Turn the tide on seas under threat
Economics and ecology have a lot in common
By contrast, fishery managers, such as those involved with the EU’s benighted Common Fisheries Policy, are “fixated” with one species, he says, and work with “cartoons of reality”. He notes that the administrators will blame politicians for ignoring the science, and yet he believes the science is also “flawed”, in failing to “acknowledge the importance of healthy, intact ecosystems to fish production”.
Intact ecosystems, and the rapid loss of them, are the focus of his second book, Ocean of Life, in which he applies decades of experience to make a compelling case for rescuing “the most mysterious places on Earth”. The seas from which we emerged as species have never been under more threat, he says, due to pollution and to the impacts of fossil fuels on climate change, and the “biological pollution” caused by the movement of animals and plants transported on ship’s hulls, or those deliberately introduced to new territories.
“So we have seaweeds moving in that we haven’t had before, and as the world warms we have invasive stinging jellyfish, such as those that moved up the Irish coast and caused problems for salmon farmers,” he says. “We know the jellyfish are reacting to increased sea temperatures, but other movements caused by human intervention are also a wild card in terms of impact.
“We have to reverse these negative trends and give the seas more resilience to cope with increasing populations and consequent energy demands,” he says. “We, as a society, have to step back and recognise where we are now, and deliver a high-quality marine environment for future generations.”
Marine reserves, such as that high-seas network recently created in the north Atlantic, are an essential part of this, he believes. Currently the British ambassador for the World Wide Fund for Nature, Roberts was a consultant on the BBC series Blue Planet. Not surprisingly, the David Attenborough approach to climate change – engaging the viewer rather than beating them over the head – is one that is reflected in his writing, much of which reads like a love letter to the oceans.
In 1987, Roberts persuaded his partner, Julie, to trade a honeymoon for two months of fieldwork studying fish behaviour on Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Just 11 years later, the oceans had heated so dramatically that a quarter of the Earth’s coral died, taking countless creatures with it. “[If a large portion] of our forests had withered and died that year, people would have demanded to know why,” he says. But beyond the world of marine science, “a global catastrophe” had “passed largely unseen”.
Ocean of Life: How our Seas are Changing (Allen Lane, Viking, 2012) by Prof Callum Roberts won the Mountbatten Award for Best Maritime Literary Contribution of 2012. Roberts will speak at the West Cork Literary Festival in Bantry, Co Cork, on Tuesday at 6.30pm, admission €18, see westcorkmusic.ie/literaryfestival/