Ben's Reviews > The Unnatural History of the Sea

The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Roberts
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's review
Aug 09, 11

bookshelves: 2011-reads, science
Read in August, 2011

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 baselines – and it’s just not a good combination for either the fish or ourselves.

One of the main strengths of this book that I enjoyed was the juxtaposition of contemporary historical reports from ships logs and private journals with modern scientific understanding of fishery stocks, their changes over time, and the factors that influence them. For example, Roberts often relates observations by William Dampier. Dampier was a “extraordinary man. Born in the west country of England around 1650, he was in the course of his colorful career a planter, logwood cutter, pirate, navigator, hydrographer, sea captain, diplomat, explorer, naturalist, writer, and relentless traveler. By the age of sixty, three years before his death, he had circumnavigated the globe three times.” And there are tons of interesting people like that whose observations contribute to the briny riches that this book describes.

Roberts also relates personal observations by himself and other scientists focused on coral reefs, marine parks, kelp forests, and other exotic ecosystems. This book roams across the seas, delving into the fates of cod, herring, swordfish, seals, whales, coral reefs, Chesapeake Bay striped bass and oysters, and the deep dark places which we still know little about.

Despite the broad range of topics Roberts covers, at times the book felt cyclical and repetitive. Yet unlike books of poorer quality, recurrence is not due to poor writing but rather the depressingly destructive cycle with eerie repetitiveness across the ‘seven seas’ over time. As Roberts patently shows, historical abundance of near-shore fisheries dwindles as fishing intensity increases, followed by a switch of targeted species to previously less valuable ones and/or improvements to fishing technology until resources are depleted at which point fishing grounds move to deeper waters further offshore. Fish stock impoverishment is often masked by changes to practices (e.g. technological advancements or opening novel fishing areas) or reporting (e.g. lumping multiple species or fish of different ages together). Roberts further makes the connection that a mismatch of communication, interests, and timing often confound efforts of scientists, fishery managers, and politicians from fixing the problems or even getting a clear picture of the extent of the problem.

While it’s a depressing taken as a whole of fishing history, the book does not end there. He envisions a future global fishery turned on its head and points out seven ways to get there. These are:
1. Reduce present fishing capacity
2. Eliminate risk-prone decision making
3. Eliminate catch quotas and implement controls on the amount of fishing
4. Require people to keep what they catch
5. Require fishers to use gear modified to reduce bycatch
6. Ban or restrict the most damaging catching methods
7. Implement extensive networks of marine reserves off-limits to fishing

I’ll let Roberts expound and explain these himself. You’ll just have to read the book.
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