Correction: An earlier version of this review incorrectly said that the “Great Oxidation Event,” which spurred a wild expansion of life forms, occurred 2.9 million years ago. It took place about 2 billion years ago. This version has been corrected.
With the exception of a few pioneers, we have been studying and cataloguing the devastation of the ocean for only two or three decades andintensely studying it for little more than a decade. So in some ways the crisis we are discovering comes as a far greater shock than the devastation of the land that we have been observing for more than a century.
One of the scientists leading the way is Callum Roberts, who, in his latest book, catalogs the extent of the oceans’ crisis. No account of the cataclysm is more engaging than Roberts’s “The Ocean of Life.”Although it contains very little that is new — the science has been published, and the warnings have been heard — the book is powerful in its completeness. A biologist known for his work on coral reefs, a hot spot of marine degradation often compared to rainforests on land, Roberts takes readers on a journey through biology, chemistry and geology, from the creation of the planet to the present. A skilled storyteller, he lures us onward with such wonderful phrases of science as “the Great Oxidation Event,” which occurred about 2 billion years ago when an increase in oxygen spurred a wild expansion of life forms, and “the boring billion years” before the first changes in life some 800 million years ago. He leads us through complex scientific debates with grace and humor.
I love talking to scientists — they’re among the world’s most interesting people — but often I’m not certain what language they’re speaking. The rare treasure is the scientist who can bring clarity and wit to the debates. Roberts is such a scientist, and “The Ocean of Life” is immensely entertaining, although it chronicles a tragedy.
If the book has a weakness, it is in its discussion of fishing. Like most scientists, Roberts doesn’t really understand commercial fishermen, who, he says, have “spectacular levels of denial” about the decline in fish. Butfishermen were the first to raise the issue in disagreement with scientists. Fishermen have been on the front lines as their fish stocks declined and have sought a remedy. For their part, scientists promised to determine the size of the stocks and advise the government on how to rebuild them. As long as fishermen were willing to endure rigid restrictions for a decade, the stocks would recover, the scientists promised.The fish have come back in some places, but their depletion has gotten worse in others.
Two years ago scientists said that cod stocks were rebuilding in the Gulf of Maine, one of New England’s principal fishing grounds, and fishermen were allowed to operate there under restrictions. But now scientists say the cod stocks are greatly diminished and the catch must be dramatically reduced. There are three possible interpretations: The scientists were wrong two years ago, they are wrong now, or the government regulators are greatly misinterpreting the scientists’ findings. In an informal survey, I asked regulators and scientists, including at least one of Roberts’s sources, why fishery management was not more successful. Was it the fault of the fishermen, regulators or scientists? They disagreed about whether regulators or scientists were to blame — perhaps it was a failure of communication — but no one pointed the finger at the fishermen.
Many small fisheries engage in sustainable hook-and-line fishing, but Roberts asserts that fish advertised as line-caught are usually caught on long lines, a destructive practice using hundreds of hooks. That assertion is unfair to the very fishermen Roberts should be supporting.
Although “The Ocean of Life” stumbles on the matter of fishing, there are many other issues it explores with insight and clarity, such as the impacts from climate change, chemical pollution, noise pollution and the globalization of ocean traffic. Climate change alone raises a long list of concerns, including the increase in ocean acidity due to carbon, a growing worry of environmentalists.
If Roberts’s tone sometimes veers toward the righteous, who can blame him? After all, we’re facing a disaster, and politicians seem unwilling to act on it. Indeed, some Republicans are working to reverse rather than expand the far-too-modest anti-carbon regulations that have been put into place. It is hard not to wonder how much negligence the planet can endure.
THE OCEAN OF LIFE
The Fate of Man and the Sea
By Callum Roberts
Viking. 405 pp. $30