Saving the Last Frontier: Oceana, A Book Review

Ted Danson became a household name thanks to a variety of acting roles ranging from the comedic (Cheers) to the dastardly (Damages). But Danson is likely to agree his most important, although less well-known, role to date has been as an ocean educator. Since founding the American Oceans Campaign 25 years ago, which later became Oceana, Danson has been a passionate ocean advocate. With the release of Oceana, a book about the state of our oceans and how they've deteriorated over the last 50 years, he’s performing perhaps his most compelling story telling yet.

Most fish stocks simply need to be left alone for awhile to recover. It could be one very simple solution to a very complex story.

In the book, Danson provides an in-depth look at how a profit-driven global seafood industry, along with global pollution, have decimated the ocean environment. The book contains chapters covering oil spills, ocean acidification, the destructive practices of the industrial fishing industry, overfishing and market forces, aquaculture, and international government support of the depletion of the oceans in the form of subsidies, flags of convenience and access agreements. Danson exposes the many ways that we have collectively brought – and continue to bring about – the collapse of fish stock after fish stock, as well as ocean ecosystems and local communities that support and are supported by those fish stocks. Through inspiring photos, easy-to-comprehend graphics and guest essays, Danson explains how and why we've been so hard on an environment that covers so much of our planet, yet about which we know so little.

Some alarming facts and statistics from Oceana:

  • Studies show that (even without an oil spill), one drill rig in the Gulf of Mexico dumps more than 90,000 tons of toxic material into the seawater.
  • Since the Industrial Revolution, the oceans have absorbed more than 500 billion metric tons of CO2.
  • Ocean acidity has risen 30% since the Industrial Revolution.
  • All coral reefs could be gone by the end of the century.
  • Each year, the world’s fleet of bottom trawlers disturbs a seabed area twice the size of the contiguous United States.
  • Ten species account for more than 25 percent of all commercial fishery production.
  • Since 1950, there has been a 90 percent drop in the numbers of the ocean’s top predators, including bluefin tuna.
  • Super trawlers represent just one percent of the global industrial fleet and employ just two percent of the world’s total crew, yet each year they harvest over half the world’s total catch.
  • The rollers on bottom trawler nets pulverize everything in their path, crushing coral and wiping out populations of juvenile fish for generations.
  • For every one pound of shrimp caught, up to 10 pounds of by catch, or unwanted marine life, is thrown away.
  • As many as 200,000 loggerhead turtles and 50,000 leatherback turtles were hooked unintentionally worldwide in 2000.
  • At the rate we're depleting the oceans, jellyfish may become the only viable marine life left in the oceans.
  • Carbon dating has shown that some cold-water corals are as much as twenty-thousand years old.
  • For every 2.25 tons of orange roughy caught, one ton of cold water coral is pulled from the net.
  • In 2000, the world’s fisheries burned 13 billion gallons of fuel to catch 80 million tons of fish.
  • Illegal fishing accounts for as much as 31 percent of the world’s annual catch.
  • Six out of eight stores tested were found to be selling farmed salmon that was said to be wild.
  • In 2009, 50 percent of all seafood consumed globally was farmed.
  • China has the most fish farms, producing more than twice as much as all other nations' fish farms combined.
  • It takes three to five pounds of feed made from fish meal and fish oil to produce one pound of salmon.
  • The average open ocean fish farming pen holds 50,000 to 80,000 fish in a space that is 30 to 90 feet wide and 30 to 60 feet deep.

Oceana provides a fairly thorough examination of the problems plaguing our oceans. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Danson suggests organizations to support as well as actions to take to help move humanity toward a more sustainable relationship with fish. I would like to have seen a discussion about agricultural runoff and the dead zones created by it, as well as information about the impacts of global tourism (especially cruises and diving tours) on marine ecosystems. But at 303 pages, it’s likely that space limitations prevented the inclusion of these and many other topics.

According to Oceana, the single greatest action that can be taken to protect the oceans is ending fishing subsidies. Just as with land-based factory farming, when industrial producers have to bear the costs of all the negative externalities associated with industrial fishing, and those costs get passed along to consumers, sustainability will became a much more attractive and practical philosophy by which seafood is produced and consumed.

According to Danson:

We can no longer sit back and say, 'Hey, the oceans are so big they can handle anything.' We can no longer use them as trash bins for our garbage, as sewers for our waste and as a vast seafood supermarket where the supply never runs out and the bill never comes due.

We have the ability to rewrite the ending of this tragic story that Danson is sharing. Each of us must act now to give the oceans a chance to recover. And they can recover, because the oceans and their awe-inspiring variety of life are incredibly resilient. Most fish stocks simply need to be left alone for awhile to recover. It could be one very simple solution to a very complex story. Individually, something as simple as asking a server in a seafood restaurant where the seafood comes from can begin to turn the tide and help turn this tragedy into a happy ending. That’s something worth cheering about.