Five Questions for Callum Roberts, Author and Professor

The Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts, US cover
The Ocean of Life by Callum Roberts, US cover

photo of Callum Roberts

Callum Roberts is a professor of marine conservation at the University of York in England and an author. His first book, The Unnatural History of the Sea, was published in 2007 and his second, The Ocean of Life (discussed here), was published in spring of 2012. The Ocean Portal team asked Callum five questions to learn more about why he writes and what we can do for the ocean:

Ocean Portal Team (OP): The Ocean of Life: The Fate of Man and the Sea is your second book aimed at the general public and the human relationship with the ocean. How does this new book differ from The Unnatural History of the Sea?

Callum Roberts (CR): In The Unnatural History of the Sea, I explored the effects of 1000 years of hunting and fishing on life in the oceans. Those effects have been much more pervasive and dramatic than most of us realise. Larger-bodied animals especially have suffered at our hands and previously-rich habitats have been altered beyond recognition by the collateral impacts of the slaughter. But I knew that I had only told a small part of the story of human relations with the sea.

The oceans of today are changing faster and in more ways than at any time in human history and probably for many millions of years. The Ocean of Life takes up this bigger story. Marine life is increasingly affected by a potent cocktail of stresses from climate change, pollution, overfishing and globalization. These impacts are unprecedented in their intensity and scale and are taking us into the unknown. What became very clear to me in writing this book is that we are headed for disaster if we don’t take swift and decisive action to tackle the root causes of planetary change -- in other words, our swelling population and dependence on energy from fossil fuel.

Because these forces are so hard to control, conditions for ocean life will get worse before they get better. Which means that we must manage the seas in ways that give them the strength and resilience to endure through the tough times ahead. In short, that means putting them on a fitness and detox regime that would see us rebuild the abundance and variety of life in the sea, while reducing local stresses like pollution.

OP: What was the most surprising thing you learned while researching your new book?

CR: The most eye-popping fact I learned concerned the life you cannot see rather than the giant whales and fish that attract most attention. A litre of crystal clear seawater contains four billion viruses. If you were to place all the viruses in the ocean side by side, they would form a thread 1/200th the thickness of the finest spider gossamer that would stretch out into space for 200 million LIGHT YEARS. It would pass by 60 galaxies and countless millions of stars.

OP: Humans can do great damage to ocean life, to the point where recovery seems nearly hopeless. How do you strike an emotional balance between shock and hope when driving readers to action?

CR: Hopelessness leads to paralysis. Without hope there can be no redemption, even if our hopes sometimes appear to verge on self-delusion. A highly regarded coral reef scientist, Roger Bradbury, recently argued in the New York Times that coral reefs are doomed by climate change, ocean acidification and pollution, and we should stop pretending we can save them. I agree with him that reefs will be very different by 2100 regardless of what we do. Many of them are very different today from when I began my career 30 years ago, and some are already in the zombie state predicted by Roger for the century’s end.

I outline my own response to the crisis in The Ocean of Life. I think we do have a chance of sustaining reefs through the bad times ahead by protecting them much better than we do now. Although they might not reach 2100 with much of their coral intact, they might at least retain some of the vitality and productivity for which they are famed. I have seen highly degraded Caribbean reefs benefit from protection in marine reserves. Their fish stocks greatly increased so that they continued to support people dependent on fishing, and they were still attractive places to snorkel and scuba dive.

I agree with Roger that we need to concentrate on finding ways to keep the oceans in business and prevent species from disappearing altogether. Where I differ from him is that I think we have most of the answers already. We just need to act.

OP: What can someone do to help the ocean, even if they don't live on the coast or interact with it directly on a regular basis?

CR: There are many ways to help. Top of my list would be to learn more about the oceans and what we are doing to them and spread the word. Check out some of the great organisations dedicated to protecting life in the sea, like SeaWeb, Rare, WWF, Oceana, Greenpeace, Sea Shepherd, The Black Fish, Client Earth, Blue Ocean Institute and the Ocean Conservancy, among many others. Each has their own distinctive way of doing things, so with a little digging you can find a close match to your own interests and philosophy. Most depend on the generosity of philanthropists for support so if you can give even a little it will help. Alternatively, get involved by volunteering.

Make your voice heard. Write to the newspapers, blog and tweet about the sea. Write to local and national political representatives and put them on the spot. Ask them what they are doing to tackle climate change, end overfishing and increase protection for marine life. If you don’t like the answers, write back with some suggestions. Politicians will usually only act if they know their constituents are concerned.

If you enjoy seafood, find out whether you are making the right choices to minimise the harm done in bringing the food to your plate. The Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch program and Blue Ocean Institute have the answers.

OP: What one thing do you want readers to walk away with after reading Ocean of Life?

CR: It is immensely important to protect ocean life, even if only for the most selfish of reasons. The oceans make up over 95% of the living space on this planet. That means they are overwhelmingly important in keeping our world habitable. We ignore this simple fact at our peril.

July 2012