Oceans as Wilderness

"Fifty million buffalo once roamed the rolling green prairies of North America. Gunners reduced them to near extinction. Now, hunters are at work on the rolling blue prairies of the sea, and already, the big fish – including miracles like thousand-pound, warm-blooded bluefin tuna – are 90 percent gone. What we regret happening on land, may again happen in the sea. Those who care about wildlife should get to know about oceans." – Carl Safina, "Comes a Turtle, Comes the World," Patagonia 2006 Heart of Winter Catalog

On land, we saw once what wildness meant. Imagine it: 50 million buffalo. Passenger pigeons that flocked so thick they covered the sun. A Spanish explorer sailing up the coast of California described a beach with scores of grizzly bears feeding on whale carcasses. Now, the vast numbers have dwindled or gone extinct. Only a remnant reminds us of what was, the animals and land we destroyed in our belief that there was a never-ending supply. We protect them with the Endangered Species Act, wilderness areas and hunting and fishing laws – having finally learned that we must.

And so now the sea: In Maine, they used to catch lobsters by gaffing them in shallow water by the shore. Cod were so numerous and so easily caught that prisoners complained because they were fed the fish too many times a week. Once, salmon returning from the ocean so crowded rivers and streams that people told stories of walking on their backs. Marlin, swordfish, mako, bluefin, abalone – everywhere in abundance.

We need to train ourselves to see what is hidden under the surface of the waters because fish stocks are in collapse and the oceans are in trouble. Many recent studies, including the Pew Oceans Commission (2003), have come to the same conclusions. The big fish, like that thousand-pound tuna, are 90 percent gone. Newfoundland cod, wild abalone, Atlantic halibut and Chilean sea bass are so scarce as to be nearly nonexistent. Breeding swordfish populations have been cut in half; marlin are rare. Pelicans in the Sea of Cortés starve for want of fish to eat.

Coral reefs are crumbling, and the ocean floor is plowed up by trawlers. Plastic kills seabirds and is found on the beaches of the world's most remote islands. Surfers, swimmers and lifeguards are vaccinated annually against hepatitis as a matter of course. Tuna and swordfish have so much methylmercury in their bodies, they are hazardous food for pregnant women and children. The causes are many, but chief among them is an ugly trinity: unsustainable fishing practices, habitat destruction and contamination.