My project this term is on coral reef fisheries, and involves conducting rather extensive literature searches for data. I have also been reading The Unnatural History of the Sea: The past and future of humanity and fishing by Professor Callum Roberts, as part of reading for this term’s Conservation Science module.
A classic example is the destruction of the fisheries resources of Hotsarihie (Helen Atoll) south west of Palau, which has been reported to have the greatest diversity of fish, corals, and shellfish of any Pacific Island reef. This atoll was uninhabited because the huge reef has only a tiny shifting sand bank with no fresh water, but it belongs to the people of Hatohobei (Tobi), some 80 kilometers away. Hotsarihie used to have the richest giant clam (Tridacna sp.) and precious shell (Trochus niloticus) resources in the entire Pacific (the name means Reef of the Giant Clam in the Tobian language). But these resources were plundered by poachers from Indonesia, the Philippines, Taiwan, until finally one foreign factory ship came and within a few days, removed most of the Tridacna sp. and T. niloticus, leaving a wasteland behind. After the poaching, almost all of the corals bleached and died from heat shock in 1998, causing a further crash in reef fish populations.
– From Global Coral Reef Alliance
The last chapter I was reading from the Unnatural History of the Sea is on Whaling: The First Global Industry.
The moment of victory for whalemen was also the time of greatest peril. To kill the whale they must get close enough to plunge their lances deep into its belly, probing for vital organs. The harpooner’s shoulders flexed and twisted as he worked the lance into the whale. The oarsmen pressed the boat close – but ready at a moment to pull away when the death flurry came. Soon the whale began spouting blood, giving boat and men a hellish aura as crimson spray froze over them and the sea turned red. The whale shuddered and convulsed, warning the men to stand off as its great tail slapped the water with a cannon-shot sound. Minutes later, the leviathan gave a final heave and expired.
The industry as a whole prospered only because whalers constantly sought and found new grounds where whales had not yet been slaughtered.
Genetic estimates by Roman and Palumbi put pre-whaling population sizes at 360 million for the fin whale and 240 million animals for humpback, nine to twelve times the estimates from whaling records.
– some excerpts from Roberts, C. (2007) The Unnatural History of the Sea. Chap 7.
It’s so heartbreaking to read, the descriptions of the killings and the widespread destruction and loss. One of the best places I’ve ever dived in was in Napantao, the Philippines, when I was volunteering there for a month with Coral Cay Conservation. There were lots of fish swimming all around, and I was so amazed. But what saddens me is knowing that there used to be lots more, and everywhere.
The Unnatural History of the Sea is a great (and easy) read, giving lots of background to the marine destruction that we so often overlook as land-dwelling creatures. Definitely recommend it if you’re interested in marine conservation.