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Callum Roberts
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The Unnatural History of the Sea

4.33  ·  Rating Details ·  358 Ratings  ·  51 Reviews
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 ...more
Audio CD, Abridged, 456 pages
Published July 30th 2007 by Island Press (first published July 14th 2007)
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Mar 23, 2016 Richard rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: h-reviews, a-science
This book left me too angry and depressed to write coherently, so instead here's a brief glossary of terms which I hope might give you some idea why:

trawling (technol.): a type of fishing in which the ocean floor is scraped clean, not only of fish, but of every living thing - vertebrate and invertebrate, coral, even chunks of the reefs themselves. An industry which extracts fish as a non-renewable resource, like coal or oil. Underwater strip-mining on a near-global scale.
ghost fishing (technol.)
Jun 05, 2013 Tom rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I went back and forth on whether or not to give this book five stars. I'll start with the reason I didn't though: it's not particularly well written. Roberts beats the same point to death in chapter after chapter early in the book. That point is that mankind has systematically, all over the world, devastated the oceans and seas to brink of exhaustion. Time after time and in location after location.

This criticism made the book a fairly slow read, in addition to the fact that I felt terrible ever
Tony duncan
Jun 09, 2008 Tony duncan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: every human that can read
Recommended to Tony by: books
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Dec 23, 2015 Kieran rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This book is a Bible for any marine biologist, historian, diver, seafood lover, environmentalist, fisherman or anyone who is interested in marine life. Roberts' book is perhaps the best effort I have ever come across for putting ocean life today into context - he has made a tremendous effort to find obscure and esoteric records of fisheries and ocean life dating back as far to the first settlements in America, medieval fisheries, and some of the first ever accounts of fishing in the world . It i ...more
Jul 10, 2011 Jim rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Roberts is the Rachel Carson of the world's ocean wildlife and this book is his Silent Spring. Interestingly, in some cases we don't realize the extent of damage done to the world's dramatically depleted fish stock because of "baseline creep," our inability to remember or believe in stories of teeming ocean fisheries and long lost monster catches. In other cases, the apparent damage is more sudden, as when rapid technological innovations enable huge increases in our capacity to fish wider and mo ...more
Nov 03, 2008 Christine rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: everyone who lives on earth
Recommended to Christine by: Society of Environmental Journalists
Roberts looks at original sources for descriptions of what the oceans were really like, what abundance once blessed the earth. He reviews the technology that humans have devised to harvest the bounty of the oceans, and how each innovation has soon reduced formerly plentiful fish and other marine critters.

It's truly shocking to realize how devastating the impact has been, from millions and billions of fish down to countable numbers, and how the remaining sea creatures have adapted to the changed
Alex Tilley
Dec 07, 2011 Alex Tilley rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
As a scientific account of what has been taken from the world's oceans, and the extent to which technology has obliterated the idea of sustainable fisheries this book is fantastic. I only dock it one star as I felt it lacked fluidity in places, tending towards dry facts at times rather than weaving a story. However, there is so much research and information in this book, that it should be read by anyone vaguely interested in the sea or sustainable use, as it illustrates so clearly that our idea ...more
Feb 24, 2013 Joshua rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I can't recommend this book highly enough. It is a compelling story of how we have arrived at our current, overfished, state and what we can do to reverse the trend. I liked this book so much I am using it as a centerpiece of a course on historical ecology I designed.
Liam Wylie
Jan 10, 2017 Liam Wylie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A fascinating overview of the oceans and the impact that human fisheries have had since we became able to mass harvest the ocean. Incredible tales of the untouched abundance of virgin seas and isolated places make for both an almost magical trip to what the ocean used to be like and a depressing appreciation for the fact that we have over-fished and destroyed every major fishery we have ever started and we are running out.

Worth a read for anyone interested in taking a very particular and enlight
Jun 11, 2012 Melissa rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: favorites
I have been zealous about my campaign to spread awareness about the emptying seas for many years now, but I didn't realize until I read this book how under-informed I really was on the subject.

