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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

The Washington Post

"Passionate and immensely important book . . . ."

"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."
The Washington Post Book World - Jonathan Yardley's 10 best books of the year

"[Callum] Roberts's book is invaluable, not to mention deeply disturbing."

"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


"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."

"[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."
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

The Washington Post Book World
"10 Best of the Year"
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781597265775
  • Publisher: Island Press
  • Publication date: 1/5/2009
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 2
  • Pages: 456
  • Sales rank: 793,334
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 1.10 (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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Read an Excerpt

The Unnatural History of the Sea

By Callum Roberts


Copyright © 2007 Callum M. Roberts
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-577-5


The End of Innocence

The swell lifted Bering's ship from behind, propelling it into a wall of water ahead. When the boat surged free, a torrent of green and pearl sea poured from the bow, throwing spray over a lone figure who clung to the rigging. Above him, only the topsails were hoisted, their worn canvas threatening to tear off at any moment in the savage late October gale. Despite high winds and mountainous North Pacific seas, Georg Steller preferred conditions here on deck to those in his fetid, vermin-infested quarters below.

Steller's mood was as dark as the sea around him. It was late autumn 1741 and his journey with Captain Commander Vitus Bering's expedition to North America had begun five months earlier from the Kamchatka peninsula, extreme outpost of imperial Russia. The thirty-one-year-old German naturalist and doctor was in the service of the Russian Academy of Sciences and had embarked on this voyage of discovery with high hopes: as part of Bering's expedition he would help fill in one of the few remaining blank regions on the world map. The expedition had succeeded in finding the North American coast, but day after day of dreadful weather meant that instead of returning in glory, crew members were fighting for survival. Most were wracked by scurvy, Bering having ignored Steller's advice to collect plants to ward off the disease, and now almost daily, dead were being tossed over the side. "Our ship was like a piece of dead wood, with none to direct it; we had to drift hither and thither at the whim of the winds and waves," wrote First Officer Sven Waxell, who had assumed command from the sick Bering:

When it came to a man's turn at the helm, he was dragged to it by two others of the invalids who were still able to walk a little, and set down at the wheel. There he had to sit and steer as well as he could, and when he could sit no more, he had to be replaced by another in no better case than he.... Being late in the year ... the winds were violent, the nights long and dark, to say nothing of the snow, hail and rain. We did not know what obstacles might lie ahead of us, and so had to count with the possibility that any moment something might come to finish us off.

By the dawn of the eighteenth century, two hundred years of European exploration had sketched out much of the world's coastline. But the North Pacific, stretching from eastern Russia and Japan to North America, and the Southern Ocean, the name given to the waters around Antarctica, remained unknown and thereby enticing to adventurers of the day. The North Pacific was particularly intriguing, for through it might lie a "northwest passage," a shortcut for trade between Europe and China. Many explorers had already searched for such a passage from the direction of Greenland, and in 1610 Henry Hudson had paid for the attempt with his life. But no one had attempted the journey from the west, so whether Asia and North America were separate or joined was still a matter of speculation. On a visit to Paris in 1717, Peter the Great of Russia was asked by French academicians for permission to explore the lands of east Asia. He refused, announcing that he would mount an expedition to settle the question himself, and in the process map the eastern boundaries of his empire.

Nearly 8,000 kilometers (5,000 miles) separate St. Petersburg from Kamchatka, and at that time most was trackless forest, mountain, and swamp. True to his word, Peter did mount expeditions to explore this vast expanse, and on his deathbed in 1725 he drafted orders for a sea expedition to determine whether Russia and North America were joined. His wife, Empress Catherine, saw his wish through, appointing Vitus Bering, a forty-four-year-old Dane and Russian naval officer, as the expedition's leader. After three years of preparation, Bering sailed initially from Kamchatka on July 14, 1728, but fearful of becoming icebound, he turned back soon after passing the Chukchi Peninsula, Asia's easternmost point, through what would become known as the Bering Strait. Catherine's successor, Empress Anna, agreed to sponsor a second Bering expedition, one that soon grew to far exceed the first in scope, portending in scale and ambition Russia's space program of the twentieth century. In fact, Bering had taken charge of what had become four distinct expeditions: one to explore the Arctic coast of Russia, a second to chart the Kamchatka peninsula, a third to sail south from Kamchatka to Japan, and the fourth, his own voyage to America. It would take nine years and the efforts of three thousand people, many of them prisoners, just to equip the various voyages.

Steller was a late addition to the expedition to America, replacing a naturalist for whom the rigors of life on the eastern frontier had proven too much. A young, energetic, and enthusiastic man, Steller quickly befriended Bering. He had a burning passion for exploration and hoped that the expedition would make his own reputation as a naturalist.

On June 4, 1740, the St. Peter, under Bering's command, and the St. Paul, a sister ship that soon was separated in a storm, finally set sail in search of America. The strain of ten years of preparation already showed in Bering, who was now fifty-nine.

