One third of New York City and Newark, three quarters of Miami-Dade County and a fifth of Sea Island Georgia could be underwater by 2100. A survey of Orange County beaches in California found 140,000 items of plastic trash for every 100 yards of beach. A twenty-foot sea rise could wipe out the entire Mississippi Delta. These and other facts can be found in The Ocean Of Life written by one of the world’s foremost conservation biologists, Callum Roberts, shortlisted for the 2013 Royal Society Winton Prize for Science Books.
Roberts, “The Rachel Carson of the fish world” (The New York Times) has written his magnum opus: a love letter to the sea, from the first spark of life to today. The Ocean Of Life tells the story of humankind’s long relationship with the sea and its creatures, and shows how the fate of our oceans will ultimately determine our own future. Continuing on our current course of excessive fishing, using the sea as a dump, and planetary transformation is not possible if we are to survive and thrive. Change is possible, and The Ocean Of Life is infused with optimism, hope and practical solutions for the future.
SeaWeb: People have enjoyed seafood for at least 140,000 years. Forty thousand years ago they were already catching big fish like tuna and shark. Throughout most of human history, the bounty of fish in the sea seemed inexhaustible. But in the last 30 years, global supplies have declined steeply. Why is that and what can we do to mitigate it?
Callum Roberts: Intensive fishing and devastating new fishing techniques have reduced the abundance of the fish we most like to eat to roughly a tenth or less of their numbers a century ago, forcing us to the ends of the Earth and the depths of the ocean to maintain catches. By fishing less and more strategically we could rebuild stocks five to ten times their current levels and catch more for less in waters closer to home. Overfishing is the world’s biggest solvable environmental problem. We know what to do and if we were to act decisively, it would take only 15 years to fix most of what has gone wrong.
SW: What are marine reserves and how could they help?
CR: Simple. Marine reserves—places off limits to fishing and exploitation—have proven to be spectacularly good breeding grounds. Reserves can also bring back habitats swept away by trawls or dredges. All the evidence suggests that better protection actually keeps fishermen and women at work. Off the coast of Massachusetts, large areas were closed to draggers in 1995, leading to a rebound in scallops, flounder and haddock, which has boosted catches, while seabed life is making a comeback. In the Florida Keys, Sanctuary Protection Zones are rebuilding depleted stocks of lobsters, grouper and snapper and have widespread support from those who fish commercially.
SW: The oceans have absorbed a third of all the carbon dioxide emitted since the Industrial Revolution and have helped deflect extreme warming. But recent research has shown that climate change has made seawater acidity rise faster than at any time in the last 55 million years, with unpredictable and potentially disastrous consequences for life. What can we do?
CR: It is true that we are subjecting life in the sea to an increasingly potent cocktail of stresses and it is struggling to cope. If the oceans – and all of the species (including humans) who depend on them – are to survive the global environmental challenges of the coming century, we must change tack fast. What the oceans need, as this book reveals, is a stress-busting program to rebuild life in the sea. It will take decades to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases that warm and acidify the oceans. So in the short run we have to alleviate stress by reducing pollution, fishing less and in less destructive ways (which paradoxically will enable us to catch more), and giving life space to recover.
SW: Given the many other problems affecting the world today, why should we worry about conserving nature?
CR: Many people view nature conservation as an extravagance, which affluent societies can afford to indulge in a little, but no more. Their logic is that economies compete with nature for space and nature should yield to economic interest. But as we depend on the living world for our survival, more space for nature means more space for us. The truth is that overfishing and scarcity of clean water are serious problems in the developing world. The oceans are part of a complex ecosystem that neutralizes our wastes, brings forth nutritious food and controls winds and rains. We tamper with them at our peril.
SW: Rising sea levels are threatening some of the world’s biggest cities. London’s Thames Barrier shut four times in the first seven years of operation in the 80s. Now it typically closes five to 10 times a year. What can we do to protect our coastal cities?
CR: Habitats like mangrove forests, coral reefs, seagrass beds and saltmarshes form self-repairing breakwaters that protect coasts better than most engineered structures, at far lower expense. Unlike concrete or rocks, they support fisheries, clean the water and withdraw greenhouse gas from the atmosphere. But it is true that big cities are threatened. The evacuation of lower Manhattan last summer was a harbinger of things to come. Miami Beach exists only through frequent and expensive applications of new sand. Large areas of Tokyo already lie below sea level. Saving these cities will require engineering works on grand and monumentally expensive scales.
Callum Roberts is the author of The Unnatural History of the Sea, winner of the Rachel Carson Environmental Book Prize. The New York Times hailed it as “a future classic of marine literature” and The Washington Post chose it as one of the 10 Best Books of 2009. Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of York, he is a board member of Seaweb, a US based environmental group, and has taught at Harvard. He is widely considered as one of the world’s leading conservation biologists.
The Ocean of Life can be purchased on SeaWeb’s Amazon book store.