James Hamilton-Paterson

Early one morning two Februaries ago, I stood in shirtsleeves in the tiny bay of Crinan in the extreme west of Argyll. The sun was brilliant in a rinsed blue sky. On a nearby islet an unmoving white heron might have been a plaster model. Behind it shores and islands widened to the horizon. Everything was still. Before long the first clouds had appeared, and within fifteen minutes the islands had vanished. Last to disappear behind the grey squalls hissing across the beach was the heron.

I have since thought of these successive versions of a North Atlantic seascape as representing more than just the contingency of weather. For this sea is not the same as the one I swam in as a child, changeable yet essentially unchanged, its resources pristine and infinite. In my lifetime, two-thirds of its high-trophic-level fishes (those at the top of the marine food chain, largely the carnivorous species) have disappeared as a result of relentless industrial fishing. This raises ‘serious concern for the future of the North Atlantic as a diverse, healthy ecosystem’, a recent survey tells us. ‘We may soon be left with only low-trophic-level species in the sea.’[*] In other words, if things continue as they are, North Atlantic fishes will be largely reduced to those species living on plants and phytoplankton.

Even these may have a hard time surviving. Damage to the seabed caused by indiscriminate and unpoliced trawling is widespread, to judge by what marine biologists’ remotely operated vehicles (ROVs) have been recording for years, and given what we already know of the desertification of great stretches of the North Sea’s bed. The power of modern trawlers is awesome. Even middling-sized boats can tow a wall of net 120 metres wide and 15 metres high across a seabed a kilometre down, scraping swathes the size of motorways, erasing communities of bottom-dwelling biota (such as worms, sponges and crustaceans) which are essential to the sea’s health but of no commercial value whatever. ‘Fishing with bulldozers,’ a member of the US Marine Conservation Biology Institute recently described it to a BBC reporter. The nets, hoppers, shackles and steel doors crunch into outcrops of Lophelia pertusa, a deep-water coral which provides a habitat for various forms of marine life. Chunks of the coral are dragged up, along with hitherto unknown species of fish and other creatures that go unrecognised and are simply tipped back dead by the tonne as ‘bycatch’. This goes on night and day all year round. Now vessels are increasingly fishing outside national boundaries and far down the continental shelf, driven there by their own success in shallower inshore waters where popular species have already been reduced to commercial extinction. They now prey on deeper, unexploited stocks of less familiar fish such as black scabbard, aided by electronic fish-finders that can spot a lone sardine through a mile of water. No one really knows what is down there, or how it all fits together as an ecosystem, so politicians can hide behind the comparative lack of scientific certainty about the environmental consequences of targeting these deep-water species.

Things are scarcely healthier on the other side of the Atlantic, as I discovered some years ago on a visit to the outports in Newfoundland. These small communities were settled mainly in the late 18th and early 19th centuries by fishing families from the West Country and Ireland. Many were reachable only by boat and some remain roadless, hunched defensively at the heads of inlets. In the graveyards, stone after stone is marked ‘lost at sea’, testifying to generations of hardbitten lives and sheer persistence. That stoicism is no longer enough. The collapse of the cod fishery on the Grand Banks has been devastating to these townships. Some cling on in the hope that cod will make a comeback as a result of the fishing moratorium which has been in force since 1990. But they still haven’t, unlike the North Sea cod, which returned in 1919 after four years’ disruption to fishing caused by submarine warfare. Nature abhors a vacuum, and it looks as though cod’s niche on the Grand Banks has been filled by fast-multiplying seals, which are taking advantage of the cod’s former prey. It’s hard to see how the cod can ever return. ‘A rich fishery productive for five hundred years was killed off in a few decades by high technology and political cowardice,’ a depressed outporter told me. A fortnight after our conversation, I heard, he walked out of his little clapboard house where I had stayed, leaving the door unlocked. He has not returned.

Any optimism that fish farming will take the pressure off the ocean should be re-examined in the light of our experience of industrial husbandry on dry land: flavourless, brutalised animals, and BSE. Fish farming, hailed as the green alternative to pushing the world’s wild stocks to extinction, is now a global industry producing around 45 million tonnes annually. Roughly a third of fish sold in supermarkets is farmed. Yet the environmental and health costs are greater than we can sustain. Smoked salmon has been firmly off my own menu these last five years unless I’m quite certain it’s wild.

Some years ago, I helped with a fish-farming project in a Filipino village. Typhoons and seasonal fluctuations in the supply of fish mean that most subsistence fishers in that area double as farmers. It seemed to make sense to combine both skills by excavating fish ponds next to the rice paddies and stocking them with freshwater tilapia, a fast-growing perch-like African species. But feed was expensive, the water easily became stagnant and eutrophic, and the deoxygenated fish died. In Scotland, where raising salmon in sea lochs is now part of a booming aquaculture industry, I saw parallels with this disheartening experience.

