenchant, persuasive synopsis of existing scholarship augmented by the author's own research—is that the resources of the sea are as limited as those of land and air, and that our capacity penchant for exploiting them to the point of extinction is appalling…It is…nothing less than a global catastrophe, about which Callum Roberts has issued a powerful, galvanizing call to arms.
—The Washington Post
Publishers Weekly

Marine conservation biologist Roberts presents a devastating account of the effects of fishing on the sea. Once abundant aquatic life has declined to the point where "we probably have less than five percent of the total mass of fish that once swam in Europe's seas," he states. Intensive fishing since medieval times has caused this decline gradually over the centuries, so that the fish-deprived sea seems normal to today's generations. Industrial fishing, especially trawling, has virtually eliminated entire habitats, including cod in Canada, oysters in Chesapeake Bay and herring in the North Sea. Now, sophisticated devices such as sonar depth sensors are being used to plunder that last frontier, the deep sea. Callum's alarming conclusion is that by the year 2048, "fisheries for all the fish and shellfish species we exploit today will have collapsed." He argues persuasively for the establishment of marine reserves-protected areas where fish stocks have a chance to recover. His impressive book, replete with quotations from the reports of early explorers, merchants and travelers describing seas teeming with life that's unimaginable today, is a vivid reminder of what we've lost and a plea to save what is left and help the sea recover some of its earlier bounty. Illus. not seen by PW. (Aug. 15)

Copyright 2007 Reed Business Information
Library Journal

Roberts (marine conservation, Univ. of York) dramatically contrasts historical accounts of the unbelievable abundance of all types of marine life with descriptions of the current scarcity and extinction of many species of fish around the world. His well-documented and objective study of the history of fishing and overfishing since the 11th century traces the gradual depletion of the traditional cod, herring, haddock, and flounder fisheries, as well as whale, seal, and walrus populations. Once-busy fishing ports are now sleepy towns, witnesses to the growing scarcity of previously plentiful species caused by trawling gear, sonar depth sensors, and geographic positioning systems that enable commercial fishing fleets to catch huge amounts of fish in less time while also doing unimaginable physical harm to the ocean bottom and disturbing ecological balances. As Richard Ellis (The Empty Ocean) and Charles Clover (The End of the Line) have pointed out, decades of international efforts at marine management have been ineffectual. Roberts proposes basic changes in landings statistics and quotas, as well as designating at least 30 percent of the world's oceans as marine reserves. Sadly, one wonders how many more books on this subject will have to be published before any change is effected. For public and academic marine science and environmental collections.
—Judith B. Barnett

Greenpeace

"Out of sight, out of mind - the wholesale destruction of marine life under the waves by an increasingly rapacious fishing industry has largely gone unnoticed.  This eloquent and inspiring book not only reveals the true extent of this loss but also tells of the oceans’ amazing powers of regeneration.  A long-time advocate for setting aside large areas of ocean as marine reserves and allowing nature to do her own thing, Professor Roberts makes the case crystal clear as to why politicians and society as a whole must act now if we are to save our oceans and the beauty and the bounty they contain."

— Richard Page

Washington Post

(First review): "Passionate and immensely important book . . . ."

— Jonathan Yardley

Booklist

"Roberts is eloquent and persuasive as he recounts centuries of ill-managed fishery planning, and allows those who have directly experienced dramatic changes in the oceans to speak for themselves....Thoughtful, inspiring, devastating, and powerful, Roberts' comprehensive, welcoming, and compelling approach to an urgent subject conveys large problems in a succinct and involving manner. Readers won't be able to put it down."
Philadelphia Inquirer

"So fascinating, so well-written, so rich with detail…. I couldn't put this book down."
Charleston Post & Courier

"Roberts' powerful, almost poetic account of the history of fishing and its deleterious effects on the sea at once alarms and informs."

— Bob Knight

Washington Post Book World

Named one of the Washington Post's "10 Best of the Year"

— Jonathan Yardley

Honolulu Advertiser

"The accounts presented in The Unnatural History of the Sea provide compelling comparison benchmarks and expose the harm done by mankind's continued view of wildlife solely as commodity."
Audubon magazine
"The Unnatural History of the Sea is not just another lament over bygone environmental conditions. Roberts highlights the value of conservation efforts, such as marine reserves (areas off-limits to fishing), reminding readers that an awareness of history is essential to designing such programs.”
Conservation magazine
“[Roberts] argues that nearly 30 percent of the world’s oceans should be set aside as Marine Protected Areas, and his vivid accounts of centuries of relentless harvesting suggest that drastic measures are in order.”
and author of The World According to Pimm

“Oceans seem vast and untrammeled, but we have wrecked their living resources from offshore to the depths and to the limits of Antarctic ice. Callum Roberts tells this story with passion and elegance, and shows us what we must do to get our marine life back.”

— Stuart Pimm, winner of the 2006 Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences

Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley
(First review): "Passionate and immensely important book . . . ."
Explorer in Residence, National Geographic Society - Sylvia Earle

"Thank you, Callum Roberts, for your riveting, eloquent, compelling and urgently important saga of what may be the greatest environmental tragedy of our time: the relentless, wholesale extraction of ocean wildlife globally. Thank you, too, for inspiring hope that we still have a chance to reverse the disastrous decline of the ocean, and thus secure our own future, as well as that of fish, whales and clams."
Philadelphia Inquirer - Sandy Bauers
“So fascinating, so well-written, so rich with detail…. I couldn't put this book down.”
Greenpeace - Richard Page

"Out of sight, out of mind—the wholesale destruction of marine life under the waves by an increasingly rapacious fishing industry has largely gone unnoticed. This eloquent and inspiring book not only reveals the true extent of this loss but also tells of the oceans' amazing powers of regeneration. A long-time advocate for setting aside large areas of ocean as marine reserves and allowing nature to do her own thing, Professor Roberts makes the case crystal clear as to why politicians and society as a whole must act now if we are to save our oceans and the beauty and the bounty they contain."
Charleston Post & Courier - Bob Knight
"Roberts' powerful, almost poetic account of the history of fishing and its deleterious effects on the sea at once alarms and informs."
winner of the 2006 Heineken Prize for Environmental Sciences - Stuart Pimm

"Oceans seem vast and untrammeled, but we have wrecked their living resources from offshore to the depths and to the limits of Antarctic ice. Callum Roberts tells this story with passion and elegance, and shows us what we must do to get our marine life back."
Charleston Post and Courier

"Roberts' powerful, almost poetic account of the history of fishing and its deleterious effects on the sea at once alarms and informs."
Conservation

"[Roberts] argues that nearly 30 percent of the world's oceans should be set aside as Marine Protected Areas, and his vivid accounts of centuries of relentless harvesting suggest that drastic measures are in order."
The Washington Post Book World

"10 Best of the Year"
The Washington Post

"Passionate and immensely important book . . . ."
Audubon

"The Unnatural History of the Sea is not just another lament over bygone environmental conditions. Roberts highlights the value of conservation efforts, such as marine reserves (areas off-limits to fishing), reminding readers that an awareness of history is essential to designing such programs."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781597261029
  • Publisher: Island Press
  • Publication date: 7/30/2007
  • Edition description: 1
  • Pages: 394
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

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

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