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Guest BROWNer

'The Empty Ocean': Invisible Extinctions

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Guest BROWNer

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'The Empty Ocean': Invisible Extinctions

By THURSTON CLARKE

 

he ghosts of vanquished animals still haunt their former habitats; jungles without tigers, prairies without buffaloes and savannas where herds of elephants once foraged all remind us of what has vanished. But maritime extinctions, as Richard Ellis so eloquently reminds us in ''The Empty Ocean,'' are largely invisible, leaving us, ''stranded on shore, watching as the bountiful sea life disappears before our uncomprehending eyes.''

 

And so Florida mangroves cleared for condominiums are an ecological slap in the face, but a reef off the Florida Keys bleached by the effluvia of legal septic tanks and illegal cesspools looks no different from the shoreline; waves continue breaking gently across it, and its shallows are still the same beautiful turquoise. Walk along a resort beach in Baja California and you would never guess that offshore, in areas where a half-century earlier divers found 4,000 abalones per acre, they can now find only one per acre. Stand on a rocky promontory on one of Norway's Lofoten Islands and the black North Sea waters below look as chilly and forbidding as they have for centuries; unless you had read Ellis's book, you would have no way of knowing that a century earlier they supported shoals of fish teeming in 130-foot-high underwater columns, a miracle known as a ''cod mountain.''

 

Sometimes the dying occurs within sight, at the water's edge, and hints at the wider devastation beyond. Residents of high-rise condominiums on Florida's Atlantic shoreline sometimes trip over dead or dying female sea turtles while taking morning walks. The creatures have crawled ashore at night to lay their eggs and, mistaking the lighted condominiums for the sun rising over the Atlantic, then head inland, become stranded and die. Visitors to remote Enderby Island could not fail to notice the rabbits, introduced by French settlers in the 19th century and numbering in the thousands. They would notice, too, in some of the rabbits' deep burrows, the carcasses of sea lion pups, 700 of which every year wriggle into these burrows, become trapped and die.

 

But usually the maritime tragedies happen out of sight, and we must look to clues: jars in Chinese apothecaries filled with a powder of ground-up seal penises; shoehorns, cribbage sets and eyeglasses fashioned from tortoise shells; sea horses turned into key chains; Hong Kong restaurant aquariums teeming with colorful fish harvested from reefs with crowbars, cyanide and dynamite; and restaurant menus offering ''Chilean sea bass,'' a mild-flavored, soft-fleshed creature formerly known as the Patagonian toothfish that in two decades has gone from trash fish to gourmet sensation to endangered species.

 

Ellis makes imagining this offstage dying easier. It requires a not inconsiderable leap of imagination to picture the marine life sacrificed in the service of a plate of salad-bar peel 'n' eat shrimp, but Ellis helps us by reporting that for every pound of shrimp scraped from the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico in 1996, nets also brought up eight pounds of rays, eels, flounder, butterfish and other miscellaneous ''bycatch'' -- a term the fishing industry prefers over ''trash fish'' (much as the Pentagon prefers ''collateral damage'' to ''dead civilians'') to describe untargeted species snagged by long lines and dragnets and then discarded at sea. Also snagged by the shrimpers' nets is a large unweighed and unreported bycatch of starfish, crabs, urchins, coral, sponges and horse conchs, so that a diner leaving the salad bar with a one-pound plate of shrimp in one hand could also be said to be balancing in the other an imaginary platter heaped with at least eight pounds (and probably more) of eels, urchins, crabs, flounder, porgies, lizardfish, batfish and butterfish.

 

Ellis is candid and modest to a fault about what ''The Empty Ocean'' is and is not, declaring in his preface that ''I am not a field researcher -- I classify myself as a library or Internet researcher.'' But he is more than someone who has spent time poring over library books and computer printouts. He has studied marine life for four decades and has served on the International Whaling Commission. He has become a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History, and has painted and drawn the sea creatures that appear in many magazines, and that swim engagingly across the pages of this book.

 

One sees here both the benefits and the drawbacks of his preference for the library and Internet. Rather than writing the ''Silent Spring'' of the oceans, he has produced a book that is likely to provide the inspiration and source material for such a badly needed work. Any reader who tires, as I sometimes did, of the procession of facts, statistics, long quotations and random polemics (''the ubiquitous Homo sapiens, far and away the most dangerous and destructive creature the planet has ever known'') should remember that although Ellis has written a book closer to an encyclopedia than a stirring narrative, it is an encyclopedia of the highest order, the result of a passion for research. It is also a splendid example of history illuminating ecology, with well-chosen facts that enable us to picture a largely invisible catastrophe.