The first drawback of the commercial fish farming conducted in offshore pens is that the fish discharge effluent (shit, feed residues and medication) in quantities that are fatal to down-current animal and plant life. Second, diseases and parasites plague fish in overcrowded pens just as they do intensively reared animals on land. Third, chemicals are needed to correct this, and the ones used include toxic substances such as malachite green and Ivermectin (which are banned but nevertheless still widely used in a grossly under-regulated industry), as well as the antibiotic oxytetracycline hydrochloride. The promiscuous use of such antibiotics in both agriculture and aquaculture means that their molecules are now being found, as those of DDT once were, on deep ocean beds and in our bloodstreams. A fourth drawback is that farmed fish, most of them genetically altered, often escape and consort with wild fish, passing on their diseases and interbreeding, with unknown consequences for oceanic stocks.

But the biggest problem is that of feed. High-trophic-level fish such as tuna and salmon are fed principally on pellets made from ground-up wild fish. It takes twenty tonnes of wild fish to produce a single tonne of tuna. This ratio is unsustainable because it means that known communities of feed fish such as sand eels have to be targeted, whereas in the wild carnivores feed opportunistically on a wide range of prey. Worse still, at each step in the marine food chain, all sorts of toxins from industrial outfalls, including heavy metals such as mercury and even radioactive particles, become concentrated in fishes’ bodies. Reducing creatures such as sand eels to pellets increases the concentration still further. The awful lesson of BSE, which spread as the result of feeding pelletised infected sheep to cows, has been blithely ignored or discounted in aquaculture, which now is responsible for the consumption of 70 per cent of the world’s annual supply of fish oil and meal. And all this without reckoning the effect on seabirds and ocean ecology of taking sand eels and krill in such incredible quantities. Denmark’s sand eel quota alone is a million tonnes, a tally of living flesh impossible to visualise. In 2003, signs of starvation appeared in North Atlantic puffin communities.

My experience with the tilapia notwithstanding, aquaculture is obviously an industry far better managed on land than in offshore pens. But that costs more, and not every table species can be farmed. I visited a small Scottish company that had finally mastered the difficult technique of rearing halibut from nearly invisible hatchlings. This must be done in tanks on land because the water temperature and salinity need to be precisely controlled at each stage of larval growth. The adult fish looked magnificent, lying torpid like black flagstones at the bottom of their tanks, but it seems impossible that these fish could become a cheap alternative to wild halibut in the foreseeable future. It’s certainly hard to see aquaculture as it’s now practised saving the ocean.

The incoherence of fisheries policy on both sides of the North Atlantic has arisen equally from the Realpolitik of the industries involved and the complexities of scientific judgment. Perhaps fearing that it’s all too technical for them, most people feel safer on the subject of pollution, about which they confidently hold strong opinions. In my idyllic recollection of Crinan, I censored a block of oil-stained polystyrene that floated in the foreground like a smirched ice floe. Ocean litter is now so common that daily sightings of plastic containers and other rubbish can be taken for granted. I vividly remember a small coral atoll in South-East Asia that was knee deep in offcuts from a flip-flop factory: sheets of light rubbery stuff stamped with sole-shaped holes that local currents had heaped together. But mere jetsam is not as potent as oil or chemicals when it comes to arousing public reaction. Last year’s absurd furore over the contract won by a yard in Hartlepool to dismantle some ancient American warships is a case in point, producing headlines such as the Observer’s ‘Outrage as toxic ghost fleet sets sail for Britain’. ‘Toxic floating dumps’, ‘ticking time bombs’: one had to remind oneself that these were empty sixty-year-old ships, not weapons of mass destruction. In November the environment minister Elliot Morley pointed out more soberly that this episode was really only a forerunner of a larger problem: what to do with the two thousand or so single-hulled tankers which anti-pollution legislation will rightly render obsolete between now and 2015.

It feels like the Brent Spar all over again. Our entire way of life is sustained by tankers and storage buoys; yet as soon as they wear out or are retired the media magically upgrade them into ‘time bombs’. As repositories for the superstitious fears we have about our own technology, these hulks apparently need to be exorcised by gallant bands of Greenpeace warriors, who speed to the scene in Zodiac dinghies like priests ready to deal with a spiritual emergency. In the case of the Brent Spar the priests won. Shell aborted the plan to deep-six their empty storage buoy out in the North Atlantic and instead towed it to Norway to be cut into sections to build a dock extension at Mekjarvik. Marine scientists I spoke to at the time emphasised that Shell’s painstaking environmental impact studies had all convincingly shown that dumping the Brent Spar was preferable to dismembering it on dry land. But, as so often, a scientifically informed decision was trashed by emotive reporting about the immorality of treating the sea as a dustbin.

