Q&A with Author Mark Kurlansky - Oceana USA
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June 2, 2011

Q&A with Author Mark Kurlansky

The latest issue of Oceana magazine is now available; check it out for features about Ted Danson’s new book, our new sea turtle spokesladies and Patagonia’s threatened waters.

Also in this issue is a Q&A with author Mark Kurlansky, whose 1997 international bestseller Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World is a seminal work of non-fiction about overfishing.

I spoke to him about his new book, The World Without Fish: How Kids Can Help Save the Oceans, which explains the current crisis in the oceans in easy-to-digest language and graphics, and outlines how kids can help.

What inspired you to write The World Without Fish?

MK: I’ve been writing about fish for many years. I talk to kids about it a lot and I noticed a few things. They are tremendously interested, partly because kids just really like fish. We’re raising a generation with a great sense of environmental urgency; they want to know about these things. It’s a very complicated thing, much more complicated than it’s often presented. Consequently, kids are perplexed about what’s going on. So I thought I would explain it.

Has your daughter read the book? Is she interested in ocean issues?

MK: Yes, she has. It’s a very ambitious book for kids, and I wanted to know about anything she found difficult or hard to understand. She’s really into it. She’s my fishing buddy. We spend our summers in Gloucester fishing for striper.

What do you hope kids (and adults) take from your book?

I’d like them to appreciate the complexity of the issue to understand that it’s not that people aren’t doing anything — a lot’s being done, but they’re still struggling to figure out what works. I wouldn’t mind them coming away with a little respect for fishermen and their struggles with the issue. This all can be turned around and if it isn’t, it will be a huge disaster.

I read that you worked a stint as a commercial fishermen at one point?

MK: When I was a kid in the ‘60s, it was a time when the whole coast of New England was full of working fishing ports. You just stopped off at the port and asked who needs a hand. I was a large strong kid, which was what you needed for hauling things, so I worked on a lobster boat for a while, a 40-foot wooden-hulled boat in the open ocean.

I loved it, I absolutely loved it. I loved the fishermen — I thought they were quality men, I thought they were so hardworking and honest and treated people fairly and they were fun.

Are you more pessimistic or optimistic when you think about the future of fish?

MK: As a personality type I tend to be optimistic. I once asked E.O. Wilson that question — how it would all work out. He said that he thought in the tenth round, just staggering and bleeding, the planet would be saved. That’s the way I see it.

What I try to get people to understand in this book is that the history of serious fishery management is only a couple decades old, so it’s still experimental. I think they are getting better at it. It’s a learning process, but we don’t have a lot of time to get it right.

What do you think is the most important step that could be taken to stop overfishing?

MK: I really think that what should be considered is the possibility of stopping bottom dragging. I have closely looked at the entire history of this gear back to the 1880s, and it has always been extremely destructive. Where these things have gone, overfishing has followed. It’s a combination of the fact that they are capable of taking an enormous amount of fish and the fact that they do habitat damage. There’s all sorts of ways to create less damage, to catch less fish, but it seems at this point that a good solution is to stop fishing in that way.