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book review

The high diversity of coral reefs is currently threatened by human activities and the poor performance of conservation strategies.HO/The Canadian Press

"This is not an unavoidable catalogue of disasters ahead," declares marine conservation professor Callum Roberts in the prologue to The Ocean of Life. He could perhaps have inscribed "Don't panic" on the cover, for indeed there is much to panic about in his immense tour of aquatic woes. His first book AnUnnatural History of the Sea, told of humanity's relentless overfishing of the oceans for the past 1,000 years.

Now, in his follow up, he flings the doors wide open to consider the various threats facing the marine realm today. Readers should be reassured that even after five years researching the book and a career gazing unflinchingly at the problems, he remains positive about the future of the oceans. This is, nevertheless, a sobering read.

Roberts writes with an eloquent balance of level-headed science and engaging storytelling to uncover the ancient and troublesome relationship between people and the seas. He sets the scene, outlining the origins of the oceans before swiftly pushing the main protagonists onstage. Humans don't come out as the good guys among the cast of species featured in Ocean of Life. We are not only emptying the oceans but also turning them into a cocktail of plastics, pollutants, noise and disease.

Among the procession of ailments Roberts packs into The Ocean of Life, some are familiar, some I hadn't heard of and all come with fistfuls of the latest alarming facts and figures. For every hour that modern British fishing fleets spend at sea, they bring back a pitiful 6 per cent of the catch sailboats landed a century ago. Trawlers are stirring up toxin-laden seabed sediments. And acidifying oceans threaten to wipe out the "potato chips of the sea, the mollusks called sea butterflies that flit through open water on tiny wings and feed all manner of predators.

Painting a broad picture, Roberts reveals a crucial idea that often goes unvoiced: Threats to the natural world don't take place one by one. It is not a case of an invasive species here and smothered seagrass meadow there. The troubles pile up on top of one another, colluding to create a situation far worse than the sum of its parts.

In some of his most compelling chapters, Roberts makes a strong case for protecting the seas for our own sakes. In addition to all the benefits of healthy oceans – food, oxygen, storm protection, the mopping up of carbon dioxide – is the creeping realization that sick oceans make people sick, too. He tells how 40 per cent of the mercury inside the average American comes from eating tuna, and of a French beach smothered in so much toxic seaweed it suffocated the bulldozer driver trying to clear up the mess. The Ocean of Life provides all the ammunition needed to show that the oceans are unbearably stressed and urgent action is needed.

There is occasional time out from the bad news, as Roberts visits some of his favourite underwater hangouts to witness the majesty of a manta ray and hear wonderful woo-hoo shouts of mating fish. The spectacular variety and curious beauty of marine life are enough to convince many of us that the world, and in particular our imaginations, would be poorer without so many creatures lurking beneath the waves.

I absolutely share his sense of wonder at the oceans as well as distress at the damage already done. And I also agree with him on his source of optimism for the future of the oceans: It is not too late. As The Ocean of Life shows, the problems are known better now than ever before and so are the solutions, which Roberts assembles in his "new deal" for how to mend the seas. Clearly, greenhouse gas emissions need curbing, since they hit the oceans on multiple fronts, but he casts doubt on carbon capture techno-fixes and leaves others to figure out what can be done. In the meantime, set up more marine parks that keep human impacts at bay, but do it right, he warns: They need to be properly enforced and ideally would cover one third of the oceans. And if people fish less, pollute less, and stop using ruinous fishing gear such as trawls and dredges, then there's a chance that within five to 10 years the oceans will be on the road to recovery. But the biggest unknown, and the one that worries me the most, is whether these solutions will be put into action soon enough.

Roberts makes it clear that the way ahead will not be easy, and humans will have to adapt to a changing world. Yet, somehow he remains sanguine, arguing that things are going in the right direction and positive change is gathering pace. He himself played a pivotal role in establishing the world's first string of marine reserves in the high seas, those distant waters that belong to no one and everyone and are especially difficult to manage. I hope his book will help inspire many more people to step up and be the heroes rather than the villains of the ocean.

Helen Scales is the author of Poseidon's Steed: The Story of Seahorses from Myth to Reality.