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.
has published 24 books, several of which deal with commercial fishing and the oceans. His newest book is “Birdseye: The Adventures of a Curious Man.”