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Book Review: 'The Ocean of Life'

Colin WoodardThe Christian Science Monitor

That the world’s oceans are in crisis shouldn’t be news to anyone, but it probably is.

Over the past 15 years, several authors – myself included – have written on the multifaceted disaster unfolding beneath the waves. Boneheaded fishing practices; shortsighted coastal development policies; the mass dumping of pollutants, plastics, and fertilizers into ocean-bound rivers; and climate change have – in a geological blink of the eye – impoverished the seas just when we need their living resources the most.

It’s a global crisis of profound significance to life on this planet. Yet because it is taking place largely out of sight and, thus, out of most people’s minds, it hasn’t received nearly the attention it requires from the public and governments alike. There have been constructive measures taken – particularly in this country – but without broader public awareness of what’s happening and what’s at stake, even sympathetic political leaders are unlikely to give the oceans the attention they deserve.

Thankfully, one of the world’s most prominent and articulate marine scientists is taking his turn at bat. In "The Ocean of Life," Callum Roberts – professor of marine conservation at the University of York in the United Kingdom – gives us an updated, comprehensive, and engaging account of the ongoing crisis beneath the waves, and how we humans can turn the situation around.

Despite the frightening litany of problems facing the seas, Roberts is optimistic that we can and will mend our ways so that marine resources will be there to help support planet Earth in the year 2050, when it will have nine to ten billion people living on it.

"The Ocean of Life" is expansive, covering everything from fishing and aquaculture to sea level rise and the (soberingly serious) problem of noise pollution from ships. The central and persuasively argued theme is that our quality of life will rise or fall with the abundance of life in the seas.

What’s needed, Roberts suggests, is a New Deal for the Oceans, a concerted effort to rebuild the oceans’ natural vibrancy so they can continue to provide food, protect our coasts, and, indeed, oxygenate the atmosphere. “If we’re to avoid the most disastrous of foreseeable futures, we must use every means at our disposal to lower stress and boost the abundance and variety of life in the sea,” he explains. “It could just buy nature enough time for us to stabilize our own population, transition to energy sources other than fossil fuels, and to find ways of living within the limits of a finite planet.”

So what would that entail?

Roberts makes a compelling case against bottom trawling, a method of fishing that, in many environments, does so much collateral damage to the ecosystem that it ultimately imperils even the species that are being sought. He also argues for the creation of a network of vigorously protected marine reserves which can act as refuges and centers of production for marine life. (He also reiterates a perhaps underappreciated achievement of George W. Bush’s presidency: the founding of enormous protected areas in the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands and south Pacific.)

On the shore, Roberts notes, humans need to stop clearing mangroves and wetlands, and not just because they serve as nurseries for many of the species we like to eat. They’re the cheapest and by far the most effective forms of flood, storm, and pollution control available to us at a time when there will be more of all three things to contend with. “There are many ecological services that we cannot artificially re-create or which would simply be too expensive or impractical to engineer,” he warns.

Coral reefs – bulwarks of shorelines and biodiversity alike – are jeopardized by climate change on two fronts: warmer water makes many sick via bleaching, while the same water is turning more acid as a result of absorbing a lot of that extra carbon dioxide we’ve been emitting, a situation that undermines their ability to build their carbonate structure. If they’re to survive until we manage to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, our best shot is to ensure the water around them “is clean, clear of sediment, and free of nutrient pollution”.

Can we do it? Roberts believes that we can. “I am hugely encouraged by efforts in the last ten years,” he concludes. “I have never seen so much energy or commitment to tackle problems, from the humblest village to the debating halls of the United Nations. This is why I remain an optimist. We can change ... [to] live alongside wild nature. The alternative is self-destruction.”

Colin Woodard is the author of four books, including "Ocean’s End: Travels Through Endangered Seas" and "American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America."