Book Review

The World Is Blue: How Our Fate and the Ocean's Are One by Sylvia A. Earle. National Geographic Society, Washington, DC, 2009; 304 pages, ISBN 978-1-4262-0541-5, hardback, $26.00.

This warning about destructive human impact on the ocean and its life forms is written by a well-known oceanographer and former head of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Her aim: "I want to share with you my personal view of changes in the sea that affect all of us: to consider why it matters that in 50 years we have taken eaten more than 90 percent of the big fish in the sea; why you should care that nearly half of the coral reefs have disappeared; why a mysterious depletion of oxygen in large areas of the Pacific should concern not only the creatures that are dying, but it should concern you why it does concern you as well." (p. 256)

In the first section she describes the vast extent of human predation on mammals, fish, and shellfish: through efficient hunting techniques and an expanded market for seafood, most commercially valuable creatures have been reduced in number by 90% or more and most new species that come to market are similarly decimated in a short time.  She also covers the consequences of using the ocean as humanity's garbage dump, not only petroleum and chemicals but plastic of all sizes. A few examples: "A whale, washed ashore in California in 2007, died of 'unknown causes' but had 181 kilograms (400 pounds) of plastic in its stomach" (p. 97); "Scientists studying nesting albatross and other seabird colonies on Midway Island . . . found thousands of dead chicks, their feather-fluffed corpses stuffed with hundreds of plastic bits.  Ninety-five percent of fulmar carcasses washed ashore along the North Sea coast were stuffed with plastic, an average of 45 pieces per bird" (p. 104).

The second section discusses the consequences for humanity of loss of marine biodiversity, pollution, chemical change in the ocean itself, and the effects of a warmer climate.  In the last section she gives suggestions for what can be done to protect the oceans, through smart aquaculture, political decisions, scientific research, protected marine sites, and the choices of ordinary people.

Earle communicates her enthusiasm and wonder very well, but although the data is there, the sense of urgency and what is at stake did not come across as acutely as in Seasick by Alanna Mitchell.  I was struck, however, by the number of influential women in this scientific field and how much fun the author has in her work. A worthwhile read. – Sally Dougherty (December 2009)   

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