Here I thought that commercial fishing was a new phenomenon, and that rapidly declining fish populations started halfway through the 20th century! How wrong I was. Our baselines have been shifting for centuries. Mega-fauna have been systematically stripped from the ocean everywhere humans have encountered
Neil Wilson
Nov 25, 2016 Neil Wilson rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
unique perspective as to what we have done to our oceans
Oct 28, 2016 Jeff rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
One of the books that solidified my disdain for modern human civilization and despair for the future of life in the oceans.
Aug 09, 2011 Ben rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: 2011-reads, science
With The Unnatural History of the Sea, Callum Roberts extensively documents the destructiveness and shortsightedness that fishing has generally had on the abundance, distribution, and diversity of marine life in many of the world’s oceans over centuries. The concerned tone is justified by the vast evidence synthesized throughout which provides a picture of how paltry today’s oceanic cornucopia is compared to historical plenty. After all, we’ve been fishing down the food web while shifting our ba ...more

Since about 1000 AD, Europeans, their descendenants, the descendenants of their colonists, with help of all sorts of other people in last few decades, have been doing some serious fishing in saltwater. In the last 150 years or so that has become serious enough to drastically reduce the abundance of some once common marine species.

A small number of motifs repeat themselves throughout the book. People start out fishing close to home, and as they reduce the fish (or crustacean or bivalve) popula

I think this is a very important book, and a must-read. Unfortunately, it is not well written so I find it difficult to recommend it.

The main point that this book conveys is that the over-exploitation of the seas began much earlier than is believed to be, and that the present baselines for what is considered healthy for oceans and a target for recovery is way too low. Also, these baselines keep shifting, as people rely on their own experience, get used to what they see and dismiss older account
This is a book about how human beings have spent thousands of years depleting life in the sea and learning almost nothing from the negative consequences of overhunting and overfishing. It's one of the most depressing books I've ever read in my life. Almost every chapter introduces some jaunty and essentially harmless sea creature then details the efforts humans have made to wipe it out for fun and profit, a pattern that persists to this day.
Yes, there's also plenty of fun historical fact and de
Mar 02, 2015 Brendan rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: the-sea
This book is a masterpiece. It chronologically describes the destruction of the creatures of the sea. I thought I was somewhat aware - but this really opened my eyes. Humanity started in local rivers and estuaries and moved gradually outwards, now plundering the deep, deep sea. As technology increased, so did our capacity to plunder. The description of the changing baseline, the idea that each new generation creates a new baseline of what is 'normal' in the sea. Even experts in the area underest ...more
Lynne M Hinkey
Sep 11, 2012 Lynne M Hinkey rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is the most well-written, fast-paced depressing book you'll ever read. Roberts' meticulous and comprehensive research into the history of fishing and its impacts could have ended up a dry tome of doom and gloom, but in Roberts' expert hands, it becomes fascinating (although still depressing.) That Roberts can maintain his positive outlook toward humanity's ability to bring sea life back from the brink shows what a dedicated and determined scientist he is. Most people, knowing what he knows ...more
Sep 06, 2012 Loraine rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I began reading this book almost six weeks ago. It's a stunning general history of the destruction of the seas' fisheries over the past thousand years. The same pattern emerges from the beginning: deplete one highly favored fishery and then move on to another, perhaps less favorable, but move on. So, serial exploitation and destruction occurred through the centuries. First, the rich estuaries were wiped out, then the European continental shelf and shallow seas. Then, with the age of exploration, ...more
Feb 13, 2010 Thomas rated it liked it
Recommends it for: the uninformed
This book angered me in at least three ways. First, the tracks are far too long. One wrong click will leave you scrambling to find your place.
Second, the narrator felt the need to distinguish various quotations by reading them in bogus, irritating accents. (At one point, I thought I was attending a party with a piratical theme.) Third, the content left me quivering with rage at the massive depletion of our natural heritage. So much has been lost over the last 1,000 years, and so much of that du
Jul 24, 2010 Joy rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
One of the most sobering and enlightening books I've ever read. The impact reading this had on me was comparable to "Collapse," by Jared Diamond.

