The Excessive Seas
Olive Heffernan
Greystone Books, $32.95

The ocean is a wealthy, fertile and seemingly lawless frontier. It’s a watery wild west, irresistible to people hoping to plunder its many riches.

That’s the narrative all through The Excessive Seas: Greed, Energy and the Battle for the Unclaimed Ocean, a fast-paced, completely reported and deeply disquieting guide by science journalist Olive Heffernan, additionally the founding chief editor of the journal Nature Local weather Change.

The guide begins by churning quickly by means of the waves of historical past that introduced us to right this moment, together with how we even outline the excessive seas: all ocean waters greater than 200 nautical miles from any nation’s shoreline. In some ways, the fashionable ocean seize was set in movement some 400 years in the past. A bitter feud between Dutch and Portuguese merchants culminated in a authorized doc referred to as the Mare Liberum, or the “free seas,” which argues that the ocean is an unlimited world commons owned by nobody.

Heffernan devotes a chapter every to alternative ways individuals are more and more staking claims to worldwide waters, an enlargement referred to as the Blue Acceleration. Some are attempting to find new fishing grounds or prospecting for seafloor ores (SN: 5/4/20). Others are trying to find new medicines within the DNA of deep-sea microbes, sponges or sea lilies. Nonetheless others are exploring learn how to enhance the ocean’s carbon uptake to assist sluggish local weather change (SN: 4/26/24). Even the area trade needs a bit of the ocean — to create watery graveyards for defunct spacecraft.

The careening from one ocean ambition to a different underscores one of many guide’s greatest takeaways: We’ve established a precarious new kind of ocean ecosystem, and it’ll be extremely tough — perhaps unimaginable — to juggle all of the priorities whereas additionally defending ocean well being and biodiversity.

Take into account Trondheim, Norway, the place Heffernan visits the SINTEF SeaLab. One of many world’s wealthiest oil states, Norway needs to maneuver its economic system away from oil and extra towards aquaculture, partly by dramatically rising the manufacturing of its coastal salmon farms. The ocean’s twilight zone, the murky waters that reach from about 100 meters to 1,000 meters under the floor, the place daylight not penetrates, may present an immense untapped useful resource of feeder fish for these farmed salmon. By not less than one estimate, Heffernan writes, the twilight zone comprises as a lot as 95 p.c of the ocean’s fish by weight.

However these twilight denizens are additionally key to the ocean’s capability to sequester atmospheric carbon (SN: 11/28/17). Crustaceans, fish and different creatures rise towards the floor to feed on carbon-bearing plankton at evening, after which sink into the depths through the day — carrying that carbon into the deep.

Such conflicting needs to plunder and defend present up over and over. Nations urging conservation in a single area could push for rising exploration or exploitation in one other, Heffernan writes. The European Union in 2021, for instance, provided subsidies to its fishing fleet to vary farther offshore, even because it dedicated to sustainable fishing. Nations eager to decide to defending marine life and combating local weather change would be the identical international locations that help deep-sea mining, which can be detrimental to life on the ocean flooring.

The issue, Heffernan says, isn’t that the excessive seas are with none guidelines. Fairly, there’s “a mishmash of organizations and our bodies, every utilizing their very own rulebook.” Plus, she provides, “I now understand that lots of these tasked with governing this area willfully ignore science and disrespect knowledgeable recommendation.”

There are world efforts afoot to ascertain uniform, constant rules on ocean actions. Specifically, Heffernan notes that in 2023, United Nations member states handed the Excessive Seas Treaty, which might set up marine protected areas in worldwide waters. If ratified, the treaty might be an enormous step towards conserving ocean biodiversity.

However be warned: This isn’t an uplifting guide. By the ultimate chapter — titled, considerably unconvincingly, “Hope for the excessive seas” — it’s exhausting to know what anybody may really do to assist save the ocean. What The Excessive Seas does, and powerfully, is convey the sheer scope and complexity of the Blue Acceleration. We’re at an important juncture, Heffernan writes: “We will proceed going ever deeper and additional offshore in our quest for brand spanking new sources of wealth, or we will strike a extra sustainable steadiness.”

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