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Man’s shortsightedness with environmental issues is a very old story. The recent, persistent bad news and expected repercussions from the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico brought to mind two books, one factual, one fantastic, both concerned with the cumulative effects of man’s interactions with the ocean and its denizens. In his comprehensive book, The Empty Ocean, Richard Ellis, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History and a prolific marine artist, chronicles the natural histories and developing fates of marine life from whales to coral and everything in between. Ellis points out that man has long regarded the ocean as a source of inexplicable bounty, repeatedly filling nets and then restocking itself “as if by magic.” In his discussions of species after species, it is evident that man’s interference, even with the best intentions, has interrupted life cycles, polluted waterways, and disrupted the ecological balance, bringing many forms of ocean-dependent life to the brink of extinction. The Empty Ocean was sounding an alarm when it was published in 2003 and the magic that has supported so many lives, in and on the ocean, has become decidedly threadbare.

For communities far from the ocean, seafood is arranged behind glass at the supermarket, recently thawed or flash frozen and from locales as far-flung as Thailand, Vietnam, and China. Prices have gone up, quality is inconsistent, and it is generally wise to consult published data about which species are carrying excess mercury or petroleum contaminates before breaking out the clarified butter and lemon juice. Coastal communities, too, where the choices are more likely to be fresh and the fish markets stocked with whatever came in on the boats that day, are confronted with a new choice: wild or farm-raised. It seems particularly frustrating that, just as we are told to increase our consumption of omega-3 fatty acids in order to protect our health, this choice is of particular concern. The best source of omega-3, wild salmon, is being depleted in number from its natural environments and, if  raised in the aqua-farms that have appeared to bolster the supply, diminished in quality. Watch a few episodes of The Discovery Channel’s “Deadliest Catch” and it will be become apparent that modern fishermen are required to roam farther from home for longer periods of time, taking incredible risks, to bring in their usual, financially viable catch—just as the Nantucket and New Bedford whalers did before them. Ellis reminds us that recovery is possible but also that it requires a concerted global effort at conservation that few countries seem willing to implement.

Sometimes, in order to be launched into action, humanity needs a kick in the pants. It gets that kick—many times over—when marine life, and seemingly the ocean itself, turns the tables on the top of the food chain in Frank Schatzing’s The Swarm. There’s something wonderful about the idea of a collective marine ecosystem declaring enough is enough and systematically decimating the land-based life that caused all its problems. This is a hefty book, full of snippets of biology and scientifically valid explanations though, because of its translation from the original German, it retains a few grammatical errors and usage differences that might make you look twice. There is a lot to Schatzing’s imaginative story and I’m not giving much away if I suggest that maybe, just maybe, we are not the only ones who depend on the Earth for survival. The Swarm begins with the discovery of unusual predatory enhancements (such as enlarged jaws) in some marine life forms, and violent behavioral abnormalities in others, that facilitate attacks on man in any interaction he has with the ocean, from its depths to the dinner table. Despite the relentless violence of the delivery, the message is very clear: man’s accumulated mismanagement has consequences.

It is unlikely that another agent will get us to focus on the error of our ways; there (probably) won’t be an Enterprise to repopulate the ocean with fish from Earth’s recent past; but we can insist on better conservation and legislation, be willing to make a few sacrifices, and educate ourselves about where our food is coming from and how it is getting to our plates.


To learn more about Richard Ellis and his work, click here for his website.