Thursday, April 29, 2010

Deserted Ocean - A Social History of Depletion

Recently, I read a book that, while very interesting, was extremely sobering. Norman Holy is an inventor who has won awards for developing fishing gear that minimizes bycatch. His work with the fishing industry and the devastating consequences of unrestrained natural resource use led him to write Deserted Ocean: A Social History of Depletion. While there are many contemporary accounts of the unwise fishing practices that have depleted fisheries in the 2oth and 21st centuries, overfishing tends to be thought of as a modern phenomenon - the result of advanced technology and high standards of living. Yet as detailed in Holy's book, overfishing was a concern centuries ago. Deserted Ocean focuses on the North Atlantic because the North Atlantic was unfortunately quite early to the overfishing game. Fishing has been important to North Atlantic coastal communities for about 1,000 years, possibly motivated by declining availability of freshwater fish. That's right - a thousand years ago fishermen had to move on from freshwater fish because they had depleted them. Complaints about the use of trawl nets that disturbed the sea bed and took too much bycatch were recorded in 1370. Around 1500 herring stopped spawning in the strait between Denmark and Sweden, likely because of overfishing.

By documenting this history, Holy makes it clear that our ideas about healthy fish populations and healthy oceans may in fact be incorrect inasmuch as the oceans of a century or two ago were not as pristine as we imagine. The story of the North Atlantic is one of making the same mistakes over and over again. Under such circumstances, how could anyone determine what marine life in the North Atlantic should look like? Some people may wonder why it matters. After all, we could simply, in the North Atlantic and elsewhere, change the management practices to suit the current ecosystem. But the question would remain if that would produce the most resilient and abundant fish populations. Holy notes many historical descriptions of areas almost choked with fish. Can we ever recreate those conditions? Deserted Ocean doesn't try to answer such a complicated question, but it does provide a clear picture of what we've lost through greed.

Holy also surveys the history of cod fishing and whaling, two egregious examples of humanity's capacity to devastate a natural resource. Cod especially illustrates how important it is to adopt a precautionary approach to fishing. It took centuries to overfish cod near Newfoundland, and though the fishery finally closed completely to fishing years ago, the population has not rebounded. Signs of danger were ignored for years because fishery restrictions are politically unpopular. We don't need to keep making the mistakes of the past. Deserted Ocean demonstrates that overfishing isn't the creation of hysterical fish-huggers. It's a real phenomenon, and the sooner we realize that the better.


Jeff Darling said...

Wonderful report. I don't know if that book is available here in the U.S., but I will look for it.

Irene_J said...

This book tells a story that has never been written before in one volume. It is a must read if you enjoy the ocean's products, particularly fish. The author has documented the significant changes in how fishing practices over centuries have depleted many of the fish we eat today. Everyone who has a dependency on fishing for a living and those who are recreational fishermen can learn the history of the ocean's depletion of fish and the uncertain future of ocean fishing in the coming decades.

irene of Dallas Janitorial Service