Book Review: Dark Side of the Ocean

If you are one of those for whom solid scientific information is a balm for environmental anxiety, Dark Side of the Ocean is the book for you. Albert Bates, the author of 18 books on climate, history, and ecology, provides a torrent of information in easy to understand language. It is technical but not thick. It has a reference section for those who want to check his sources, and an index for a quick search. Comprehensive and inexpensive, it is an invaluable guide to those who wish to better understand the problems the oceans face, and what can be done to mitigate the damage. Some damage cannot be undone, as Bates points out. Even if we were to bring greenhouse gases down to where they were in preindustrial times, 200 years ago, it would take thousands of years for the polar ice cap to form again. And how likely is that? As I write this, the EPA is lifting Obama-era controls on methane, a greenhouse gas. 

Everything you’ve ever wondered and everything you didn’t even know to wonder about the ocean is here. Bates provides basic marine science, such as parsing the differences between waves, currents, and tides, as well as advanced marine pharma-psychology. Anti-depressants and anxiety drugs end up in the water by way of sewage disposal, changing the behavior of fish and expanding our understanding of their emotional life. And no, if you are a salmon, it’s not good to be anxiety-free. Anxiety helps prevents risky behavior, like early migration, which puts their lives at risk. 

Bates’s chapter on the ocean as a food source covered the waterfront. As a citizen of Gloucester, Massachusetts, the country’s oldest fishing port, I am keenly aware of the decline of the fisheries through over-fishing, contamination, and abuse. Bottom trawlers, which use weighted nets to scour the seafloor in search of fish, cause more than 15,000 square miles of dead, damaged, and dying bottom life every day. That equals the size of America every year. That damage includes coral reefs and seagrass meadows, the nurseries of the seas, as well as kelp forests, which regulate water temperature. Yet farm fishing is no good either, since it takes many pounds of wild fish to create a single pound of farmed fish, so the fisheries gets depleted even faster. As Bates points out, we have to somehow learn to live within the limits of the ocean’s bounty.

Speaking of fish, microplastics will soon outweigh all the fish in the sea. Even crabs in the Mariana Trench tested positive for plastic in their diets, and as plastic moves up the food chain it gathers quantity and toxicity. Humans, high up on the food chain, consume an average of the weight of a credit card a week. If there’s one thing consumers can do to help the oceans and themselves is to stop using single-use plastics. Petition your legislators to put the responsibility for recycling all plastic back on the companies that produce it, creating a circular economy instead of a one way trip to the ocean. Encourage the development of safer alternatives. Science got us into this mess, it can get us out. Bates writes about a great many hopeful avenues back to a healthy ocean, including the rebuilding of coral reefs with biochar and and electricity. It is an expensive proposition, but so is hurricane cleanup and mass migration from receding coastlines. He also covers low technology, such as movement to bring back wind-powered container ships (otherwise known as sailboats). Amazingly, even saving the whales will go a long way to a healthy ocean, for the CO2 they take out of the atmosphere each year.

But the dark side of the ocean is very dark indeed. You will stay awake nights contemplating “blue ocean events,” where the white Artic ice disappears and no longer bounces the sunlight off the earth, which will absorb it instead, speeding the melting. It is a climate nightmare you cannot wake from. The Arctic ocean is warmer than it has been in 800K years, and since the oceans are all connected, it means rising water everywhere. You might as well kiss Miami good-bye, one of the most flood-prone areas in the world, which has two nuclear reactors just outside the city, on the beach. 

In spite of this, the final chapter is hopeful about what the future could look like if we put our minds and hearts to it. We can still turn the destruction of the seas around, but it will mean global cooperation and political will of every country, something in desperately short supply as the world trends towards a “me first” mentality, including America, who, as the worst offender, should be leading the fight. Bates includes the top ten priority actions for the Climate Emergency, but as always, the hardest thing about trying to change anything for the better is us. 

Dark Side of the Ocean: The Destruction of Our Seas, Why It Matters, and What We Can Do About It
By Albert Bates
Part of the Planet In Crisis Series by GroundSwell Books, Summertown, Tennessee, 2020

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