Dead, Doomed, or Shaky

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For the world’s marine life, it’s a jungle out there.

By Dennis Drabelle

Plundering the World’s Marine Life 
Written and Illustrated by Richard Ellis C’59
Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2003. 367 pp. $26.00

We’ve reached the point where wild animals are being taught survival techniques. Take manatees, which share their coastal-waterway habitat with speedboaters but don’t hear ordinary noises well enough to take flight at a boat’s approach. The boats run over the manatees, and the propellers rip open their backs, frequently killing them. Working with two captive manatees, biologists in Florida discovered sounds the animals can hear—a painstaking process that required a year of experimentation and, in Richard Ellis’s words, “thousands of monkey chow biscuits.” The researchers designed a noise-making device that the creatures associate with an arriving boat, thus allowing them to take evasive action. “Now, if only the boaters will learn to use the warning devices,” Ellis notes, “there may be some hope for this species …” Otherwise, not just the manatee may be doomed, but the entire order of mammals—the sirenians—to which it belongs. One of the three species belonging to that order, Steller’s sea cow, was extinct by 1768, and another, the dugong, is currently endangered.

This treatment of the manatee—with its telling anecdote, its step backward to examine the larger picture, and its drawings of all three sirenian species by the author—is typical of The Empty Ocean, Ellis’s knowledgeable and impassioned survey of what “overfishing, overhunting, and other depredations” have done to ocean life. Regrettably, I must apply one more adjective to the book—discouraging. But that’s how it goes in the 21st-century sea.

If a species appears in Ellis’s book, you can bet it is either dead, doomed, or shaky. In most cases, the main cause of a species’ decline is over-exploitation, stemming from the blithe assumption that teeming numbers today mean no need to think about tomorrow. Also at work is what the ecologist Garrett Hardin called the “tragedy of the commons,” in which no single user of a commonly held resource—a pasture, a fishery, a forest—has an incentive to husband it. 

Unless, that is, users band together and surrender some autonomy to an authority empowered to dictate prudence. And even that may not be enough: the duly constituted body can itself put on blinders. As a former U.S. delegate to the International Whaling Commission, Ellis draws on insider’s knowledge when he calls the story of commercial whaling one of “unrelieved greed and insensitivity.” He excoriates the IWC for having blown the chance to maintain harvestable whale populations after its establishment in 1949. “For the next forty years,” he writes, “the commissioners, who were supposed to preserve whales for the industry, sat and watched as the whales vanished and the industry deteriorated before their uncomprehending eyes.” Finally, in 1982, the IWC banned commercial whaling (though Norway and Japan continue to kill whales under various subterfuges). Thanks to the IWC’s abject failure, Ellis writes, “all the great whales were decimated to the point that they may never recover.”

Moving from the great to the small, Ellis takes issue with even the seemingly benign pursuit of collecting seashells. The shells you buy in shops were probably gathered not by early-bird beachcombers but by professionals who obtain their wares by poisoning or blowing up the reefs where the shelled creatures live, then gathering the dislodged corpses. 

Sometimes Ellis pauses in his indictments to dwell on the natural history of a species. Sea-horse procreation reverses the norm: after producing eggs, the female deposits them in the male’s pouch, where he fertilizes and broods them until birth. In essence, then, she knocks him up. Sea otters are astoundingly hairy. “Whereas the average person has about 600,000 hairs on his head,” Ellis writes, “the sea otter has 300,000 hairs per square inch.” The Ganges river dolphin seems to have adapted to shallow currents by swimming sideways, with one fin touching the bottom; otherwise, “its tail would come out of the water on the upstroke and hit the bottom on the downstroke.” These Discovery Channel-interludes come as welcome distractions from the welter of extirpations and declines. 

Meanwhile, aquaculture, or fish-farming, may not be the panacea that its proponents have suggested. In some cases, cultivating one species puts another at risk. Farm-grown salmon are often fed Peruvian anchovetas, which are now being overfished. And careless farmers release harmful waste products into the environment. A report on Scottish fish-farming concluded that in 2000, the estimated waste discharged from the country’s 340 fish farms “was equivalent to almost twice the annual sewage discharged by Scotland’s entire human population.”

Ellis’s solution to the worldwide fisheries crisis is abstention—generous set-asides of reserves. Such “hooks-off” zones have been shown to be so productive that neighboring fisheries can be replenished from “spillover” across the boundaries. Whether fishing industries have learned enough from their self-defeating past to support ample reserves is doubtful, but if they haven’t, it won’t be because Richard Ellis has failed to argue his case thoroughly. 

This is a lovely book. Ellis writes lucid and muscular prose, and his drawings are marvels of precise shading. His paintings of whales and other marine creatures have traveled the world, and he has previously written books on dolphins, whales, and the great white shark. The Empty Ocean reflects what he has learned and thought about the sea and its inhabitants over a long career. Unfortunately, the story he has to tell is nothing short of a tragedy.

Dennis Drabelle G’66 L’69 is a contributing editor of the Washington Post Book World.

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