Safina: Song for the Blue Ocean

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Carl Safina, Song for the Blue Ocean : Encounters along the World’s Coasts and beneath the Seas. New York : Henry Holt, 1998. xvii + 458 pages; with maps , bibliographic references, and index.

This book is tricky for me to review. So I’m going to get the negative stuff out of the way first, and then move on to the positive stuff. (While reading this next paragraph, remember that I ended up giving the book four checkerboards.)

The book is divided into three parts, each of which represents a distinct geographical and species area. The second one, which focuses on the Pacific Northwest and salmon (thus looking at rivers as much as the ocean), I didn’t enjoy all that much. Unfortunately, it’s also the longest of the three. While the entire book looks at horrible things people are doing that destroy oceanic life, this section was the most dreary. It looks not only at rivers and oceans, but also at horrible logging that’s occurring (this affects the rivers and the salmon), American farm subsidies (in both money and water), and Safina seems to get so angry about it all (justifiably) that he forgets to balance it out with positive things. It’s so gut-wrenching, I often had to put the book down to try to get over the feeling of powerlessness. Plus, quite frankly (and this is mean, I know), I’m just not as interested in salmon as I am in bluefin tuna and tropical fish (the subjects of the other two parts).

That being said, there’s still a lot of interesting information in this section, and Safina’s wonderful powers of description are in full force (I love the end of his initial description of the area: "One might imagine that this is how the world appeared when God first saw it and pronounced it Good-planet Earth fresh-baked and straight from the oven, before we started carving at it.").

Furthermore, and this was the saving grace as far as I was concerned, the last twenty pages of the chapter are spent with Californian ranchers who really care about their community and the environment (and are obviously Republicans as well--I like it when stereotypes are challenged). Safina looks at how their grassroots action has helped things, and it left me with a warm fuzzy glow.

Right, now that that’s out of the way, I can talk about the two amazing sections! In the first one, Safina goes to the American Northeast. He’s there to look at the plight of the bluefin tuna: a huge, incredible fish that is being hunted into oblivion. I know, you’re thinking, how cool can a tuna be? But listen to this:

About a hundred giant bluefin tuna are traveling peacefully just under the surface. The animals I am looking at are so large, I expect them to behave like dolphins; that they are not coming to the surface to breathe air feels somehow uncomfortable. I have to remind myself--it seems so odd--that these large creatures are fish.

Close your eyes. Think fish. Do you envision half a ton of laminated muscle rocketing through the sea as fast as you drive your automobile? Do you envision a peaceful warrior capable of killing you unintentionally with a whack of its tail? These giant tuna strain the concept of fish. "Fish," anyhow, is a matter of dry taxonomy, the discipline that tells more of your origins than of who you are now. "Fish" is a label, like your surname that relates you to both your disgraceful uncle and your extraordinary cousin, yet says nothing about you. Name is not destiny. Your relationship to those around you-your ecology, if you will-defines you in the moment.

I know that was a long passage, but wasn’t it worth it? Anyway, in the section Safina talks with people from all sides of the debate, analyses the politics (both American and international--let’s just say Japan has some serious explaining to do), and brings the New England ocean and its inhabitants to compelling life. I mean, did you know bluefin tuna are warmblooded? Yep, and you can find out about all of the system’s incredible intricacies in this section.

The third section moves to the Far Pacific, mainly Panua, Hong Kong, and the Philippines. Reading this section made me very glad I never owned a saltwater tank, because much of it focuses on how the live fish trade is destroying coral (divers spurt cyanide poison all around the reefs to stun the fish, which kills the coral and eventually the fish as well--that’s why it’s so difficult to keep saltwater fish alive at home).

But interspersed with the depressing parts are very hopeful parts (some islands have been turning the trend around, and the reefs are coming back to life) and much of Safina’s wonder at doing dives in the reefs. This post is too long as it is, so I’ll limit myself to the following quote, which I think is just wonderful:

Science, like love, can be blind, inspired, glorious, or brutal. The piercing ability to perceive order within apparent chaos is, to me, the great, elegant power of science. Not to impose order, but to perceive it. To begin in confusion and by endeavor to gain a sense of how the world works. To turn the seamless picture into a jigsaw puzzle, and by seeing and understanding how each pixel fits, to stand back again and gain a much deeper appreciation for the magnificent beauty of the unified whole. And to wonder how it is that part of the universe-ourselves-can delve into the rest of it. The most incomprehensible thing about nature, Albert Einstein said, is that it is comprehensible.