The first step to solving a problem is identifying it, and Callum Roberts does an amazing job of chronicling both what we had in the oceans, and what we've lost. It was amazing the extent to which the human race is capable of forgetting what it knows and has experienced. Roberts has given us a chance to get it back.

I read this book while on vacation in
Jun 09, 2014 Richard rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A deeply fascinating read! It did take a year to slowly munch through it's giant size, but it was tasty and amazingly packed.

Tons of detail and interesting history about how we have slowly fucked over the sea since year dot. The history of trawling is surprising and really scary. Will we ever learn or listen ever.

The same issues keep cropping up time and time again and its quite astonishing that he managed to write a final optimistic-ish chapter at the end. At this point most people would just q
Feb 14, 2016 Kirkastroth rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A sad but true history of man's destruction of the oceans, the life within and underneath it and the unwillingness to take any steps to restore the bounty of the seas of old. Technology and greed have depleted species, ruined reefs and sea floors as well as anoxic zones. In several areas our over-exploitation of the oceans has unwittingly recreated the seas that resemble "the heyday of microbes in the Precambrian era before the rise of multi-cellular life." In the Adriatic Sea "mucilage events" ...more
Oct 15, 2014 Sean rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Good & important stuff, this book didn't add much beyond what I had already gotten out of Roberts' other book, The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea, and I found that one more entertaining to read. This was slow in the middle. Either book makes a strong case for a simple plan: establish a global network of marine reserves, to protect fisheries & fish.
Jan 08, 2013 Curt rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
A detailed look at what used to be the bounty of the oceans before humans fished many areas to the verge of extinction. The author is a respected research scientist in Engaland> H espends a third of the book exploring what needs to be done to preserve and increase the remaing areas that still support healthy habitats of marine creatures. This is the second book I've read by the author and both were excellent,well researched and well written books.
David Barton
Jul 17, 2016 David Barton rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, audiobook
A damning indictment of the damage human fishing has wraught on the plenty of the sea. the author presents multiple lines of evidence suggesting that current fish levels are well below 1% of their historical levels and in many cases current conservation targets are inadequate to restore a healthy ecosystem. thanks to this book, I will forever look upon the aquatic environments I encounter as the pale shadows of themselves which historical records suggest they are.
Aug 04, 2008 Sarah rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Excellent read. Roberts argues that marine life is in peril but savable. Capstone recommendations for fisheries management:
Reduce the amount of fishing,eliminate risky decisions, eliminate catch quotas, require fishers to keept what they catch, use the best availalbe fishing technology to reduce bycatch, ban or restrict the most damaging fishing gear, set up marine reserves.
Aug 17, 2009 Pperkins rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Tragic account of natural abundance, human amnesia and greed. I'm reading it for work, developing a small exhibit on sustainable fishing.
‘…each generation comes to view the environment into which it was born as natural, normal… shifting environmental baselines cause collective societal amnesia in which gradual deterioration of the environment and depletion of wildlife pass almost unnoticed…’
May 09, 2008 Chuck rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history
The book is a major review of of the depopulation of the oceans. The scale and intensity of loss is hard to fathom. This book is a must read. I was particularly shocked by the severity of decline of large fish that use coral reef habitat.
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Recently named in the Times as one of the 100 most influential UK scientists, Prof Callum Roberts is an award-winning expert on Marine Conservation.

His main research interests include documenting the impacts of fishing on marine life, both historic and modern, and exploring the effectiveness of marine protected areas. For the last 10 years he has used his science background to make the case for st
More about Callum Roberts...

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“Extinction, the irrevocable loss of a species, causes pain that can never find relief. It is an ache that will pass from generation to generation for the rest of human history.” 2 likes
“Early accounts of the abundance of fish and wildlife offer us a window to the past that helps reveal the magnitude of subsequent declines. They provide us with benchmarks against which we can compare the condition of today's seas. Such benchmarks are valuable in countering the phenomenon of shifting environmental baselines, whereby each generation comes to view the environment into which it was born as natural, or normal. Shifting environmental baselines cause a collective societal amnesia in which gradual deterioration of the environment and depletion of wildlife populations pass almost unnoticed. Our expectations diminish with time, and with them goes our will to do something about the losses.” 0 likes
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