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Extinction Waiting to Happen
A Pew Marine Conservation Fellow Documents Humankind’s Tragic Handling of the World's Oceans. He also Has a Remedy
December 14, 2007 - Trust magazine
By Callum Roberts

Today’s oceans are less diverse, bountiful, productive and beautiful than those of a century ago. The differences are chronicled in Callum Roberts’s The Unnatural History of the Sea, published in July by Island Press. Yet, despite massive evidence of human devastation of a world resource, this Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation remains optimistic about the potential for the seas to recover.

Excerpts from Roberts' book can be read in the Fall 2007 issue of Trust magazine, published by The Pew Charitable Trusts (Reproduced by permission from Island Press in Washington, D.C.). In the article, Roberts addresses the negative impact of high-seas fishing operations developed in the 20th century.

Fishing technology advanced rapidly after World War II, he explains. Onboard freezers gave fishing boats greater reach, and larger nets enabled them to fish more economically. More efficient operations enabled fishing fleets to capture larger quantities of target species such as tuna, but has also caused significantly more harm to non-targeted marine animals such as loggerhead, leatherback, and olive ridley turtles. Drift nets, some reaching 56 miles long and dubbed “walls of death” for their indiscriminate massacre, were used until their ban by the United Nations in 1992, but the giant longlines that have largely replaced them also exact colossal mortality on non-target species. The leatherback turtle in the Pacific may be "be a few breaths away" from extinction, Roberts said. These harmless jellyfish feeders blunder into longlines where they get tangled and drown.

Roberts said it isn’t just the relentless intensity of fishing today that is harming the oceans, but also, the destructive and wasteful way in which we fish. "In landing 80 million tons or so of wild fish a year, fishers throw away another 16 to 40 million tons," he writes.

Callum Roberts is a marine conservation biologist at the University of York, England. He studies protected areas and has assessed the rapid recovery of fish and other animals after protection. His findings show the scale of human impact on ocean wildlife and the ability of protected species to recover.

In 2000 he was awarded a Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation to study the design of reserves. The award supported him in the early stages of writing The Unnatural History of the Sea. For more on the fellowship program, visit and click on "Pew Fellows."

Read the full story in Trust magazine

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