Notable Passages

"Clear, blue offshore waters are oceanic deserts, with pockets of dense life separated by great expanses of relative emptiness. In terrestrial deserts, the amount of life is limited by lack of water, while in oceanic deserts life is limited by lack of nutrients. Camel-like, many open-ocean creatures are in effect desert-adapted animals, able to cross vast tracts of barren habitat until they find the oases containing the food they need."

"The label 'fish' says as much about their lives as a toe tag in a morgue. Taxonomy be damned. Watching them, I imagine the giant bluefins watching one another as they travel, monitoring each other’s pace, their great bodies glowing softly in the water like polished tin, producing soft halos around themselves, their enormous eyes swiveling as they search. I imagine looking now ahead for prey, then glancing across at the lead fish, looking over your neighbor, checking your schoolmates’ flanks for signs of an excited flush of color indicating someone has spotted prey in the distance, beyond your field of vision."

"Each year, fishing boats draw up an estimated twenty-seven million metric tons of marine life that, dying or dead, are thrown overboard--a quarter of the whole global catch. Such unwanted creatures are collectively known as by-catch or by-kill."

"It’s interesting that many people who are aghast at the thought of harming a dolphin, of snuffing so bright a life, will glibly down a sandwich made from the wild creature with whom the dolphin swims, without pausing to reflect on where and how it may have lived, or with how many dolphins it might have exchanged glances."

"Thus the bluefin tuna--one of the most highly evolved of all fishes--can regulate its body temperature as well or better than any other fish in the world. Researchers are unsure how they do so, but it appears that they can engage the heat exchanger when they need to conserve muscle-generated heat in cold water and disengage it, shunting blood around it, when they need to dissipate heat in warm water. This ability to thermoregulate, coupled with their enormous, heat-conserving size, has allowed the bluefin to become the widest-ranging of the tunas, penetrating from the tropics into sub-Arctic latitudes. The bluefin’s warmed body enables it to venture actively into cold waters where the fishes that it eats are most abundant-and to hotly pursue and catch prey."

"To bleed the fish and thereby maximize the quality of their meat, Billy deftly pokes a knife into a precise spot on each side of each fish. Pressurized blood spurts in red jets from their heat-exchange systems. The fishes’ stiff tails are drumming the deck in panic, splattering blood everywhere. Billy grabs them one at a time and swings them into the fish box. The fish hit the ice shivering in an attempt to put on the blinding burst of speed they are capable of. But their tails can gain no purchase. There is nowhere to go. Millions of years of evolution toward perfection in temperate oceans have left hem utterly unprepared for a tiny sea of ice. Bits of shaved ice shower over the deck before the lid can be slammed on the fish box, sealing the young bluefins in their dark, frigid coffin."

"Raising fish does not take pressure off wild fish. Fish are not cabbages; they do not grow on sunlight. Feeding most of these species requires continual fishing. Tons of tons of immature and undersized fish are being strained from open waters with fine-mesh nets to be ground into food for aquaculture operations."

"The thing is, I believe large parts of our oceans are depleted mainly because we treat marine creatures as commodities, forgetting that they are wild animals breeding in natural habitats. In reality, marine creatures are the only wild animals still hunted on a large scale. The language used in fisheries amounts to a forced attempt to induce amnesia on this point. Fisheries people talk incessantly of 'harvesting' fishes, and even of 'harvesting' whales--trying to impart a sanitized and agricultural tone, as though hunting the largest creature ever to live on earth by firing bombs into their bodies is analogous to picking watermelons that have been planted and cultivated. Fish populations are referred to as 'stock,' like shoes in a warehouse. And when sea turtles that have drowned in nets wash up on beaches, they are referred to as--of all things--'stranded.' The language is intended to confuse and mislead, and it is selected carefully. I have, for example, been in meetings with fishery managers who did not understand that all the 'stranded' turtles the fishermen were dismissing as 'not a problem' were, in fact, dead. They are no more 'stranded' than a person killed in a plane crash is 'grounded.' "

-- Notes by EVA

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