 

THANKS to Ellis, if I am ever tempted to order shark's fin soup -- which I probably will not be -- I will picture the 60,857 sharks that were landed in Honolulu in 1998 (a 2,500 percent increase in shark landings compared with 1991), and because 99 percent of them were killed for their fins, I will also be picturing 60,248 finless shark carcasses ground up for pet food. Ellis has also diminished my appetite for fish-farmed salmon. The next time I poach a fillet, I will be seeing the three pounds of wild fish necessary to feed a pound of farmed salmon, wild salmon locked in fatal embrace with domesticated escapees, and Scottish fish farms pouring twice as much waste into surrounding waters as the entire population of Scotland.

 

Near the end of his book, Ellis writes in summary, ''We mourn the loss of rain forests and timberlands; we watch helplessly as urban sprawl encroaches on meadows and prairies . . . but the rampant destruction of the ocean floor and its endemic fauna is one of the greatest environmental disasters in history, and it is occurring virtually unnoticed.'' The destruction may have gone unnoticed until now, but with the publication of ''The Empty Ocean'' it will at least be easier to imagine, and to mourn.

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out of sight out of mind.....

 

it wont be important until its too late.

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Good post, Brownie.

 

I don't have time to research it, but I remember watching a show about a similair topic (kinda, but there aren't many ocean awareness threads in 12oz). There is some kind of marine plant that was adapted for use in aquariums. It is notable for the fact that it can reproduce from a single cell, and it also blankets the ocean floor (think a front lawn under water), smothering out all the life in whatever area it spreads to. It can live in just about any temperature, and is popping up all over the globe. First popped up in France, if I remember correctly.

 

Just another way we are killing our planet. Way to go humans.

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Guest SPLINTER

well get your asses up and do something guys.

 

i swear. maybe my fucking animal rights things was retarded but that was meant to be. i think you guys that truely car about this stuff are even more retarded. not because you care, because youre not doing shit about it.

 

if i cared enough, which i dont, i would be out there on the ocean trying to blow up shrimping boats. or at least bust their engines and rip the sails to prevent them from leaving harbor.

 

i saw a documentary about some chick in India and its neighboring countries. she was going around educating the people about snake charmers and snakes. she was OUT THERE saving snakes and shit. she even put the smack down on some snake charmers. thats what you guys need to do instead of sitting around on the internet saying OH SHIT THATS FUCKED UP.

 

Go out and educate people, then take them with you and DO SOMETHING. ANYTHING. wheter it be peaceful, violent, mischievious. dont just sit around. if you are old enough to drive a car or get on a train/bus/plane, you should be somewhere doing something.

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Guest BROWNer

so how about this:

man is (in) nature, are we just 'contributing' naturally, living

naturally as any other potentially creative/destructive natural lifeform

would? it should seem obvious that we do things that do not seem to

have any logical contribution to nature itself, but..

that might seem like a weird thing, i ask becuz i have had quite a

few discussions with people that think human behaviour is

somehow outside of nature, that we do things that aren't

natural......

 

?

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Guest BROWNer

also, i'm curious how many of you are situated

very close to a large body of water, a lake or ocean..

i live a couple blocks from the ocean, and around here

they are finding serious problems with a huge tourist

attraction, orca's. the orca's are starting to display

huge blister's that are full of chemicals and shit...visible on

the outside of their bodies, on their skin.

my city, right on the ocean, comes off and perpetuates

this whole cosmopolitan image, but not alot of people

here care or even realize that we have ZERO sewage

treatment plants. none. half a million people shitting

and pissing into our ocean plus who knows how many

other smaller cities situated up and down the coast that

do the exact same thing..

they did a study and found that the resident orca pods

around here have some ridiculous amounts of pollution

in their bodies..if any of you remember the hubbub about

the creatures in the st. lawrence..the orca's(granted they

are much larger animals) out here have

up to 500 times more chemicals in their bodies...

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Guest BROWNer

filthy stinkin' bumpholesz.

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Guest TEARZ

i live near the ocean. i was there this afternoon. i thought about this thread. re: human behavior... the theory that humankind's evolutionary purpose is to help other species and the world..- we're flunking our preliminary tests badly.

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