Q&A: Callum Roberts - Oceana USA
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December 13, 2012

Q&A: Callum Roberts

Callum Roberts is a professor of marine conservation at the University of York in England and author of the 2007 book “The Unnatural History of the Sea.” His second book, “The Ocean of Life”, was published this spring. Oceana asked Roberts about the new book and why we need a “New Deal” for the oceans. This Q&A is from the new issue of Oceana magazine.

How does the Ocean of Life differ from your first book, “The Unnatural History of the Sea”?

“The Unnatural History of the Sea” is about how 1,000 years of hunting and fishing have changed the oceans. It is a voyage through time and around the world in which I let eye witnesses tell their stories of discovery, plunder, glory and heartbreak, and in doing so let us see the oceans in a new light, as if for the first time. “The Ocean of Life” is painted on a bigger canvas. In it I go back to the very beginning in an effort to answer questions like, where did the oceans come from, what were they like before the Cambrian explosion of larger life, who were the first seafood lovers and where did they live? Although I cover the long history of fishing, it is by way of prelude to an exploration of the many other ways in which we are changing the oceans. Almost without noticing it and within my lifetime, humanity has gained dominion over the sea.

What’s the most surprising thing you learned about the oceans while researching and writing “The Ocean of Life”?

Probably the most startling and troubling thing I learned, when I drew together the many intertwining strands of our influence, is that the oceans are changing faster today and in more ways than in all of human history. In fact, we may have to go all the way back to the planetary cataclysm that ended the reign of the dinosaurs 65 million years ago to find a more rapid transformation of the sea.

Considering all the threats facing the oceans that you outline in the book, which do you think most urgently needs to be addressed?

Of course, we are the root cause of all the problems the oceans face and it is ourselves we must change. The astonishing increase in global population coupled with our ingenuity in devising ever more elaborate ways to live in material comfort make it inevitable that we will continue to exert a huge influence on the planet. So we have to find ways to live within our means and transition to renewable energy. Assuming we do this to save ourselves, conditions will get better eventually for life in the sea; the problem is, they are going to get worse first.

So what can we do to help life through the hard times ahead? That is where I think we need a ‘New Deal’ for the oceans which would jointly target overfishing and pollution to rebuild life in the sea.

Can you summarize this ‘New Deal’ for Oceana readers?

Throughout vast swathes of the seas we have brought life to its knees. We have reduced once rich and vibrant ecosystems that thronged with giant fish and mammals to places where not much at all lives now. Marine life, as Charles Dickens might have put it, is suffering reduced circumstances. So the centrepiece of this ‘New Deal’ is to increase the abundance of life once again, to bring back the megafauna and to recover complex biogenic habitats. In a nutshell, to do this we need to fish less using less destructive, more selective methods, waste less, pollute less and protect more. That protection would mean expanding the global network of no-take marine reserves to about 30 percent of the oceans.

What do you hope readers take away from your book? Who do you hope is reading it?

That what is happening to the sea demands our urgent and undivided attention. Because the oceans make up over 95 percent of the volume of the biosphere they are overwhelmingly important to keeping our planet habitable. We ignore this fact at our peril. Since we all have a part to play in looking after the world, I hope the book finds readers from high school students all the way up to politicians, philanthropists and captains of industry. I wrote it for everyone.