Keeping well south of the latitudes of the Aleutian Islands, the St. Peter encountered no land for nearly a month. Steller paced the deck incessantly, scanning the horizon. On July 15, he saw a great mountain in the distance, but by the time he called others it had become shrouded in mist and he was dismissed for seeing apparitions. The next day the clouds lifted, revealing what is now Alaska.

The crew were jubilant, but Bering himself remained morose. The safety of the ship and its crew, he later told Steller, weighed heavily on him. They were far from home, provisions were short, and contrary winds might delay their return. But Steller could think only of the excitement of discovery. Offshore winds prevented a landing until July 20, and then only reluctantly did Bering allow Steller to join a shore party sent for water to Kayak Island. The exasperated Steller, denied more than a brief day on land, exclaimed, "We have come only to take American water to Asia!" As a joke, Bering ordered trumpets to be sounded as Steller left the ship. But Steller, with the help of his Cossack servant, made the most of the trip, collecting specimens, hiking along the coast and into the forest where they discovered a cache of provisions and a fireplace, hastily abandoned by Native Americans.

The next day, Bering rose early, came on deck, and gave the extraordinary order to weigh anchor for home, even before half the water barrels had been refilled. After a storm some weeks later drove the St. Peter back toward land, Bering, worried by the shallow sea near the islands, headed south, wasting many days of fair winds, according to Steller, that could instead have carried them west. Steller passed his time as best he could, making notes on the abundant life in these virgin seas:

During the time we spent close by the land we constantly saw large numbers of fur seals, other seals, sea otters, sea lions, and porpoises.... Very often I saw whales, no longer singly, but in pairs, moving along with and behind each other... which gave me the idea this time was destined for their mating period.

Toward the end of August, a violent storm impeded further progress. Water was running low, and men were falling ill from scurvy, Bering among them. On August 30, the ship dropped anchor off a group of islands where the crew buried the first of their number to die from scurvy. Steller was among the first ashore with the watering party. Finding a safe freshwater spring at a distance from the beach, he alerted the others, but, incredibly, both men and officers rejected his advice, preferring to fill the barrels with brackish water from a pool on the beach. Steller knew this could be a fatal decision and that bad water would probably intensify their scurvy, but there was little he could do. His request for a few men to assist in gathering herbs with which to fight the scurvy was likewise scorned, so he and his assistant, Plenisner, collected as many herbs as they could, which was only enough for themselves and the bedridden Bering. It was during this stopover of the St. Peter that the crew made their only contact with Native Americans. Steller was delighted to find people at last, and exchanged trinkets with them. But warning gunshots were fired when the natives attempted to detain two crewmen ashore, and the St. Peter sailed off in a hurry.

Starting in late September, storm after storm battered the ship, and sickness and death spread through the crew. It looked for a time as if Bering and his crew would perish and the tale of their discoveries never be told. Then, on November 5, they sighted land. According to Steller,

How great and extraordinary was the joy of everyone over this sight is indescribable. The half-dead crawled out to see it.... The very sick Captain-Commander was himself not a little cheered.

Many of the officers believed this was Kamchatka, but Steller, Bering, and some others were doubtful. They steered the ship for the only visible bay, dropping anchor by moonlight. But relief was short lived, for half an hour later heavy surf snapped first one anchor rope and then another. Miraculously, a huge wave lifted the boat over a reef that guarded the bay's mouth and into calm water beyond where they cast a final anchor. For the time being they were safe.

Having eaten herbs to protect them from scurvy, Steller and his Cossack servant were among the few able-bodied men left. The next day, they headed for shore to reconnoiter. Steller records,

We were not yet on the beach when something struck us as strange, namely, some sea otters came from the shore toward us into the sea.

To Steller this was odd because on Kamchatka, where they were hunted, otters were shy. The ones here had never encountered people, he concluded, which meant that it could not be Kamchatka. His opinion strengthened after Plenisner shot eight blue foxes, whose numbers, fatness, and lack of fear also greatly surprised him. What finally clinched the argument was their first encounter with sea cows, which Plenisner swore could not be found in Kamchatka. And so Steller realized they were stranded on an island, later named Bering Island, which turned out to be nearly 200 kilometers (125 miles) east of Kamchatka.

Their new island prison was mountainous and so barren it had not a single tree. Steep cliffs intersected by deep, narrow valleys fronted the east coast, where they landed. Apart from the bay where the St. Peter lay at anchor, high tide left much of the shoreline impassable and at low tide exposed 2 to 5 kilometers (1 to 3 miles) of rocky shelf. Steller remarked that it was a miracle they had survived, since attempting to land anywhere else on that coast would have destroyed the boat.

Steller and the few other able-bodied men began setting up camp. They knew the ship could not survive a major storm. Snow already capped the mountains, and winter was imminent. It was now that Steller's experiences with the native people of Kamchatka, the Kamchadals, proved invaluable. He organized shelter for the crew, copying the Kamchadals' sod-roofed, half-underground huts. This time the men accepted his advice, hollowing out crude dwellings amid the dunes and stretching canvas sails over them to keep out the weather. A hole at the center let out smoke.

