“It’s a fire alarm,” says Richard Ellis about his new book, The Empty Ocean, which joins a chorus of recent publications documenting the precipitous decline of world fisheries and the dire state of the marine environment. That alarm should make you think long and hard about your lunchtime tuna sandwich or the sashimi you order at your favorite Japanese restaurant.

The Empty Ocean
By Richard Ellis
Island Press,
367 pages, 2003

Ellis, a research associate at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, is the author of more than a dozen books about marine life. From 1980 to 1990, he was a member of the U.S. delegation to the International Whaling Commission, and he is also a renowned painter of ocean life. “I’ve been working on this subject for over 20 years,” Ellis says over a cup of coffee in Portland, Ore., “and we are entering a moment of serious peril as far as fish stocks are concerned.”

In The Empty Ocean, Ellis recounts the historical eradication of entire marine species, including the Caribbean monk seal, the Labrador duck, and the Steller’s sea cow, which was slaughtered to extinction in less than 30 years. “Only recently have biologists come to understand the intricacies of fish breeding, recruitment, and migration, and for many species the revelations have come too late,” Ellis writes. Yet despite all we have learned about ecology and biology, he says, we continue to decimate ocean species: “We have entered an era in which the lesson of the sea cows has been ignored, usually in the name of short-term profits.”

His assessment dovetails with that of the Pew Oceans Commission’s report, “America’s Living Oceans,” released this May. According to the report, only 22 percent of federally managed fish stocks in the U.S. are fished sustainably. At the same time, coastal development, nutrient runoff, and other pollution sources are hastening the loss of wetlands, estuaries, native aquatic plants, and coral reefs, all of which are vital to nurturing marine species. Meanwhile, those same species are also suffering from problems caused by invasive plants and animals, aquaculture, and climate change. If we don’t curtail these trends, says Ellis, “we face a dim future.”

Bluefin tuna caught off
the coast of Sardinia.

Photo: NOAA.

Ellis’s claims are also supported by an article published in the May 15, 2003, issue of Nature. There, scientists Ransom Meyers and Boris Worm show how industrialized fishing of large predator fish in coastal regions has depleted stocks by at least 80 percent, with potentially serious consequences for ocean ecosystems worldwide. Recent research described by author and marine biologist Carl Safina and others reveals that many of these fish depend on enormous expanses of habitat that are adversely affected by fishing, land-use practices, development, and industry.

Nor is it just our consumption of large fish (such as cod, swordfish, and tuna) that threatens these species; it is also our depletion of their food sources. Fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly calls this “fishing down the food chain.” That chain, says Ellis, is actually more a web of interdependence; for example, when California sea otters were hunted almost to extinction, their preferred food, sea urchins, proliferated. The urchins in turn destroyed kelp beds, which once provided habitat for numerous fish — and thus the cycle of destruction and alteration persists and magnifies.

Another factor increasing the pace of “fishing down the food chain” is aquaculture, or fish farming. According to Ellis, fish farming tripled in volume between 1990 and 2000, with the result that aquaculture currently accounts for over 25 percent of all fish eaten by humans. Among the problems with aquaculture is that most carnivorous farmed fish are fed fishmeal, which is made from wild ocean species. Other industries are gobbling up vast quantities of wild fish as well. The poultry, pork, cattle, sheep, and pet food industries consume enormous amounts of fishmeal. Ellis notes that the chicken industry is the largest industrial user of meal made from menhaden, an Atlantic coastal fish that is also used to produce cooking and food-processing oils. Menhaden numbers have dropped 60 percent in the past four decades.

It’s a trap: bluefin tuna
in an underwater pen.

Photo: NOAA.

Among the other species whose fate Ellis describes are cod, salmon, sea turtles, sharks, whales, sea lions, seals, rockfish, and tuna. Since 1980, stocks of bluefin tuna have fallen by 80 percent in the European Atlantic and by 50 percent on the U.S. side. While those fisheries are now tightly managed, a “loophole big enough to drive a factory ship through has been discovered in the regulations governing Mediterranean bluefin tuna fishing”: Although numbers of those fish legally caught by net or harpoon are strictly limited, there are no restrictions on the number of bluefin that can be caught and kept in what are called “post-harvesting pens,” where they are fattened up before slaughter.

Although you could find much of the information contained in The Empty Ocean in environmental reports or scientific journals, Ellis’s poignant narrative provides a thorough and readable overview of the damage inflicted on ocean ecosystems by global pollution and industrial fishing practices. While Ellis is an expert in the field and has visited nearly every place that figures in the book, The Empty Ocean is not built around his own fieldwork, nor does it offer much in the way of scenic detail; but it is evocative nonetheless, thanks to his careful interweaving of historical accounts and marine biology. As he makes abundantly clear, unless urgent action is taken, we are facing a tragedy — one in which far too many of us are complicit. “There is no great mystery about what happened to the codfish of the North Atlantic,” writes Ellis. “The fishermen caught them, and the rest of us ate them.”

So what do we do now? “I wish we could turn the clock back,” says Ellis. Barring that, he says, we must take steps to protect and restore what’s left. “Marine reserves that incorporate no-take zones, which means no fishing by anybody, are essential to stemming the decline of world fisheries,” he writes. But, he adds, “even penicillin won’t work if you don’t take it.” How, then, to ensure that marine ecosystems get the protection they need? “We have to keep this going,” says Ellis of the current barrage of books, articles, reports, and editorials detailing the plight of the oceans. Otherwise, he says, “the only way these lessons will get driven home, is when fish is no longer on the menu.”