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Alanna Mitchell
Alanna Mitchell

Fish, out of water Add to ...

Normally, I don't get seasick, a fortuitous condition that has enabled me to see a lot of the world from the deck or bridge of some sort of vessel. And yet there have been times when I did feel queasy in particularly rough water, such as the time I crossed the Drake Passage (Tierra del Fuego to the Antarctic Peninsula) on a cruise ship that was rocking and rolling so drastically that dishes and glasses were flying off the tables and people who were trying to remain in their chairs in the dining room were unceremoniously dumped onto the floor.

On another occasion, sailing up the west coast of the Baja Peninsula through a Pacific storm, the sea was so rough that the passengers were strapped into their bunks with seatbelts. When the Japanese Whaling Association invited me to participate in a whaling cruise off Japan, my bunk for the three-day voyage was adjacent to the bridge of the Toshi Maru No. 18, and the smells of diesel oil and old whale oil permeated everything, producing a distinctly uncomfortable feeling. My distress was certainly related to the mission: I was about to see whales killed and butchered, and that made me sick.

Alanna Mitchell has called her book Sea Sick - note the separation of the two words - but in reading it, I could not forestall the sense of discomfort I felt while bouncing across the Drake Passage. Not because of the writing or the idea of the book - she writes intelligently and passionately - but with the results of her investigation of the status of most important biome on Earth, the World Ocean. She writes: "The issue is that all over the world, ocean scientists, in groups of specialists who rarely put their information together, are finding that global climate change and other human actions are beginning to have a measurable effect on the ocean. The vital signs of this critical medium of life are showing clear signs of distress."

For several years, I have been writing about various aspects of the oceanic ecosystem - in 2005, I wrote The Empty Ocean, which was about plundering the world's marine life - but I was particularly concerned about the various fishes, sharks, whales and seals that had been hunted to the point of extinction. Mitchell's Sea Sick addresses a much larger problem: the degradation of the entire ocean.

To do this, she has to discuss individual components of the vast system that covers more than 70 per cent of the planet and, because of its depth, makes up 99 per cent of all the living space. What makes this book so important is that Mitchell visits the threatened areas, sees with her own eyes the tragic results of human ignorance and irresponsibility, and talks to the scientists who just might be able to suggest solutions.

On the Great Barrier Reef of Australia, which she calls "The Last Best Place on Earth," the corals that made the reef are dying: "The worldwide decay of coral reefs - caused by the pollution from land, too much fishing, nasty practices to capture wild fish for the aquarium trade and waters that are too hot because of global climate change - has already started to take its toll."

In the Gulf of Mexico, there are enormous "dead zones," oxygen-less regions where nothing can live because of the toxic chemical runoff into the delta of the Mississippi River system. In Plymouth, England, she visits a marine laboratory where a precipitous decline in plankton is being studied, a problem she calls "maybe the most important question human beings will ever grapple with." Plankton forms the bottom layer of the entire oceanic food pyramid, so anything that happens to the plankton affects everything that lives in the ocean; even those benighted creatures who take food out of the ocean.

In Halifax, Boris Worm and Ransom Myers of Dalhousie University published what is probably the most sea-sickening news of all: that in the five decades since industrial fishing took hold, 90 per cent of all the predatory fishes - cod, tuna, swordfish, sharks - are gone, and we are now (over) fishing the remaining 10 per cent. (Ram Myers died in 2007 at the age of 54; Mitchell, unfortunately, missed the opportunity to talk to him.)

Mitchell went to Spain to look for geological evidence of an earlier period of global warming; to China, the largest emitter of greenhouse gases in the world, where the waters are also polluted, often by the vast pens the Chinese use to raise more farmed fish than any other country; and finally to the Florida Keys, the last research expedition of the book, where she is taken to the bottom in the submersible Johnson Sea Link. She asks, "Why keep going? Why should another research trip make any difference?"

It does. As the submersible sits on the bottom, she says: "Shivering in my undersea womb, peering at these wondrous, ancient life forms, it occurs to me that we are in an era that holds out the potential of magnificent regeneration. We could, if we wanted to, form a new relationship with our planet. We could become the gentle symbionts we were meant to be instead of the planetary parasites we have unwittingly become."

While Mitchell is walking on an Australian beach with Tim Flannery, author of the influential book The Weather Makers and an impassioned advocate for a rational approach to global warming, he tells her that she is "documenting the last days of a system. Humans are now interfering with the most basic elements of that system." He tells her to keep working on the book: "Just keep going," he said, "if for no other reason than I need to read this book."

You need to read it too.

Richard Ellis is the author of many books, including The Empty Ocean and Tuna: A Love Story.

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