The Unnatural History of the Sea

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Island Press, 2009 M01 5 - 456 pages
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Humanity can make short work of the oceans’ creatures. In 1741, hungry explorers discovered herds of Steller’s sea cow in the Bering Strait, and in less than thirty years, the amiable beast had been harpooned into extinction. It’s a classic story, but a key fact is often omitted. Bering Island was the last redoubt of a species that had been decimated by hunting and habitat loss years before the explorers set sail.

As Callum M. Roberts reveals in The Unnatural History of the Sea, the oceans’ bounty didn’t disappear overnight. While today’s fishing industry is ruthlessly efficient, intense exploitation began not in the modern era, or even with the dawn of industrialization, but in the eleventh century in medieval Europe. Roberts explores this long and colorful history of commercial fishing, taking readers around the world and through the centuries to witness the transformation of the seas.

Drawing on firsthand accounts of early explorers, pirates, merchants, fishers, and travelers, the book recreates the oceans of the past: waters teeming with whales, sea lions, sea otters, turtles, and giant fish. The abundance of marine life described by fifteenth century seafarers is almost unimaginable today, but Roberts both brings it alive and artfully traces its depletion. Collapsing fisheries, he shows, are simply the latest chapter in a long history of unfettered commercialization of the seas.

The story does not end with an empty ocean. Instead, Roberts describes how we might restore the splendor and prosperity of the seas through smarter management of our resources and some simple restraint. From the coasts of Florida to New Zealand, marine reserves have fostered spectacular recovery of plants and animals to levels not seen in a century. They prove that history need not repeat itself: we can leave the oceans richer than we found them.

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User Review  - Pinniped23 - LibraryThing

I read this a few years back but really loved it! Read full review

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User Review  - bfertig - LibraryThing

With The Unnatural History of the Sea, Callum Roberts extensively documents the destructiveness and shortsightedness that fishing has generally had on the abundance, distribution, and diversity of ... Read full review


Explorers and Exploiters in the Age of Plenty
The End of Innocence
The Origins of Intensive Fishing
Newfound Lands
More Fish than Water
Plunder of the Caribbean
The Age of Merchant Adventurers
The Downfall of King
Slow Death of an Estuary Chesapeake
The Collapse of Coral
Shifting Baselines
Ghost Habitats
Hunting on the High Plains of the Open
Violating the Last Great Wilderness
The Once and Future Ocean

WhalingThe First Global Industry
To the Ends of the Earth for Seals
The Great Fisheries of Europe
The First Trawling Revolution
The Dawn of Industrial Fishing
The Modern Era of Industrial Fishing
The Inexhaustible
The Legacy of Whaling
Emptying European Seas
No Place Left to Hide
Barbequed Jellyfish or Swordfish Steak?
Reinventing Fishery Management
The Return of Abundance
The Future of Fish

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About the author (2009)

Callum M. Roberts is professor of marine conservation at the University of York in England. He is a prolific author and researcher, and has advised the U.S., British, and Caribbean governments on the creation of marine reserves.

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