The Unnatural History of the Sea

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

In 1968, biologist Garrett Hardin provided a name for a phenomenon that, for centuries, had plagued humankind and its interaction with the environment. Wherever such common-property renewable resources as lands, lakes, and forests existed, humans overused them to the point of total exhaustion or degradation. Hardin called this overuse of free-access resources “the tragedy of the commons,” and a principal theme of Callum Roberts’s The Unnatural History of the Sea is that ocean resources, as limited as those of land, have also been appallingly squandered. Because humans occupy a water planet, with more than 90 percent of its surface covered by water, those who have plied their livelihood on the seas developed a conviction that its riches were inexhaustible. For five years, Roberts collected a wide variety of evidence from the writings of explorers, travelers, and fishers as well as from books and articles by scientists to convince general readers that the oceans of today are dangerously empty compared to the plenitude of the past.

Although most of his book depicts in heartrending detail how human greed and lack of foresight have resulted in the extirpation of a significant portion of the world’s sea life, Roberts nevertheless insists that his purpose is not to spread the word of the sea’s demise but to galvanize fishers and ordinary people to transform their relationship to marine life in ways through which the lost abundance of the oceans may be recovered. Because of a long-standing and deeply held conviction by fishers and scientists of the inexhaustible bounty of the seas, Roberts traces how this belief developed and how unfettered commercialization has revealed its falsity. In part 1, “Explorers and Exploiters in the Age of Plenty,” Roberts argues that marine life began to disappear along European shores as early as the Middle Ages, when fishermen shifted from dwindling freshwater varieties to such saltwater species as herring, cod, and haddock. Overfishing along England’s coast led to serious declines in catches, forcing fishermen to seek these species along the coasts of other countries.

The commercialization of ocean fishing and hunting accelerated after the European discovery of the New World. Fishermen from several countries then began withdrawing gigantic numbers of cod from the coastal waters of New England and Canada. During the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, thousands of ships so overfished these waters that cod sizes and numbers were driven to deleteriously low levels. In the eighteenth century, on the west coast of North America, Russian hunters drastically reduced the numbers of sea otters, seals, and sea cows. In Caribbean waters, where millions of sea turtles once existed, most species are now on the endangered list.

Roberts calls whaling “the first global industry,” and from the eighteenth to the twentieth century whales were hunted and killed in ever greater numbers as sailing ships evolved into large, steam-powered vessels. Onboard factory ships, thousands of workers processed whale oil that, during the nineteenth century, lit European and American homes and streets. As whale numbers diminished in the North Atlantic, whalers discovered “hot spots” in the South Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Even in these new locations, whales were soon overhunted to the point of commercial and actual extinction. Cetologists have estimated that, before whaling, 360 million fin whales and 240 million humpbacks existed, but, by the end of the twentieth century these numbers had declined to 56,000 fin whales and 9,000 humpbacks. Because of extinctions of several other species, an international ban on all whaling was instituted in the 1980’s, though such countries as Japan, Norway, and Iceland defied the ban. Roberts tells analogous stories about walrus, otter, and seal hunting in which millions of animals were...

(The entire section is 1590 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 3)

Audubon 109, no. 5 (September/October, 2007): 108.

Booklist 103, no. 22 (August 1, 2007): 30.

Chicago Tribune, October 17, 2007, p. 7.

Issues in Science and Technology 24, no. 1 (Fall, 2007): 91-95.

Library Journal 132, no. 12 (July 1, 2007): 116.

Publishers Weekly 254, no. 23 (June 4, 2007): 44.

Science News 172, no. 9 (September 1, 2007): 143.

The Washington Post, July 29, 2007, p. BW15.