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Oceanography: Ultra marine

Stephen R. Palumbi finds both stark warnings and buoyant optimism in an encyclopaedic take on the state of the oceans.

Ocean of Life: How Our Seas Are Changing

Allen Lane/Viking: 2012. 400/416 pp. £25/$30 9780670023547 9781846143946 | ISBN: 978-0-6700-2354-7

The floating head of Prince Charles, 5 metres tall, chided us about global overfishing. On a February morning in Singapore, at the World Oceans Summit, Charles's video highlighted a sobering fact: in the past decade, marine scientists have uncovered a growing list of serious problems that face the world's oceans. In Ocean of Life, Callum Roberts charts these troubled waters.

Roberts, a marine conservation biologist, dives beneath the often deceptively calm surface of our planet's great oceans to discover the agents of change, where they come from and the nature of their impact — as well as a range of pragmatic solutions. It is a story told with both scientific accuracy and narrative skill.

Roberts pulls no punches. In chapter after chapter of this encyclopaedic treatment, he summarizes the current scientific knowledge about crucial troubles facing the seas, almost all driven by humans. Pollution, acidification, shifting species ranges, the 'decapitation' of the marine food chain through over-exploitation of tuna and other predatory fish, invasions of species from other oceans, sedimentation, habitat destruction and more are laid out.

Overfishing is a much-documented issue, on which Roberts has focused his research career. More than one billion people depend on the ocean for food — and some can get animal protein only from the tiny fish left after decades of overfishing. The story of their unmet need is written here. Roberts gives us detailed personal tales, too, about the decline and fall of small fisheries such as the Firth of Clyde in Scotland; bigger-picture accounts look at why the British trawling fleet returns five times fewer fish now than it did 75 years ago.

This steady rain of sobering news is neither exaggerated nor minimized, and Roberts's clear, well-written accounts give us access to vast amounts of scientific information about ocean declines. Even in the realm of ocean conservation, scientists tend to specialize, and I know of no other volume that treats such divergent ocean issues as overfishing, decreasing pH, plastic pollution and biogeographic shifts with this much accuracy and acumen.

Crucial troubles facing the seas are almost all driven by humans.

As a balance to the bad news, each chapter is edged with fascinating details about the life of the sea, such as how currents move through the deep oceans and what problems are caused by invasive marine species. Roberts's exuberance about the ocean bubbles to the surface: he delights in the historical context of how people have used the oceans. Even when he is describing the dire collapse of the tuna catch in the Mediterranean Sea, a historical description of garum (the infamous fermented fish sauce that was crucial to ancient Roman cuisine) creeps in.

Roberts deftly interweaves ocean facts with conversational whimsies, such as the only aphorism that Oscar Wilde got really wrong (“Nothing succeeds like excess”). And he occasionally offers a passage right from the heart; for instance, when he describes a squid's responses to a human encounter as “written on their skin in quick-fire color changes that pulse and ripple in incandescent waves”.

Roberts's personal anecdotes bring the struggle of one scientist, in service of the sea, into sharp focus. I can just imagine his cheery face as he dressed down the head of the Marine Stewardship Council for sanctioning fisheries with questionable sustainability. I would like to have been there.

About two-thirds of the way through, with the statement “I am an optimist”, Roberts starts to introduce solutions to his litany of seemingly intractable problems. In the subsequent chapters, he discusses aquaculture, pollution abatement and his signature research achievement: marine protected areas. These are all fields in which tremendous strides have been made, some by Roberts himself, to help the future oceans and the human communities that rely on them.

Yet Roberts cannot help pointing out that the problems are still huge. This is partly because some of the easiest apparent fixes — such as aquaculture — can do more harm than good in practice. But it may also be partly down to Roberts's need to keep the parlous state of the ocean in the public and governmental eye. Environmental problems can become so polarized in society that any excuse to downplay or deny them is trumpeted by special-interest groups — a reaction that surfaces with greater and greater frequency.

Back at the World Oceans Summit, Steve McCormick, president of the philanthropic Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, declared that there has never been a time in ocean conservation like now, when the solutions to ocean problems are laid before us and some of the challenges, particularly overfishing, are conquerable. Ocean of Life, in detailing sobering facts about the ills that afflict the largest biosphere on Earth, is a call to action. At the heart of this book is a deep love of the ocean and a profound concern for its viability as a resource for us all.

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Correspondence to Stephen R. Palumbi.

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Palumbi, S. Oceanography: Ultra marine. Nature 484, 445–446 (2012).

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