In his book The unnatural history of the sea – The past and future of humanity and fishing, Professor Callum Roberts reveals a thought pattern which some readers might already have known in the back of their minds. It could come as a shock to you, nonetheless, as IoM Friends of the Earth’s Falk Horning discovers
There has, historically, been a much greater abundance in wild life than most people can nowadays imagine.
Fish populations were at one point 10 times higher than they are now, average sizes for fish were extraordinary by today’s standards - and there were many, many more diverse species in our seas.
The impact of humans on fish stocks reach back far into history. Intensive fishing has, as most people know, led to a depletion of the seas over generations. But the real extent of this trend has slipped by, un-noticed by most people, precisely because of this generational effect.
For example, the status of marine life as it is when a person is born, is what seems ‘normal’ to him (or her).
Over his life span, he might have noticed a degradation, compared to what was in evidence when he was young – but his children are brought up in a time when this degradation is already embedded; it sets a new baseline.
So the state the seas are in when they are young seems normal to them. Again, over the lifespan of this younger generation, the seas are further depleted, which they will again compare to the state the seas were in when they were young.
Their offspring again accept the natural environment they’re born into as normal... and so when they see a reduction in sea life, they might aspire to stop that destruction at the then-current levels, not realizing that those levels were already far off from what their father or grandfather had experienced.
Most of the time, a compromise between keeping the status quo and the demands of the fishing industries is made. So sea life gets demished further.. and the next generation will see that new state as normal, and so on and so on. If those children were to ask their father how sea life was in his youth, and, instead of taking their own perception of the seas as a baseline for aspirations, took their father’s perception as the ideal state, that compromise would look much different from the ones typically arrived at. And this differential would be even greater, if they were to take the state of the seas two or three generations ago, rather than just one.
The Isle of Man’s waters have changed dramatically. Up until about one generation ago, salmon and seatrout were seen so often in our waters, that they were fished commercially. Until about two generations ago, huge herring schools were common. Nowadays, much herring for our traditional Manx kippers has to be imported. Looking further back, cod was known as the “Emperor” of the North Sea, found in great numbers and majestic sizes. Big skates surfed through our waters. Until 1900, an oyster fishing fleet with as many as 200 boats was active around the Isle of Man. Overfishing and the destruction of underwater habitats has hugely altered the underwater landscape of the seas. Huge mussel beds, coral reefs and seagrass territories once gave our fish stocks food and shelter. Today, big parts of the sea floor are covered only in sand and mud.
This ‘deforestation’ of submarine flora has gone unnoticed by most of us, as it’s harder to see.