Ellan Read

sometimes witty book reviews

The Unnatural History of the Sea

You know those cliché fishermen stories about the big fish, how they were ‘always bigger in my day?’ and every grandfather’s grandfather’s grandfather seems to have caught a bigger one than his grandson? According the Callum Roberts, these stories are true. Or at least the phenomenon of the fish being bigger in grandad’s day is.

Shifting base lines. Put simply, this theory surmises that the amount of fish (or any ocean flora and fauna) the generation before us saw must be the ‘baseline’ to which our globally falling marine stocks should ideally return to. Yet because our living memory is limited to two, maybe three generations at most, we actually have no idea what the baseline of marine life density should be. Roberts’ The Unnatural History of the Sea (2007)  attempts to covey what the oceans’ great abundance once was.

If the sheer enormity of marine life killed and subsequently wasted every year is not unsettling enough, the fact that we eat today what our grandparents’ generation would have thrown back overboard should worry you. The good fish are gone. We are eating scraps and on a massive scale. Though there have been recent news stories about monster sized tuna, most would be shocked to know that once, a 300kg tuna was average.

To prove this, Roberts doesn’t just take us back to fishing since the invention of iron ships, nor even fishing since the invention of trawling (back in the 13th century, and even then is was banned for being destructive) but right back in time. When Britain’s streams ran with enough salmon to hold an axe upright in the water and a single sturgeon could take up to ten oxen to pull from a river.

This book is terrifying. The destruction the human race has wrought upon the sea in the last 1500 years is frightening.  Roberts’ meticulously researched The Unnatural History of the Sea is the kind of work that should be drawing a lot more attention. Roberts’ arguments are thorough, logical and backed up with research and studies from a wide range of sources. This is not a story nor a hyped-up, sensationalised theory so don’t expect an easy read. The writing is very ‘sciencey’  and heavy going most of the time.

Do you realise how many hundreds of the thousands of see otters should still be around? How many hundreds of millions of sea turtles should there still be? How big should a great white shark can grow? We have reached the point where the Chinese fishing fleet is now a floating city of factories, ten thousand strong.


What Roberts’ has to say cannot be shortened. Don’t skip any pages.

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This entry was posted on June 11, 2015 by in Non-Fiction and tagged , , , .

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