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Ocean of life: How our seas are changing

Ocean of life

By Callum Roberts
Published by Penguin
Website: www.penguin.co.uk
2013, 390 pp, ISBN 978 0 241 95070 8 (Pb), £10.99

The oceans are in crisis; they have changed more in the last 30 years than in all human history before, writes the author of this fascinating yet dispiriting book. Dispiritng because the crisis is entirely man-made. "Heedless of consequences, we are emptying the seas of fish and filling them with pollution, and our unplanned experiment with greenhouse gas is gradually infiltrating the deep sea….few people grasp the gravity of the situation." The seas were the incubator of all life but, if they continue to be misused, they could beset land as well as marine life forms with extinction. Callum Roberts is familiar with temperate and tropical oceans and now Professor of Marine Conservation at the University of York, he has been a Visiting Professor at Harvard, was on the WWF-US Council for six years, and is currently WWF-UK Ambassador. His dramatic accounts of life - and death - in the ocean are informed by his work in many waters, including the once pristine coral reefs of Australia and the Caribbean, now so critically endangered.

Mankind has been exploiting the oceans for thousands of millennia, initially scavenging shorelines and then fishing in primitive small craft. Some of those early fishermen understood the fragility of their bounty very well, as did fourteenth century English peasants pleading with their king to ban the newly invented trawl that "runs so heavily and hardly over the ground when fishing that it destroys the flowers of the land below the water." Using gear that destroys the seabed is just one aspect of over-fishing that has caused many fisheries to collapse, while pollution with plastic and other less visible waste products, the damage caused by oil and mineral extraction and the effects of greenhouse gases increasing the temperature and acidity of sea water have all compromised the ocean's physical, chemical and biological capacities to benefit us. Ocean of life takes the reader on an exciting and thought-provoking journey, above and below the waves.

The ocean has lost biodiversity at an unprecedented rate, up to 1,000 times the normal rate of extinction which has brought us to "the cusp of one of the great reorganisations of planetary life," writes Professor Roberts. And he fears that long established mantras that there are 'plenty more fish in the sea', that a little collateral damage in catching them won't hurt, or that the oceans are a bottomless receptacle in which we can dispose our wastes, are blinding us to the harm so thoughtlessly - and needlessly - being done. Yet change is not only possible - and he provides several encouraging examples of changes in policy and practice as well as in conservation - but it is essential: "It is essential for ocean life and our own that we transform ourselves from being a species that uses up its resources to one that cherishes and nurtures them," he concludes. Professor Roberts has made waves to good effect in policy circles with earlier publications and will surely reach and touch those who care to read Ocean of life.

Date published: June 2013


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