The Unnatural History of the Sea
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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.
them today. Their leisurely growth and sporadic reproductive success, and the lasting damage to their habitats by trawls, undermine the little ability they have to bounce back after depletion. Complaints over the destructive effects of trawling on fish and their habitats fell silent early in the twentieth century. The rumbling progress of trawls across the world's shallow continental shelves perhaps seemed so irresistible that fishers saw little point in further argument. But perhaps they
intensified as hundreds of people were lured by the prospect of quick money. When Mexico became independent, otters were still abundant, and were present in San Francisco Bay in great shoals. One observer reported that from San Francisco to the Santa Clara estuary, “the ground appeared covered with black sheets due to the great quantity of otters which were there.”23 But in the years leading up to 1850, when California became a part of the United States, otters were persecuted to the edge of
railways spreading, any number of fish could be sold. As virgin coastal grounds became more heavily fished, pressure grew to find new fishing grounds. Fishers began to operate in fleets to extend their range, one boat carrying all of the fish to port every day to ensure the catch arrived fresh. By the 1850s, use of ice to preserve fish became routine, and the industry consumed thousands of tons per year. Ice had the dual benefit of expanding the market and increasing the area of the fishing
many marine species provided ample room for arguments over whether there was a human hand in declining stocks. In recent years, climate change skeptics have raised similar arguments, contesting that natural variations rather than human activities are responsible for warming trends, so giving regulators an excuse to postpone action. However, as far as controversies around fishing went as decades passed, it became clear that fishing had major effects on stocks of exploited species. Perhaps the most
increase was, biologists of the time noticed that it was less than it might have been based on the production of pups. After ruling out other sources of mortality, such as illegal sealing, disease, and starvation, the finger of blame pointed to killer whales, as no other fur seal predators were known. Dallas Hanna of the California Academy of Sciences estimated that some 300,000 seals were unaccounted for and had probably been eaten by killer whales between 1911 and 1921.22 Certainly, killer