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The Unnatural History of the Sea

4.7 out of 5 stars 30 customer reviews
ISBN-13: 978-1597265775
ISBN-10: 1597265772
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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Marine conservation biologist Roberts presents a devastating account of the effects of fishing on the sea. Once abundant aquatic life has declined to the point where we probably have less than five percent of the total mass of fish that once swam in Europe's seas, he states. Intensive fishing since medieval times has caused this decline gradually over the centuries, so that the fish-deprived sea seems normal to today's generations. Industrial fishing, especially trawling, has virtually eliminated entire habitats, including cod in Canada, oysters in Chesapeake Bay and herring in the North Sea. Now, sophisticated devices such as sonar depth sensors are being used to plunder that last frontier, the deep sea. Callum's alarming conclusion is that by the year 2048, fisheries for all the fish and shellfish species we exploit today will have collapsed. He argues persuasively for the establishment of marine reserves—protected areas where fish stocks have a chance to recover. His impressive book, replete with quotations from the reports of early explorers, merchants and travelers describing seas teeming with life that's unimaginable today, is a vivid reminder of what we've lost and a plea to save what is left and help the sea recover some of its earlier bounty. Illus. not seen by PW. (Aug. 15)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

From Booklist

Starting with the eighteenth-century voyages of Vitus Bering, Roberts leads the reader through a wealth of maritime history revealing countless examples of overfishing. By quoting everyone from naturalist Georg Steller to western writer and trophy fisherman Zane Gray and swordfish boat captain and author Lynda Greenlaw, he covers a wide range of perspectives from those who know the seas better than most. The overwhelming message is that profitability and sustainability are no longer compatible and hard choices must now be made. Roberts is eloquent and persuasive as he recounts centuries of ill-managed fishery planning, and allows those who have directly experienced dramatic changes in the oceans to speak for themselves. He offers both indictments and solutions in a straight-ahead book illustrated with historical photographs and drawings that should appeal equally to armchair enthusiasts, maritime aficionados, and scientists. Thoughtful, inspiring, devastating, and powerful, Roberts' comprehensive, welcoming, and compelling approach to an urgent subject conveys large problems in a succinct and involving manner. Readers won't be able to put it down. Mondor, Colleen --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.

Product Details

  • Paperback: 456 pages
  • Publisher: Island Press (2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1597265772
  • ISBN-13: 978-1597265775
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 1.2 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.4 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #159,187 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Callum Roberts is a marine scientist and conservationist at the University of York in England and author of The Unnatural History of the Sea. His book charts the effects of 1000 years of hunting and fishing on ocean life and won the 2008 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Callum's research has revealed the extraordinary rise and fall of fisheries over the last 200 years, but also shows how life can make a remarkable comeback after protection is granted. His team at York provided the scientific case for the world's first network of high seas marine reserves in the North Atlantic that in 2010 placed nearly 300,000km2 of ocean under protection. Callum works with many environmental charities and is a WWF UK Ambassador, trustee of Seaweb, Fauna and Flora International and Blue Marine Foundation, and advisor to Save our Seas. His next book, The Ocean of Life, explores how the oceans are changing under human influence and will be published in 2012.

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

Format: Hardcover
Callum Roberts has crafted an excellent overview of the history of human exploitation of the sea. The title chosen for the book is excellent. If it were titled "The Natural History of the Sea" you could expect to read about marine bio-diversity, and how marine species interact with each other.

The title, "The Unnatural History of the Sea," however, is a good indicator of the content of the book. The book is divided into three main sections.

Section one introduces the reader to the history of human exploitation of the sea for food and profit. That overview includes references to historical documents that give insight into the diversity and densities of marine species. It includes chapters on what happened in European waters, the lure of largely unexploited fishing grounds in the new world, and the development of the global commercial fisheries for groups including cod, whales, and seals, as well as the advent of industrialized fishing.

Section two of the book is titled "The Modern Era of Fishing." In this section you are provided with example after example of the pattern of overharvesting, moving to new fishing grounds, and the subsequent development and application of new fishing technologies. This section details decimated fisheries, fish population crashes, the decline of coral reefs, and the ongoing rush to capture all we can while there is still something left to fish.

Finally, the third section of the book presents an overview of current fisheries policies, and a proposal for a new direction that could save global fisheries.

The book deserves and demands to be read by anyone interested in the sea, as well as by those involved in developing and implementing fisheries policies.
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Format: Hardcover
The problem with the oceans is that you can't see what's going on down there. Foresters can count trees, birdwatchers have "life lists", but fishery managers can only weigh a catch and guesstimate the numbers. That's the fish that are landed - those and other life caught in nets or hooks disappear uncounted and unreported. "Counting" fish has been a problem since ancient times and the sea has remained a realm of mystery right up to the present. Ironically, as Callum Roberts points out in this informative study, it's those who have harvested sea life - often in immeasurable quantities, who have helped reveal something of what goes on beneath the waves.

Roberts understands the need for fishers. Sea life is a substantial form of protein, particularly when land animals are expensive or unattainable. Men have fished from shore, from coast-hugging boats and from ships drawing a wide variety of gear through the water seeking dinner for demanding thousands. Anyone casting into the nearest river or lake will describe fish as "fickle", unresponsive to the most adroitly placed lure. Ocean fishers, however, trailing extended nets or other gear have the same complaint for other reasons. Where have the fish gone? Roberts points out that human fishing of the seas has undergone three revolutions - trawl nets in the 14th Century, steam power, and deep ocean fishing in the 20th Century. Each of these revolutions was a step in finding the missing fish. Each has proven a way to exhaust the ocean's bounty in a short time. The fish have disappeared.

As he tours through time and place, the author portrays the greed and unreflecting view of fishers, government and even science.
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Format: Hardcover
This review refers to the paperback version, 2007, Gaia thinking.

The author builds a very extensive window on the condition of all marine life over the past 1000 years. His research is based on ancient texts, skipper logbooks, diaries of explorers and in more recent times more comprehensive fishery data and scientific articles. The book is full with citations from all these sources which give the reader a close look on the experiences of those who where amazed by the marine life.

The bounty he describes in the seas from the past are at times hard to imagine. Sturgeons as big as cows in European rivers, fish shoals who push the river water upwards, uncountable numbers of whales in their breeding bay in California. Although it is clear that the author is passionate about marine life, he presents the facts without bias and the book has an extensive reference list at the end.

The book focusses on the central theme of over-fishing and its detrimental impact on the state of all marine life. As the book advances (into time) fishing effort increases and marine life gradually deteriorates. Reading chapter after chapter makes you sad, helpless and angry to see in what dire state we pushed all the seas of the world.

However, the book ends with three fairly brief chapters to restore the balance. The changes in fishery management that the author proposes are quiet surprising but on the same time elegant and more reasonable to achieve compared to current practices. The final chapter is a documented call for extensive world marine reserves. The abundance he describes in some present day reserves is fuelling hope for better times.

If you love the sea, if you love fish or fishing, please read this book.

Only minor point is fairly few pictures in the book, although the old photographs with huge fish caught make up for most of it.

Read it, be shocked and spread the word, so we can fix what was broken.
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