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Reviewed by:
  • The Unnatural History of the Sea
  • Helen Rozwadowski (bio)
The Unnatural History of the Sea. By Callum Roberts. Washington, D.C.: Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2007. Pp. xvii+435. $28.

The Unnatural History of the Sea is a welcome addition to a growing body of literature about human impacts on the ocean. Those scholars who are beginning to tell the history of the ocean are burdened with a lingering and persistent image of the sea as an ahistorical place. Callum Roberts’s book makes a notable contribution to efforts to draw the ocean into history. His main point is that people have been making significant inroads into marine populations for far longer than most of us imagine.

Roberts tells of rapid and ruthless decimation of marine animals long before the onset of industrialized fishing. On Bering Island in 1741, the naturalist Georg Steller and an expedition found salvation in the meat from the sea cows which briefly bore Steller’s name before being hunted to extinction within twenty-seven years. Stories about the development of marine fisheries do not usually start on such a sobering note. The message of this book is familiar to those acquainted with the work of ecologists and population biologists such as Jeremy Jackson, Daniel Pauly, Ransom A. Myers, Boris Worm, and others, including Roberts himself. To learn about the size of past populations, scientists like Roberts have turned to the kinds of sources used by historians: logbooks, expedition narratives, colonial records. Their research appears in professional journals, including Science and Nature, but none before Roberts has attempted a book-length treatment for general readers, a synthesis of a new and emerging body of literature. [End Page 247]

Roberts usefully integrates scientific knowledge into his narrative. For example, he explains that fishing has the effect of reducing the average size of individuals in a population, then quotes a Newfoundland fisherman of the early 1660s—within a century of the start of that fishery—who comments that the size of the then-relatively underexploited New England cod was a reminder of the past. Roberts sketches a decline for green turtles from a pre-Columbian worldwide population of 50 to 100 million to the current figure of about 200,000 nesting females. The targeting of large marine animals by early travelers and settlers changed the ecological structure of the coral reefs, so that heavily fished reefs, such as in the Carribbean, have many fish but mostly small ones, with few large groupers or sharks. The few remaining larger predators are much smaller than their counterparts in relatively unfished remote reefs, such as in the Red Sea.

This book reflects a personal intellectual journey made by Roberts. His comparison of reefs in the Red Sea and the Carribbean is based in part on his own observations throughout his career, during which time he grew to understand that today’s differences are due mainly to fishing rather than to environmental or species differences. Each new generation marveled at the abundance and diversity of marine populations, then noticed declines from the baseline of its own direct experience. This “shifting baseline” problem is exceptionally well-illustrated by Roberts’s approach, which is to communicate past abundances and declines through stories of individuals or groups exploring or fishing in specific places. His stories come from the distant past and also from twentieth-century sport fishermen, artisinal fishers, and industrialized fisheries, such as for whales, oysters, and cod.

Accessible and well-written, this book is more environmental history than history of technology, although it will be valuable to historians of technology for its attention to gear and the effects that technological shifts have had on fisheries. Many of these stories are familiar to fisheries historians but will be interesting to scholars concerned with such topics as industrialization and technological momentum. Roberts steers clear of Whiggish arguments about better technology causing increased catches, instead deftly integrating analysis of the relative contributions of technological change and other factors that explain the growth (and decline) of fisheries. He also pays attention to the potential role that technology might play in reforming fisheries management.

Although certainly a declensionist narrative, The Unnatural History of the Sea is...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1097-3729
Print ISSN
0040-165X
Pages
pp. 247-249
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-24
Open Access
No
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