Ocean Hermit – sailing, solitude and stories

My plans to retrace Captain Cook's unfinished voyage have been postponed a year while I work on the next Marine Diesel Basics book and get my new boat SV Oceandrifter ready for sea.

An appetite to destroy – Europeans off the coast of North America

The seas were teeming with wildlife – fish, birds, seals, whales – when Europeans first arrived off the eastern seaboard of North America. Yet within a few generations, that wealth of life had been destroyed, species that once were counted in hundreds of millions are extinct, and the whole biosphere of life degraded to the remnants that survive today.

The sheer scale of the destruction of life on this planet that Industrial Man (and Woman) have committed, and continue to commit day after day, is often so overwhelming that we want to turn away and forget the details of what our appetites, ignorance and lack of wisdom have accomplished and continue to accomplish.  We’d rather stop “being negative” as one friend chastised me recently.  We’d rather shake our heads and mumble, “How terrible” without any real comprehension of what’s Industrial Civilization has done and continues to do.  We’d rather sit back and watch another hour of Animal Planet on our 36-inch flat screen television than look around and take stock of what our rapacious appetites have done and are doing to our own life support systems. Fortunately Canadian author Farley Mowat does not let us get off so lightly.  In a book first published more than 20 years ago, he catalogues the slaughter of animals in just one small section of our world – the northeastern seaboard of North America.

“When our forebears commenced their exploitation of this continent they believed the animate resources of the New World were infinite and inexhaustible.  The vulnerability of that living fabric – the intricacy and fragility of its all-too-finite parts – was beyond their comprehension.  It can at least be said in their defence that they were mostly ignorant of the inevitable consquences of their dreadful depredations.

“We who are alive today can claim no exculpation for our biocidal actions and their dire consequences.  Modern man has increasing opportunity to be aware of the complexity and interrelationship of the living world.  If ignorance is to serve now as an excuse then it can only be wilful, murderous ignorance.”

The numbers of the slaughter of all animals are almost so great as to be unbelievable.  The American naturalist, James Aubdubon, met a party of eggers in Nova Scotia in 1833 who had taken some 40,000 seabird eggs.  The thick-billed murre, a bird that once numbered in excess of three million individuals, has been reduced to just 2,5000 pairs at most.

The most famous carnage, because of its commercial importance, has been the complete destruction of the cod fishery.  When Europeans first arrived off the east coast of Newfoundland and began to fish the Grand Banks and other areas of shallow water where these fish congregated, there were said to be so many fish a man could walk on water on the their backs.  By 1968, the catch topped 2,000,000 tons of cod per year.  Every excuse that could be invented was used to argue that fish stocks were not declining despite mounting evidence and scientific warning.  Commercial interests were determined to continue until every cod, and every other commercial fish, had been taken from the sea.  Today, cod fishing is illegal and cod stocks are estimated to be just 2% of the vast schools that swarmed in the ocean before Europeans arrived.  The greatest tragedy is that such an abundant fishery could easily have lasted for ever if sustainable fishing practices had been practised.

Without doubt, Mowat’s 446-page book is not easy to read.  An unrelenting exposition of mindless slaughter, greed by those already wealthy and wanton destruction does not make for entertaining reading. Yet his research is convincing. Industrial Society stands convicted not only of wholesale slaughter but a wanton, criminal slaughter that has destroyed the abundance even for our own children and their children.

Finally, Mowat gives scant hope. “The living world is dying in our time,” he warned.  But if there is evidence of responsibility and “a return to sanity” then according to Mowat, it is not to be looked for “in the attitudes and actions of the monolithic organizations that dominate the human world” but rather in ‘individuals who, revolted by the frightful excesses to which we have subjected animate creation, are beginning to revolt against the killer beast man has become.’ “

Sea of Slaughter, A Chronicle of the Destruction of Animal Life in the North Atlantic by Farley Mowat, first published in 1984.  Published by Chapters.

Buy now: Sea of Slaughter

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This entry was posted on October 11, 2011 by in Book Reviews and tagged , .
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