Reviews and Comments

Washington Post Book World

Jonathan Yardley reviews the book in the Washington Post, calling it a "...passionate and immensely important book…"

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Washington Post Book World Live

Callum Roberts, author of The Unnatural History of the Sea, answered questions from readers about his new book and the fate of our oceans during the Washington Post Book World's online discussion on July 31 2007.

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Washington Post Book World LIVE discussion:

Callum discussed his new book and what has happened to the world's oceans. He talked about the hundreds, even thousands, of marine species on the verge of extinction because of overfishing, habitat loss and pollution. He talked about the centuries of mismanagement and exploitation that have created collapsed fisheries, toxic plankton blooms, and suffocating estuaries. And Callum discussed his visionary and controversial proposal to restore marine life by permanently protecting 30 percent of the world's oceans.


1 August 2007, Volume 103; Issue 22; ISSN: 00067385
Starting with the eighteenth-century voyages of Vitus Bering, Roberts leads the reader through a wealth of maritime history revealing countless examples of overfishing. By quoting everyone from naturalist Georg Steller to western writer and trophy fisherman Zane Gray and swordfish boat captain and author Lynda Greenlaw, he covers a wide range of perspectives from those who know the seas better than most. The over-whelming message is that profitability and sustainability are no longer compatible and hard choices must now be made. Roberts is eloquent and persuasive as he recounts centuries of ill-managed fishery planning, and allows those who have directly experienced dramatic changes in the oceans to speak for themselves. He offers both indictments and solutions in a straight-ahead book illustrated with historical photographs and drawings that should appeal equally to armchair enthusiasts, maritime aficionados, and scientists. Thoughtful, inspiring, devastating, and powerful, Roberts' comprehensive, welcoming, and compelling approach to an urgent subject conveys large problems in a succinct and involving manner. Readers won't be able to put it down. - Colleen Mondor

© 2007 Booklist. Provided by ProQuest Information and Learning. All Rights Reserved.

Conservation Magazine

Volume 8, Issue 3
It’s a familiar scenario: hook-and-line fishermen clamor against industrial fishing; the government appoints a commission of scientists to determine whether bottom trawling damages fish habitat, kills young fish, and causes population declines. But this series of events took place in 1863; as Callum Roberts reports, fishermen were aware of the interdependence between fish species and the importance of complex bottom habitats long before scientists invented the concept of food webs or ecology. Objections to trawling from fishermen date back to the fourteenth century, but a surprising cast of biology’s heroes—from T.H. Huxley to Rachel Carson—were on the wrong side when it came to fisheries management, arguing that marine species were inexhaustible.

Roberts uses first-hand accounts dating back to the Middle Ages to paint a picture of seas that were once brimming with fish, turtles, whales, seals, oysters, and every other marine critter imaginable. All that changed long before the advent of modern fishing technology, he argues, deftly and repeatedly illustrating how shifting baselines have allowed the inexorable decline of marine resources to continue nearly unnoticed for hundreds of years. This is fascinating but very bad news, and Roberts’ proposed solution is a tall order politically and practically. He argues that nearly 30 percent of the world’s oceans should be set aside as Marine Protected Areas, and his vivid accounts of centuries of relentless harvesting suggest that drastic measures are in order.

Publishers Weekly

Marine conservation biologist Roberts presents a devastating account of the effects of fishing on the sea. Once abundant aquatic life has declined to the point where we probably have less than five percent of the total mass of fish that once swam in Europe's seas, he states. Intensive fishing since medieval times has caused this decline gradually over the centuries, so that the fish-deprived sea seems normal to today's generations. Industrial fishing, especially trawling, has virtually eliminated entire habitats, including cod in Canada, oysters in Chesapeake Bay and herring in the North Sea. Now, sophisticated devices such as sonar depth sensors are being used to plunder that last frontier, the deep sea. Callum's alarming conclusion is that by the year 2048, fisheries for all the fish and shellfish species we exploit today will have collapsed. He argues persuasively for the establishment of marine reserves—protected areas where fish stocks have a chance to recover. His impressive book, replete with quotations from the reports of early explorers, merchants and travelers describing seas teeming with life that's unimaginable today, is a vivid reminder of what we've lost and a plea to save what is left and help the sea recover some of its earlier bounty. Illus.

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