Callum Roberts, author of The Unnatural History of the Sea, fielded questions and comments about his work and the endangered state of our planet on the Washington Post's Book World online chat, July 31, 2007. A couple of the exchanges:
Washington, D.C.: Professor Roberts, I'm curious about the research you did for the book. What sort of sources did you use to paint such a complex picture of the past? And how long did the research process take before you began writing?Read the full transcript of the book chat.
Callum Roberts: That's a very good question. When I thought of the idea for the book in 2001, I expected it to take a couple of years to research and write. But the more I read, the more I realized I needed to know, so the more I read. In the end, it took five years. In that time, I read an awful lot of old books and reports, many bought from Ebay (you'd be amazed what you can find). So many people today believe that because a document is old, it is out of date and not worth reading. But I found out so much by reading history, including of course that there is nothing new under the sun. Many of the problems we see in the oceans today were recognized 100 years ago, as were many of the solutions. The difference is that there was so much more in the sea then, and people felt they didn't need to act, but could just fish somewhere else or for something else. We no longer have that choice. Today, we must act to bring depleted species back, because we have nearly run out of alternatives (unless you like jellyfish).
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Washington, D.C.: Prof. Roberts -- I work for Oceana, an international environmental group dedicated to the restoration and protection of our oceans. Like you, we believe that it's not too late to save the oceans. We have our methods of outreach, but I'm curious to know what you think needs to be done to ensure the viability of our oceans for generations to come. Thank you!
Callum Roberts: I wrote this book as one response to that question. Scientists spend much of their time talking to each other and the messages from their research take a long time to filter through to the general public or those who need to act on the findings. The field of historical ecology is somewhat specialized but learning about history has immense popular appeal. In the book, I wanted to breathe new life into the oceans of old by revealing them through the eyes of people who witnessed their untrammeled bounty. I hope that these visions will inspire people to fight for the resurrection of these ecosystems by working to recover at least some of what has been lost. I think old photographs of the size of past catches (both numbers of fish and the sizes of animals caught) have the power to astonish us and capture the imagination. We need to use them much more in communicating what has happened to the sea and what we must do to bring marine life back.