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The Unnatural History of the Sea [Paperback]

Callum Roberts
4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)

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Book Description

5 Jan 2009
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 Islannd 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 11th 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 15th century seafarers is almost unimaginable today, but Roberts both brings it alive and artfully traces its depletion. Collapsing fisheries, he shows, are simply 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.

Product details

  • Paperback: 464 pages
  • Publisher: Island Press; 1 edition (5 Jan 2009)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1597265772
  • ISBN-13: 978-1597265775
  • Product Dimensions: 23 x 15.4 x 2.7 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 4.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (17 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 249,302 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
  • See Complete Table of Contents

More About the Author

Callum Roberts is a marine scientist and conservationist at the University of York in England and author of The Unnatural History of the Sea. His book charts the effects of 1000 years of hunting and fishing on ocean life and won the 2008 Rachel Carson Environment Book Award of the Society of Environmental Journalists. Callum's research has revealed the extraordinary rise and fall of fisheries over the last 200 years, but also shows how life can make a remarkable comeback after protection is granted. His team at York provided the scientific case for the world's first network of high seas marine reserves in the North Atlantic that in 2010 placed nearly 300,000km2 of ocean under protection. Callum works with many environmental charities and is a WWF UK Ambassador, trustee of Seaweb, Fauna and Flora International and Blue Marine Foundation, and advisor to Save our Seas. His next book, The Ocean of Life, explores how the oceans are changing under human influence and will be published in 2012.

Product Description


"Thank you, Callum Roberts, for your riveting, eloquent, compelling and urgently important saga of what may be the greatest environmental tragedy of our time: the relentless, wholesale extraction of ocean wildlife globally. Thank you, too, for inspiring hope that we still have a chance to reverse the disastrous decline of the ocean, and thus secure our own future, as well as that of fish, whales and clams."--Sylvia Earle "Explorer in Residence, National Geographic Society "

About the Author

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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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended 10 Aug 2012
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I came to this book after reading Sylvia Earle's books on Sea Change and Why the Planet is guilt about plugging these at the same time. Eminently readable and full of historical flash back, putting the present era within the longer perspective. Callum Roberts also features in the DVD The End of the Line, and his cheery smiling face contrasts chillingly with and commensurately increases the import of his message. This book is a must read for all interested in marine life, the future of the oceans and the essential food chain within in. Fish are the basic food of a large proportion of the population of the planet; without fish the food crisis will enter nuclear proportions. The impact of factory fishing cannot be overstated - as a diver I'm always shocked when I enter the waters around the UK (Wales,usually) as I always feel 'something is missing''s the fish!! And not only the fish but the variety of life underwater....oh, and the startling increase in jellyfish. Can we eat these? And when you've read this, buy his next book, published this year - 'Ocean of Life'. I promise you if you have any capacity for reason you will listen to the science and concur that we need to act now. Informative and inspiring.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
The tale and the facts backing it up are crushing.

I was overwhelmed by the numbers, the tonnage of animals that are estimated to have been taken . It is crushing to comprehend the scale of greed and the absoloute vandalism that we have perpertrated upon sea animals. For example killing many millions of one type of seals for their fur discarding their flesh, while killing as many million of other types of seals for the flesh and blubber while discarding their skins.

Its a history of shamefull rape and pillage over the last 1000 yrs, and everywhere throughout the centuaries the same thing, no fish left, no lessons learned, no strong legislation to protect the oceans, just incalculable damage to the web of life of the oceans and by consequence elsewhere aswell.

A book that makes you very angry and very sad at the same time, but so worth reading, the world has got to get to grips with over fishing! read this book and try get others to read it too
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A good history of our exploitation of the seas 14 Jun 2008
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I was initially put off picking this book up by the fact that it has a commendation from Greenpeace on the front cover. However it is well researched and wonderfully written with the authors own easy style interspersed with quotations from various well chosen historical sources. He really manages to bring home how much we have changed our marine environment through over-exploitation of its natural resources (fish, whales etc).

I have some issues with the suggestion by the author that management of the ocean is currently split between Marine Reserves (0.6%) and what he calls an "Extensive Exploitation Area" (the rest). Much of this area I am sure could be regarded as Managed Zones (or perhaps "not very well managed zones"). His suggestions for the future management of the sea concur with those of the green fin brigade who think that we need to completely ban fishing from most of the ocean. Many others would suggest that what we really need to do is ensure effective management over all of the ocean in a manner that works with fishermen rather than against them.

