Book Reviews: A Bleak Forecast from the Frontlines of Fishery Management

Callum Roberts. The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and The Sea. Viking Penguin (USA), 2013. 350 pages plus appendices, notes, and index.

Callum Roberts is one of the world’s great fisheries biologists. More than that, he’s a terrific writer, capable of translating the scientist’s abstruse formulas into compelling, even heartbreaking prose.

And his message of what humans must now do – emphasizing now – to address the formidable challenges to the very survival of life as we know it is one that should be heeded by anyone having a stake in the outcome. Which is, of course, to say every last fish-eater, carbon-emitter, and plastics-user among us.

In 22 short chapters, plus a prologue and epilogue, Roberts, a marine conservation biologist at York University in England, spells out in depressing detail the ways in which our extravagant consumption of resources have altered the natural systems that have supported existence from the very first glimmer of life on the planet.

The most obvious, from the standpoint of a fisheries scientist, is through overfishing. Thanks to a changing baseline – where each generation measures depletion against only its own experience – we tend to lose sight of the great diminishment in fish in size, species variety, and abundance that have occurred over time, Roberts points out. Photographs from the 19th century “show men on the West Coast thigh-deep in salmon pulled from Puget Sound.” Today, “Puget Sound’s salmon runs have dwindled to a trickle.”

“We have established regulations in the last few decades to restrain fishing power,” he continues, “but they have failed to give most species the time and space they need to reproduce… Fishing intensities are now so high that, once some species reach a level at which they can be caught, their chance of death from fishing in any given year ranges from 30 percent to 60 percent, or more.”

Politicians and fishing industry representatives bear much of the blame for ongoing depredations of overfished stocks, he notes. “In parliament and senate buildings and committee rooms across the world I have seen them dig their heels in to resist regulations that could help fish stocks recover,” he writes. “Politicians too willingly believe their claims that greater regulation would cause unnecessary hardship. In reality, failure to acknowledge and deal with the problem represents a far more serious risk to their livelihoods.”

“Daniel Pauly … describes world fisheries as a giant Ponzi scheme,” Roberts notes, referring to one of the fisheries scientists who has championed conservation. “Fraudsters in this type of scam pay investors from the capital in a fund rather than from the returns made on their investments…. The fishing industry has been dependent on a constant input of new capital…. But fisheries are now failing because, like in a Ponzi scheme, they are running out of new capital.”

Subsequent chapters deal just as rigorously with such topics as ocean currents, the lethal legacy of plastics on ocean-going creatures, the “biological pollution” of alien species, the creation of enormous dead zones from overuse of fertilizers, the harm caused by mercury, other heavy metals, and organic chemicals on ocean life, and the trauma wrought by the undersea roar from shipping and other human activities.

As difficult as these issues are to tackle, climate change brought about by increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere pose even more formidable challenges. Sea-level rise will mean the further loss of coastal wetlands, unless vigorous measures are undertaken to protect existing areas and rebuild those lost in the past. The wetlands can serve as natural coastal barriers against storm surges and high tides, Roberts writes. Similarly, coral reefs can and do provide invaluable protection to coastal areas, but ocean acidification threatens their very existence. “Coral bleaching used to be what kept me awake at night,” Roberts writes. “Now it is ocean acidification. Warming seas have devastated reefs worldwide by weakening the sunlit coalition of corals and algae. Acidification is a punch in the gut to reefs that are already on their knees.”

After reading Roberts’ depressing accounts of the many and dire ways in which humans have broken critical links in the chain of oceanic life, it comes as a bit of a surprise that he should declare himself an optimist. “This book is not a catalog of unavoidable disasters ahead,” he writes. “There is much we can do to change course, if we take the opportunity now, but time is of the essence. The longer we ignore the problems, or prevaricate, the less leeway we have to avoid the direst of our possible futures.”

To help consumers make informed decisions, an appendix gives consumers a guide to making informed decisions about the fish they eat. A second appendix lists reputable organizations working to restore health to the world’s oceans.