This charge is not unjust; yet the interesting thing is how little irreversible damage caused by our pollution of the oceans we have been able to detect. Remove the source and the sea recovers. The odd Brent Spar, even two thousand empty oil-tankers, represent a mere fraction of the vast tonnage of ships lost worldwide in the past century, including all those sunk in two world wars, many of which carried enormous cargoes of oil and unpleasant chemicals. None has yet been shown to have provoked an enduring catastrophe as opposed to localised and temporary harm. People are strangely resistant to the idea that oil is as natural a substance as milk or honey, and that for millions of years it has been welling out through cracks in the seabed all over the world. In places it seeps through on land, too: it enabled the ancient Egyptians to coat their mummies with pitch and Nebuchadnezzar to asphalt the streets of Babylon in 600 BC. Oil seepage near coasts may even be commercially exploitable, as it is off Coal Oil Point in California. Natural seepage is estimated to account for 15 per cent of all oil pollution in the ocean. Compared to the oceans’ total volume (roughly 1.37 billion cubic kilometres), even a million tonnes of crude – the amount that might be spilled by the sinking of a large tanker – are as nothing. All it takes is enough time for the dispersant actions of wind and waves, evaporation, and the inconceivable mass of micro-organisms that thrive on petroleum metabolites to do their work. The oil will steadily disappear.

So will the hulks themselves. The Titanic is being visibly devoured by iron-eating bacteria whose existence no one had guessed at before the wreck was found. Meanwhile, virtually any object on the seabed, from a ship to an empty beer bottle, can become a habitat for marine life. I have watched miles of footage shot by cameras on ROVs of wrecks on the seabed and have yet to see any surrounded by a ‘dead zone’. On the contrary, they are mostly festooned with life and are nurseries for fish. Almost anything can be colonised. The seabed beneath the world’s great shipping routes is criss-crossed by trails of ashes dumped during the hundred years in which ships were coal-fired. These have long since become ‘clinker communities’ of sessile animals, corridors of life in places where it may have been scanty before. Life is ubiquitous in the ocean but always benefits from having somewhere advantageous to live.

I saw this for myself in 1995 while aboard the Russian oceanographical vessel Akademik Mstislav Keldysh. The Keldysh carries twin Mir submersibles, two of only five such craft in the world rated to a depth of 6000 metres, which have since been earning their non-scientific keep by film-making and taking rich tourists down to see the Titanic. I was chronicling an expedition in search of two Second World War wrecks which had – allegedly – salvageable quantities of gold aboard, and was allowed a 17-hour trip to the Atlantic seabed five kilometres down, squeezed into a two-metre-diameter titanium sphere with the two Russian pilots. It is unusual to have a defining experience as late in life as one’s fifties, but to stare for hours through the thick window of a Mir at a portion of the planet’s surface never before seen was a rare privilege. A desolate landscape of ochre sand-dunes, it was nevertheless pocked everywhere with wormholes and the tracks of holothurians. Yet it wasn’t entirely primordial. Wherever an object such as an oil-drum had fallen to the seabed from the upper world, animal life was proliferating inside, outside and around it.

On dry land it’s much the same story: in Britain’s back lanes and lay-bys it never takes long for abandoned refrigerators, mattresses and bedsteads to be colonised by wild creatures. Our principal assault on insect, animal and bird populations comes not from domestic rubbish or even from industrial effluent, but from intensive agribusiness and encroaching suburbia. As with the land, so with the sea. The most deleterious human impact on the oceans is our remorseless pursuit of its living creatures, only a fraction of which wind up on our dinner plates. None of this means we can treat the ocean as a refuse tip. Dumping hulks at sea isn’t an ideal solution; but it is often better than the alternative. Stories about ‘toxic ghost ships’ are distractions, and so is the demonising of oil companies which, by and large, have been obliged to become models of environmental responsibility in comparison with the fishing industry.

The organisers of the recent Census of Marine Life estimate that our efforts to conserve the oceans lag a hundred years behind those designed to protect plants and animals on land. This is all the less reassuring given forecasts of the imminent extinction of tigers and great apes in the wild. There is plenty of reason for pessimism where the ocean is concerned. Europe’s chronic mismanagement of its own fisheries does not encourage confidence, and now its fleets voyage far into the North Atlantic or to the coasts of Africa. Many of these fisheries are in territorial waters – but deals are struck.

Efforts at consciousness-raising vary. It isn’t easy to take the measure of a book like Redmond O’Hanlon’s Trawler.[†] Anyone who has made voyages on Scottish trawlers like the one he writes about, and in similar waters, will vouch for the accuracy of his account of shipboard life. We may even share something of his naive wonder at the strange creatures hauled up in the nets: most biologists’ careers surely began with some such awe and delight. But unlike that of most oceanographers and marine biologists today, O’Hanlon’s wonder seems uncontaminated by any real sense of urgency.

The modern ocean is no longer the primordial Eden revealed to 19th-century oceanographers such as Charles Wyville Thomson – the Eden whose after-image I tricked myself into seeing at Crinan. As Conrad knew, the sea will never go back to its pre-industrial self. In the long run, however, man-made imbalances will settle into new evolutionary equilibria, which may not be to man’s taste or advantage. Eventually the sea will win. In the shorter term, those who love it as much for what it hides as for what it reveals are entitled to despair at the ravaging of its hidden regions.

[*] Christensen et al. in Fish and Fisheries (Vol. IV, Issue 1, March 2003).

[†] Trawler: A Journey through the North Atlantic (Penguin, 339 pp., £7.99, June, 0 14 027668 8).