I found this to be a really well written and informative book. If you are at all interested in the sea and marine life you should read it.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Shifting baselines 29 Sep 2008
This book is about the sea, but the same story could be told for mans exploitation of the land ecosystems. Only the inpoverishment occured earlier on land (Martin & Klein 1984). And this is the punchline of the book: shifting baselines is decieving the average spectator into believing, that nature wasn't much in the first place. This argument can still be heard. Why conserve nature if it wasn't much in the first place? The author of the book lists up the disasters and in doing so depicts the very much different nature there once was - and that can be again one day, if only we allow it. Please read this book.
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10 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Disappearing act 4 Feb 2008
By Stephen A. Haines HALL OF FAME
The problem with the oceans is that you can't see what's going on down there. Foresters can count trees, birdwatchers have "life lists", but fishery managers can only weigh a catch and guesstimate the numbers. That's the fish that are landed - those and other life caught in nets or hooks disappear uncounted and unreported. "Counting" fish has been a problem since ancient times and the sea has remained a realm of mystery right up to the present. Ironically, as Callum Roberts points out in this informative study, it's those who have harvested sea life - often in immeasurable quantities, who have helped reveal something of what goes on beneath the waves.

Roberts understands the need for fishers. Sea life is a substantial form of protein, particularly when land animals are expensive or unattainable. Men have fished from shore, from coast-hugging boats and from ships drawing a wide variety of gear through the water seeking dinner for demanding thousands. Anyone casting into the nearest river or lake will describe fish as "fickle", unresponsive to the most adroitly placed lure. Ocean fishers, however, trailing extended nets or other gear have the same complaint for other reasons. Where have the fish gone? Roberts points out that human fishing of the seas has undergone three revolutions - trawl nets in the 14th Century, steam power, and deep ocean fishing in the 20th Century. Each of these revolutions was a step in finding the missing fish. Each has proven a way to exhaust the ocean's bounty in a short time. The fish have disappeared.

As he tours through time and place, the author portrays the greed and unreflecting view of fishers, government and even science.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars This ought to be on every school curriculum
History, Geology and Biology combined!
A slow start, but I found it increasingly fascinating. This book ought to be on every school curriculum
Published 1 month ago by Katie Hutchins
5.0 out of 5 stars So far so good
Looks like a really interesting read, only just getting stuck into it. Views history of extraction from the sea in a slightly different way to most (longer time scale)
Published 6 months ago by ken
5.0 out of 5 stars Very Interesting
A great read, not too scientific and very easy, yet thought provoking. It is a huge issue that is covered very well in one book.
Published 8 months ago by **
5.0 out of 5 stars Fundamental Reading
Essential reading for those becoming aware of man's destruction of our planet. Should be necessary reading for schools to educate the young about the need for the young... Read more
Published 10 months ago by John S
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly written history of fishing
I bought this book in preparation of an night class I was to begin teaching in marine science. It is a well written account of the history of fishing from medievil times to present... Read more
Published 13 months ago by Tammy Robson
4.0 out of 5 stars Fact-packed and graphic, with a glimmer of beauteous potential
It's a very fact and eyewitness-account-filled book, but it ultimately paints a vivid picture. Roberts aims to expand the baseline back towards the dawn of commercial fishing, and... Read more
Published 15 months ago by Brian Griffith
5.0 out of 5 stars A must read for anyone interested in our seas
This is a fabulous book. A real eye-opener about the state of our seas today. The author has delved deep into historic records to build a detailed picture of the sheer scale of... Read more
Published 20 months ago by Sarah
5.0 out of 5 stars Scholarly, important and highly readable
Callum Roberts is an eminent marine biologist. Amongst his areas of interest is the history of human exploitation of the sea's resources, particularly through fishing. Read more
Published on 16 Dec 2011 by Mr Green
5.0 out of 5 stars Everybody should be made aware of the key points
This book should be made into film so that as many people as possible can understand its key message. Alternatively a half page summary should be broadcast to the world. Read more
Published on 5 Dec 2010 by Ian Scott
5.0 out of 5 stars Great background for a great perspective
Professor Callum Roberts explains how past greed and obtuse fishing methods have restructured the entire ocean. Read more
Published on 15 May 2009 by Mr. MJ Wear
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