Monday, September 8, 2008

Starr Reviews - The Unnatural History of the Sea

If you need something to bring you back down to earth, read The Unnatural History of the Sea (909.09 R643U) by Callum Roberts. The book is all about how the 18th and 19th century British, Americans and other European/Euro-American people decimated all forms of fish, turtles, sea mammals and the whole plant and animal ecosystems they belonged to.

The new, unhunted oceans had unbelievable amounts of wildlife; many species were made extinct in 50 or 100 years of overexploitation. It is written largely from a British perspective, but since the sea is the whole world, it pertains to everybody.

Roberts chronicles the history of extinctions and near extinctions of fish, reptile and marine animals from medieval times to the present, with much discussion of the methods and economies that devastated one region after another. He provides fairly in-depth studies of particular industries such as cod, herring, whales and salmon. He documents decreases in both sizes of individuals and sizes of overall catches, as well as occasional, all-too-brief recoveries, such as in the years immediately after the World Wars.

Using the concept of “shifting baseline” where each generation looks no further than the conditions of its youth to see normal states, he shows how the degradation has been allowed to continue while commissions came and went. Fishermen knew in the 1400s that trawling (dragging nets along the bottom) destroyed entire ecosystems, but complaints to the kings of the day drew no action; now, the seafloor of most of the world has been smashed and plowed to mud and broken remains.

The time for action is very late; it may be too late to resurrect this once vast food supply. I bought a piece of fish (farm-raised) to cook for my parents tonight. If I ever become a vegetarian, it will be because of obtaining more information than I can be comfortable with. Pretty grim reading, but well worth your time.

Starr Reviews are done by current Northwest student Mary Evelyn Starr. Please stop by for more during the semester.

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