Roberts completed work on his book in October 2011. Since then, the carbon dioxide concentration has risen to more than 400 parts per million, the predictions of continental ice melt have grown more dire, and the international regulatory agencies charged with managing ocean resources continue to give more weight to cries of hardship from the fishery sector than the warnings of overfishing from credible scientists.


* * *The Great Barrier Reef: Can It Survive?

Iain McCalman. The Reef: A Passionate History. Viking Penguin, 2013 (Australia). 341 pages plus notes, bibliography, acknowledgements, index.

If you haven’t been to Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, now might be a good time to start planning your visit. Unless something is done to stop loading the oceans with carbon dioxide, the reef will dissolve, like “a giant antacid tablet.”

Charlie Veron, a scientist who has devoted his life to studying the GBR and other reef systems across the globe, made the warning in his 2008 book A Reef in Time: The Great Barrier Reef from Beginning to End. Iain McCalman, a historian at the University of Sydney, relies heavily on Veron’s science in his more recent work, which tells the distressing history of the reef from the near-disastrous voyage of Captain Cook through its shoals in 1770 up to the present.

Some 2,300 miles long and covers an area of 344,000 square kilometers, or roughly half the size of Texas. For most of recent history, it tended to be regarded as a danger to shipping, a boon for fishing, or a potential source of rich minerals or cheap fertilizer.

Not until the 1960s was an effort launched by Judith Wright, a poet and also the president of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland, to protect the reef. Spurred by a request from a farmer to mine a reef for limestone to fertilize his canefields, Wright and a handful of likeminded activists undertook a campaign that pitted them against some of the most powerful politicians in Australia, including the rapacious premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen.

“In Joh Bjelke-Petersen and his ministers,” McCalman writes, Wright and her group “were pitted against one of the most ruthless and effective populist governments in modern Australian history. The premier was adept at exploiting Queenslanders’ suspicions of southerners and ‘interfering’ federal governments, and he grabbed every opportunity to represent conservationists as ‘a lunatic fringe’ of ‘nitwits,’ ‘cranks’ and ‘rat-bags.’”

Bjelke-Peterson hired an American geologist, Harry Ladd, to survey the impact of mining on the reef. “Ladd,” McCalman notes, “managed to achieve this mammoth task in less than a month – flying over much of the area in the company of officials from the Queensland Mining Department. As the state government had hoped and the conservationists feared, Ladd in his report of March 1968 considered the outlook for oil and gas discoveries to be ‘promising’. He further recommended that ‘non-living’ parts of the reef should be developed as sources for agricultural fertilizer and cement manufacture. A furious Judith Wright likened this to using the Taj Mahal for road gravel…”

Only in 1972, after the Australian Supreme Court upheld Parliament’s approval of a measure claiming Commonwealth sovereignty over the reef, was “the Great Reef War,” as McCalman calls it, effectively won. In 1975, the reef was established as a marine park, to be governed by an authority answerable to the federal government. Finally, in 1981, the Great Barrier Reef received designation as a World Heritage site from the UNESCO.

But that is not the happy ending of the story. Today, the reef is in jeopardy not only as a result of climate change, but also from further pressure from the recently elected conservative government in Canberra to dredge huge deep-water ports along the Queensland coast. Last month, Australia’s environment minister, Greg Hunt, approved the dredging of three million cubic meters of seabed at Abbot Point, near the town of Bowen and smack in the middle of the GBR. The dredged spoils are to be dumped in the World Heritage area, but, according to Hunt’s office, “the potential impact area in the dumping ground … is considerably small” and other habitats “were recorded to recover from similar events.”

The port is needed, Australia’s mining interests say, to allow them to more easily ship coal and other minerals to Asian markets – coal that, when burned, will only add to the carbon load in the atmosphere and make the prospects for the reef’s survival all the more precarious.

Last year, UNESCO placed the Great Barrier Reef on its list of World Heritage Sites in Danger and required the Australian government to provide it with a report on what was being done to protect the reef. The report, released in December, said the government was imposing a “net benefit policy” on all activities. The developers of the Abbot Point port, for example, will be required to pay $32 million (Australian) in offsets over the next 40 years “to bolster the health of the reef and protect sea turtles.” UNESCO will decide later this year whether the Australian plan is sufficient.

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