Shifting Baselines

The Ocean as it was a thousand years ago. My father told me how rich the sea was when he line fished from an open boat – the wonder he described seemed marvellous to me. He had studied marine biology so I spent my childhood in and on the water (mostly in it) looking for the creatures, birds and plants that lived in the shallows.  I could compare what I saw with what he told me had been. Even as a child I could see how much we had lost and I was sad.

All those stories of the sea make you who you are, maybe they go back so many generations they are in your bones.   I first studied naval architecture thinking I could design fishing boats but the evening lectures I attended were given by, and full of, grey men talking about the design of submarines and the greyness seemed to go deeper than the greyness of grace and age. I couldn’t help thinking the ash and soot and awful brightness, the dull earth breaking concussion of the nuclear war heads their submarines could hurl had settled in their souls.

The three mile limit was removed. The great dying of the silent spring grew. It was heart breaking. No person who wished to remain sane could help engineer that.

I studied ecology and have never stopped. This does not really matter, what I am telling is in living memory. Ask the old people about the richness they knew, the salmon netting, line fishing, ring netting, the skate Angling week celebrated at the skate ball. It’s in the landing records for the Ullapool creek.

It’s in the log books of the whaling ships. It is in the history of all the fisheries that once thrived. It can be reconstructed too using the mathematics of ecology to count what must have been before records were kept. The richness of it was staggering. I want that back. I want it back for the delight of its beauty but also for food security and job creation because the math shows a recovered ecosystem will give us twice the catch we have now and that, (if well managed), it would go on forever.

Imagine the sea here (and everywhere else) as it was a thousand years ago. Many trees can live to be a thousand, forty generations, too long in comparison to our lifetimes for us to easily notice a slow unintended unravelling of fish and whales, seaweed and forest. One thousand years ago we were building gothic cathedrals. The Polynesians had not yet reached New Zealand. The Australian aborigines wandered in a dream time 45,000 years deep and the oldest Brazil trees against whose trunks we can lean were seeds buried and forgotten by an Agouti.

The sea fishery statistics record 80,000 – sometimes 120,000 lobsters and 200 tonnes of line caught fish landed in the Ullapool creek annually in the early twentieth century. During the herring migration people talked about it feeling as if there was more fish than water. It was easily possible to catch cod with a hand line, there were skate and halibut, turbot and haddock in abundance. The air was full of birds. During the Salmon run the rivers would have glittered, the fish like sparks in a fire. The water was clearer and the light a different colour. There would have been whales in numbers that even the biologists can hardly believe, but as we learn more it is clear that it was so.

If I could show people the sea as it was full of life they would cry and all argument would stop.

If you want to know more or don’t believe me here are some references.

Callum Roberts., Ocean of Life.

W. Jeffrey Bolster., The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail.

Thurstan, R. H., Brockington, S. & Roberts, C. M., The effects of 118 years of industrial fishing on UK bottom trawl fisheries., Nature communications.

Smith TD, Reeves RR, Josephson EA, Lund JN (2012) Spatial and Seasonal Distribution of American Whaling and Whales in the Age of Sail. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34905. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034905

Leave a Reply