Book Review: Song for the Blue Ocean by Carl Safina


by Carl Safina

Henry Holt & Comany, 1998

New York, NY

384 pages, $30 hardcover


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'Let us all follow Carl Safina's example and forsake theoretical discussions of sustainability – and get real. In his Song for the Blue Ocean, Safina has focused on one aspect of natural capital – fish – and takes us on a fact-finding tour to three previously fish-rich regions: the eastern seaboard of the US and Canada, the salmon habitats of the Pacific Northwest, and the coral-dependent species of the Indo-Pacific (Far East)

'Safina's narrative is so richly detailed that readers can feel the vicarious thrill of traveling to these marine destinations in search of the bluefin tuna in the Atlantic or the Napoleon wrasses in the Indo-Pacific. We can see diplomats negotiating in Madrid and Tokyo or listen in on conversations with retired fishermen in Maine. Safina tells us the complete story: the politics, science, and economics that have led to the depletion of these fisheries.

'The book is divided into thirds, each part devoted to one of the three regions. Beginning in the Gulf of Maine, we learn first about the strange marriage of modern technology with the fishing industry. Flying with a "spotter," an airplane pilot whose job it is to spot schools of fish and report their location to commercial fishermen, we learn about the pursuit of wildlife with the tools of the industrial age. Atlantic bluefin (down 90 percent in the last 15 years) have lost out to the modern technology of fishing: long lines (20-80 miles long with over a thousand baited hooks), drift nets, airplanes, satellite-generated navigation and mapping, seafloor charts, video sonar, and so on. Combine this with an affluent global market described as follows:

'For the Japanese market, the bluefin is worth fantastic money. Fishers can be paid ... more than $50 per pound for a fish that can weigh hundreds of pounds. ... One bluefin recently sold for $83,500, nearly $117 per pound. The 715 pound giant was to be reduced to 2,400 servings of sushi, which, because of the exceptional quality of this individual fish, would be served to elite businessmen and government officials for $75 per serving, bringing in, altogether, an estimated $180,000. One fish.'

'Throughout the three regional vignettes, the influence of voracious global markets is shown to work against sustainable fish populations. Governmental failures abound. At the annual meeting of the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas, we're told the story of Japan and Canada working feverishly to discredit Sweden for their proposal to list the bluefin under CITES (Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species). The US had refused the Audubon Society's plea for such a listing, thus Audubon had turned to Sweden. The bluefin was not listed.

'In the Pacific Northwest, the plot complications that have rendered salmon either extinct, threatened, or endangered are more complex. (Only 16 percent of the runs are not known to be declining.) Here the story extends beyond the fishing industry to include virtually every part of the Pacific Northwest economy. "Logging, damming, farming, fishing, trapping, irrigating, ditching, draining, filling, spraying, and even grazing are a few of the reasons salmon are not having a nice day," writes Safina.

'In the Indo-Pacific "Fertile Triangle" – where more than 2,500 fish species, 3,500 mollusks, and 500 coral species reside, two threats chip away at these numbers: overfishing in spawning grounds and fishing by destructive methods (cyanide and dynamite used to stun fish in coral reefs, rendering them easier to capture). On the islands of Palau (designated the Number One Underwater Wonder of the World), all conservationists have been purged from the Department of Marine Resources by the new government. A memorandum of understanding with The Nature Conservancy has been cancelled, and the new government is pursuing a tenfold increase in the number of tourists who come to Palau every year, with all the attendant hotel rooms, restaurants, airport strips, roads, and sewage treatment. From a Palaun fisher, we hear, "Every year, less fish. Going with my father was fun. We fished with line and never dived. ... We used to fish right in front of Koror town. The corals are dead there now."

'There are some heroes on Palau: local activists and volunteers, the Coral Reef Research Foundation, as well as Palau's traditional king or "chief," who bemoans, "Now in Palau, everything is money, money, money. Very bad attitude. This place is going to get like Hawaii."

'Heroes abound in the Philippines, too, but the Philippines need all the heroics they can get since only five percent of their coral reefs remain undisturbed. The International Marinelife Alliance is working with the Philippine Ecology Foundation to train fishers in fishing with nets, hooks, and lines, rather than cyanide in the "Net and Let Live" training project.

'Song for the Blue Ocean is an important, well researched book. Safina makes no attempt to disguise the marine conservation ethic he advocates. Perhaps after reading it, the rest of us won't either.

Reviewed by Holly Stallworth, an economist within the EPA's Office of Sustainable Ecosystems and Communities. This review was excerpted from The Ecological Economics Bulletin, Vol. 3, No. 3, 410/326-7414.

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