The Empty Ocean

Posted: 1 December 2003

Author: Richard Ellis
Island Press, Washington DC, Island Press/Shearwater Books, 2003, $26.00

Author and artist Richard Ellis says that he felt impelled to write this book as "a fire alarm in a burning building". It tells, with style and grace, the story of humanity's plunder of life in the sea and weighs the chances for its recovery.

Cover: The Empty Ocean
Cover: The Empty Ocean

Illustrated with beautifully detailed line drawings by the author, it explores the many forms of sea life that humans have fished, hunted, and collected over the centuries, from charismatic whales and dolphins to the lowly menhaden, from sea turtles to cod, tuna, and coral. When Christopher Columbus arrived on the island of Alta Vela, south of Haiti, in 1494, he saw a group of eight "sea wolves" on the beach. A shore party killed them all, and as Peter Knudtson wrote in 1977, "thus ended, in a prophetically bloody manner, the first recorded encounter between Europeans and the sea mammal now known as the Caribbean monk seal."

The seals proved no match for humans hungry for their oil and eager to construct hotels and condos along Caribbean beaches. By the middle of the twentieth century, this fat, shy, mild creature had been clubbed into extinction.

Stories like that of the monk seal have become familiar to Richard Ellis. After more than 30 years of research and 14 books about marine life, Ellis has learned that it is a rare and lucky species that has escaped humanity's plunder of the sea. As he reveals in The Empty Ocean, careless harvesting has led to the extinction of the great auk, Steller's sea cow, and the Labrador duck, to name a few, and threatens countless other species.

Humanity now has a whole arsenal of weapons at its disposal, from mile-long purse seines that ensnare hundreds of dolphins to deep-sea trawlers that annually scour an area roughly the size of the continental United States. We also endanger marine life unconsciously, by co-opting animals' habitats and depleting their food sources.

Richard Ellis is armed with wealth of facts about the sea's depletion. As he describes in The Empty Ocean, the causes of marine devastation are almost as diverse as the animals in the sea. But whether long-line fishing, habitat destruction, or pollution is to blame, the problems stem from a common source: Homo sapiens.

Rich in history, anecdote, and surprising fact, the author's descriptions bring to life the natural history of the various species, the threats they face, and the losses they have suffered. Killing has occurred on a truly stunning scale, with extinction all too often the result, leaving a once-teeming ocean greatly depleted. But the author also finds instances of hope and resilience, of species that have begun to make remarkable comebacks when given the opportunity.

At once inspiring, informed and entertaining, The Empty Ocean provides a mind-changing view of the damage caused to life in the sea and what can be done about it.