The Ocean of Life:
A manifesto for marine management
Callum Roberts' calls for a new deal for the world's oceans –
& explains why we need to save the seas to survive on land
Recreational fish landings in Key West, Florida from 1950s, 1980s and 2000s.
Callum Roberts is a practising scientist who not only knows his field inside out, but also understands how to write compelling, persuasive non-fiction. As professor of marine conservation at the University of York in England, Roberts has spent the past two decades studying some of the world's most pressured, damaged marine habitats. He has also been actively involved in the frustrating international negotiations aimed at saving our seas. To use the vernacular of his book, he has trawled and plundered these experiences to craft the nearest thing we are ever likely to get to an all-encompassing manifesto for sustainable marine management.
The prologue of his new book Ocean of Life: How Our Seas Are Changing establishes the scale of the problem – and, more importantly perhaps, our collective inability to act, or even notice – with a set of photographs (see above) unearthed by a fellow marine scientist Loren McClenachen in a library in Florida. She found photographs ranging from the 1950s through to the 1980s taken of recreational fisherman proudly holding aloft their catches.
The surprising thing was not so much the dramatic reduction in specimen size, but the near-constant smiles on the sea anglers' faces through the decades. Roberts describes this as "shifting baseline syndrome". Each generation forms its own view of the state of the environment, he observes. Knowledge of past conditions erode with time, with the result that each fresh generation of anglers has no idea that the previous generation would have been disappointed with such an equivalent haul. One of the causes of being blind to the unquestionable damage we have inflicted on the oceans over the past 30 years is "our failure to notice creeping environmental degradation". The other problem is that so much of the damage being caused to our oceans is unseen, either beneath the waves, or miles offshore. Out of sight, out of mind. But it would be quite wrong to paint Ocean of Life as a requiem of despair.
It does have some shocking, depressing, desperate things to say about the parlous state of the world's seas. There are chapters on acidification caused by climate change, on plastic pollution, on "dead zones" caused by agricultural run-off, and a particularly arresting one on the impact underwater "noise" caused by human activity is having on animals such as whales. And, of course, it has plenty to say about the now familiar subject of industrialised fishing. However, a third or more of the book is devoted to potential solutions – and it is this which places it in the "must-read" category.
"Without action, we are on a high road to hell. That's a given. We need a complete rethink of the seas. We need to rebuild habitats by increasing abundance and variety."
- Callum Roberts
The key is the establishment of a network of marine protected zones. We already have a working example to prove it can be achieved, he says, explaining how in 2010 he was involved in the process that led to the creation of a network of protected zones in the northeast Atlantic. "It is now being policed for illegal fishing."
This matters, he says, because areas where fishing is strictly managed, or even suspended, can witness remarkably rapid "rebound", which, over time, can lead to an increased catch for less effort expended. He cites the example of reserves off St Lucia in the Caribbean.
"There has been a staggering recovery since 1995 when the reserves were first introduced. When I first dived there before this period the fish were largely gone. Now there are five times as many fish as before. The rebound can be surprisingly quick. Scallops can turn around in five years. Flounder and haddock take a bit longer."
Another area whether this has already been proved is the Oresund strait between Denmark and Sweden. Due to the intensity of shipping in the area, mobile fishing gear has been banned since the 1930s. To the north, an area 10 times larger called the Kattegat has continued to be fished by bottom trawls.
"In the late 1970s, fishers trawled 15-20,000 tonnes of cod from the Kattegat while gillnetters in Oresund took about 2,000," Roberts explains in the book. "In 2008, the Kattegat yielded 450 tonnes of cod, compared to 2,140 tonnes from the Oresund. Research catches made in Oresund that year showed cod to be 15-40 times more abundant than in Kattegat and much bigger too ... The Oresund and its fisheries have remained in great shape because they are protected from the most destructive kinds of fishing. Despite the fact that it covers just 2,000 square kilometres and the coasts that border the strait are home to nearly 4 million people, marine life flourishes."
It is an extraordinary example of what can be achieved through strict management, Roberts tells me:
"The European Common Fisheries Policy is a disaster right now. Quotas are still a political process, rather than scientific. There is no real melding of environmental and fishing regulations. We get progress then get setbacks."
More widely, on a global level, political mechanisms also frustrate common-sense approaches to marine stewardship:
"We need to eliminate flags of convenience at the UN level because it allows ships to avoid regulation. It is a crazy situation. The planet is too small to allow this. Consensus-based decision making, rather than majority rule, allows small minorities to determine what happens. We would now have a ban on bluefin tuna fishing if Iceland, with its tiny population, hadn't been allowed to block the vote."
Roberts is calling for a "new deal" for the world's oceans. For example, he wants an outright ban on fishing beneath 800 metres and a phasing out of bottom trawl and dredge fishing. But the focus is not entirely placed on the fishing industry. One problem he forecasts will become much more prominent over the next decade is deep-sea mining. As mining technology improves, and resources become ever more sought after, companies will push deeper into the oceans in search of minerals, metals and fossil fuels.
"Look at the deep sea hydrothermal vents off Papua New Guinea," he tells me. "These might now be mined for their mineral crust, which contain rare earth metals. They use a large vacuum cleaner to bring it to the surface and the tailings will then have to go somewhere, basically, back into the sea. These vents are ancient and biologically diverse. The International Seabed Authority has been taken by surprise by the speed of these developments."
Ultimately, though – as is true with virtually all environmental problems – if we want to see genuine action, we landlubbers need to realise how the future fate of the seas will directly impact on us all. "Reinvigorating the sea isn't an altruistic act of self-sacrifice," concludes Roberts at the end of his book, "it makes sense on the grounds of self-interest too ... We are creatures of the ocean."
The Ocean of Life, by Callum Roberts (2012) was described by The New York Times review as "a Silent Spring for the oceans", written by "the Rachel Carson of the fish world".