THE UNNATURAL HISTORY OF THE SEA. By Callum Roberts. Island Press/Shearwater Books, Washington, D.C. 2007. 436 pages. Hardcover, $28.
Last spring when the herring started showing up in Island coastal ponds, I got a call from a fisherman asking, “Where are the mackerel?”
A few days later, I got the same call from another angler, angrier than the first. For at one time the spring mackerel run in Vineyard waters was as vital a part of this community’s culture as the seasonal arrival of squid, striped bass and bluefish. In 1943, mackerel was the most popular selling fish at Everett Poole’s fish market in Menemsha, and it was landed all summer long.
So, I called a leading scientist on mackerel with the National Marine Fisheries Service out of Woods Hole. He said Atlantic mackerel were on the verge of being a fully restored fishery, so they were around. He didn’t know why they weren’t around in Vineyard waters.
I shared the answer with my Island fishing friends. It didn’t make them any happier. Atlantic mackerel are far from restored.
The waters around Martha’s Vineyard are not so healthy as the official line would have you believe, especially considering what they were years ago. The story of the loss of mackerel in Vineyard waters is our history — and it fits into a bigger history of fish in the sea.
The new book An Unnatural History of the Sea tells this larger history. This traces the history of the often opposing positions that fishermen, regulators and scientists have taken over centuries in the managing of this highly prized resource. Their decisions, or lack of action, have brought about long-term problems. The resource suffers still.
Author Callum Roberts, who teaches at the University of York in England, has produced this world history of the oceans. This is a book with which all Vineyard fishermen should become familiar, a book that should be in every Island library.
Local fishermen often suffer from their isolation from the rest of the world. When it comes to understanding their problems, stories abound of fishermen around the world facing similar troubles. There is not a lot of good news these days about the management of “the commons,” the common resources the ocean provides for us. You have to hunt for good stories about healthy management of a resource. Striped bass is our positive story.
On Martha’s Vineyard, it is easy to point a finger to the beginning of the fisheries decline to the mid-1970s when huge factory ships started fishing day and night within a few scores of miles of Island waters. Mr. Roberts’s book points back four hundred years.
At that time, the book tells, ocean fishing in Europe got a lot easier — because all the fish were removed from freshwater ponds and estuaries through overfishing and pollution.
Since the beginning of civilization, the need for food has caused men to go down to sea in ships. If there were an easier way to get dinner, fishermen found it. They started in freshwater ponds and as a last resort went on the high seas. In the early 1800s fish were everywhere. The bounty looked limitless. Around the world the ocean fish stocks started declining. They declined first in European waters and then spread outwards.
The author has searched out the newspaper articles and research papers written over the centuries. The papers are strikingly familiar. They describe a struggle between an advancing fishing technology, and a resource that was once bountiful being brought to its knees.
Lately there has been a lot of debate about trawling and its harmful impact on the bottom. Fishing boats pull heavy weighted nets and scour the bottom. Mr. Roberts’s book takes readers back to 1863, when a large group of Scottish fishermen participated in public hearings complaining the technique was destroying the bottom of the North Sea, killing the goose with the golden eggs. Their testimony to the British Royal Commission was extensive. But the commission ignored the fishermen’s complaints and allowed the technology to continue — and it has continued worldwide.
The North Sea remains crippled as a source for fish. Today there are no oysters on the bottom of the North Sea, where once they were as prolific as they were in the Chesapeake.
And every mariner knows the story about the New England whaling industry, how whaling ships traveled the world for 200 years and harvested half a million whales, causing the extinction or near extinction of many species. But Mr. Roberts adds to this the stories of many more marine creatures — such as the complete disappearance of steller’s sea cow and the disappearance of the great auk.
In the 1800s there was no way to avert the outcome. Today, the author argues, the management mechanisms are in place.
Mr. Roberts does great justice broadly to the way we humans manage our resources. He could have been writing about our National Park Lands in the early 1900s, before lands were set aside. Likewise, for those increasingly concerned about the Earth’s energy use and dependence on oil, reading about fish management in the ocean shows mistakes best avoided in managing energy resources. Here, the fishermen are not the enemy; they suffer under systems worldwide that undermine the very health of our resources.
That is how we humans have behaved for millennia. Humans are only a little smarter than yeast in beer. Yeast will grow to the detriment of their environment, and then they die in their own soup. Humans, at some point before the soup kills us, we ask if there is something we should be doing differently. So only when the fish disappear in our oceans do we start asking: “What happened?” Yeast die quickly; humans take longer.
Fishing politics are local — no different than many other aspects of managing our aging world. When huge blocks of ice fall into the ocean off Greenland, the issue doesn’t get much traction until the sea level rises in Vineyard Haven. Likewise the only time people get angry about fishing regulations and fisheries management is when it affects their personal lives, their pockets. Years ago, Martha’s Vineyard was a fisherman’s hometown where fishermen could fill a town meeting. But as the number of fishermen declines here, there are only a handful of active fishermen advocating for change.
This book, like most environmental books I’ve seen, offers pages and pages of gloom and doom, including describing the crimes of our species. But to the author’s credit, he also describes proven tools that can reverse the degradation of our environment.
If there is good news coming out of Mr. Robert’s book, it is that there is reason to believe fishermen (whether recreational or commercial) and consumers (fishmongers, chefs or simply eaters) have common cause to work together politically. By the end of An Unnatural History of the Sea, the reader does get a feeling we can do something before all our oceans go to hell. Mr. Roberts suggests the expanded use of marine sanctuaries, places where fishermen are not allowed. The ocean needs wilderness, just as we have on land. In management there needs to be more attention to how fish are harvested; there is room for improvement.
But one fine tool for preserving our oceans is the making their history a readable story, a shared story. Whether the reader fishes or hangs out along the seashore; Mr. Roberts’s book is a keeper.