While the huts were being dug, many survivors among the sick brought ashore lay in the open with little to protect them from wind and sleet. The dead and even some of the living, incapacitated by scurvy, were attacked and mutilated by blue foxes that descended on the camp. Of this dreadful time, Steller wrote,

One screamed because he was cold, another from hunger and thirst, as the mouths of many were in such a wretched state from scurvy, that they could not eat anything on account of the great pain because the gums were swollen up like a sponge, brown-black and grown high over the teeth and covering them.

Their immediate concern was survival, and hunting parties were organized to bring in meat, mainly ptarmigan and sea otter. With an urgency precipitated by the coming winter, Steller collected plants to treat the sick. Although there were more deaths, many began to recover over the following weeks, and by early December, scurvy lost its grip. There was nothing, however, that Steller could do for Bering, who lay immobile and half buried in the sand. When the men tried to dig him out, he remonstrated that the "deeper in the ground I lie, the warmer I am." He died on December 8, as Steller recorded, "more from hunger, cold, thirst, vermin and grief than from a disease." Of the seventy-eight men who embarked with Bering, only forty-six were left.

As winter set in, the land disappeared under deep snow But food remained plentiful in the form of sea mammals. The naïve sea otters could still be approached and clubbed with ease. The otters, wrote Steller,

at all seasons of the year, more, however, during the winter than in summer, leave the sea in order to sleep, rest, and play all sorts of games with each other ... it is a beautiful and pleasing animal, cunning and amusing in its habits, and at the same time ingratiating and amorous. Seen when they are running, the gloss of their hair surpasses the blackest velvet.

When the expedition first reached Bering Island, otters were abundant and encountered in groups of tens, sometimes up to a hundred. But with hunting their numbers soon thinned, and the remaining animals eventually became wary, forcing men to seek quarry farther afield, then to drag the carcasses home over difficult terrain. In November and December, they could catch otters 3 to 4 kilometers from the camp (2 miles), in January 6 to 8 kilometers (4 to 5 miles), in February 20 kilometers (12 miles), and in March and April they had to travel up to 40 kilometers away (25 miles).

Otters provided a steady food supply through winter, but their rich pelts also fueled a new disease to afflict the bored men—gambling. Steller was appalled by this development, as much for its decimation of their food supply as for what he saw as its immorality. Hundreds of otters were destroyed for the price of their pelts alone, their meat then being left for scavenging foxes. In fact, this decline in otter numbers threatened the men's chances of escaping the island. By good fortune the St. Peter had not been battered to pieces but driven ashore by a storm and grounded high on the beach. The expedition resolved to build a new ship out of the old when spring came, but as the snows melted, there was so little game left near the camp that the men had to spend much of their time on long hunting trips rather than helping with construction.

Other options at first appeared limited. Although sea lions, later named after Steller, were present around the island throughout the year, they were large and fierce, and the men feared to attack them. Fortunately, vast herds of fur seals arriving to breed in April and May provided an alternative food source. But because the seals gathered on the west shore of the island, their capture still required arduous treks over the mountains. It was at this time that the men turned their attention to an animal that had actually been nearby all winter—the sea cow. Steller's description of the sea cow remains one of the only eyewitness accounts, for the beast survived but a brief moment in time following its discovery.


Excerpted from The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts. Copyright © 2007 Callum M. Roberts. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

PART I. Explorers and Exploiters in the Age of Plenty
Chapter 1. The End of Innocence
Chapter 2. The Origins of Intensive Fishing
Chapter 3. Newfound Lands
Chapter 4. More Fish than Water
Chapter 5. Plunder of the Caribbean
Chapter 6. The Age of Merchant Adventurers
Chapter 7. Whaling: The First Global Industry
Chapter 8. To the Ends of the Earth for Seals
Chapter 9. The Great Fisheries of Europe
Chapter 10. The First Trawling Revolution
Chapter 11. The Dawn of Industrial Fishing
PART II. The Modern Era of Industrial Fishing 
Chapter 12. The Inexhaustible Sea
Chapter 13. The Legacy of Whaling
Chapter 14. Emptying European Seas
Chapter 15. The Downfall of King Cod
Chapter 16. Slow Death of an Estuary: Chesapeake Bay
Chapter 17. The Collapse of Coral
Chapter 18. Shifting Baselines
Chapter 19. Ghost Habitats
Chapter 20. Hunting on the High Plains of the Open Sea
Chapter 21. Violating the Last Great Wilderness
Chapter 22. No Place Left to Hide
PART III. The Once and Future Ocean
Chapter 23. Barbequed Jellyfish or Swordfish Steak?
Chapter 24. Reinventing Fishery Management
Chapter 25. The Return of Abundance
Chapter 26. The Future of Fish
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