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Roberts, Callum 1963–

Roberts, Callum 1963–


Born 1963; married.


Office—Environment Department, University of York, Helsington, York YO10 5DD, England. E-mail—[email protected]


York University, Helsington, York, England, marine conservation biologist. Served on U.S. National Research Council Committee on Marine Protected Areas and on Marine Reserves Working Group; has worked with the Coral Reef Fish Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union.


Pew Fellowship in Marine Conservation, 2000; Hardy Fellowship in Conservation Biology, 2001.


(Editor, with Nicholas V.C. Polunin) Reef Fisheries, Chapman & Hall (New York, NY), 1996.

The Unnatural History of the Sea, Island Press/Shearwater Books (Washington, DC), 2007.


In the well-received The Unnatural History of the Sea, marine conservation biologist Callum Roberts documents the extensive and troubling degradation of the marine environment. Seas that once teemed with fish in huge variety and numbers have become almost empty, victims of overfishing and other practices that prevent ocean ecosystems from renewing themselves. Roberts traces the history of humankind's uses of the ocean, discusses the details of various fishing techniques in specific areas, and comments on other relevant matters such as the effects of regulations and treaties, tourism, and aquaculture. Grim as the picture of the world's oceans is, however, Roberts remains optimistic that wise action can not only stem further destruction, but can actually restore the seas to the diversity and vigor they enjoyed in previous eras.

Centuries ago, writes Roberts, the oceans contained abundant coral reefs, fish, sea turtles, and marine mammals such as whales and dolphins. Fish were often enormous; off the coast of Nova Scotia, for example, fishing fleets would catch bluefin tuna that were bigger than a moose. So rich were the seas that, for millennia, human societies believed them to be inexhaustible sources of food. By the end of the twentieth century, however, the once-teeming fishing banks had become exhausted. Oceans are in worse condition than ever before, and fish stocks have fallen to only ten percent, or less, since large-scale commercial fishing has dominated the industry.

As Roberts explained to a writer in Business Week, "The reason the fishing industry has been in decline is because we have provided no refuges for animals from exploitation. We have reached the point that for many of the most commercially valuable species there are no fish surviving to reproductive maturity. In the past, fisheries management has taken no account of the habitat in which fish live. It has always been assumed that the means to support fish production will be there. Now, we are beginning to realize that this assumption is deeply flawed." Many industrialized fishing techniques, he added, "destroy the habitat those fish need to survive." The solution, Roberts says, is to stop the practice of fishing everywhere at once. Fishery management thinking, he explains, has held that "all of the seas are open to fishing, and we can exploit everywhere all of the time. We need to turn that assumption on its head and say all of the sea is protected from fishing except for certain places where certain kinds of fishing are licensed." Ironically, by limiting fishing in this way, fishery production would actually increase.

Calling the book "a grim and a compelling tale," Martin W. Lewis, writing in Issues in Science and Technology, noted: "Chapter after chapter documents one extinguished fishery after another, culminating with a depiction of the industrial-scale deep-sea trawlers that scrape the ocean bottom clean of most macroscopic organisms, obliterating complex ecosystems based on slow-growing sessile invertebrates. If current trends continue, Roberts warns, the end result could be radically impoverished marine communities dominated by jellyfish and other relatively simple forms of life. Roberts's warning is perhaps exaggerated, but not necessarily by much."

Writing in the Globe and Mail, Terry Glavin observed: "The Unnatural History of the Sea makes a convincing case that the long history of efforts to restrain overfishing has at long last caught up with the capacity of the world's fishing fleets to wreak havoc." Many other reviewers expressed similar views of the book. Audubon contributor Andrea Anderson wrote that the book chronicles "a heartbreaking pattern of waste and mismanagement," while Booklist reviewer Colleen Mondor described it as a "thoughtful, inspiring, devastating, and powerful" work that "readers won't be able to put … down." Lewis concluded that The Unnatural History of the Sea is "a well-written, carefully researched book that should be widely read by those interested in environmental history, fisheries, the marine environment, and global ecological preservation. More important, Roberts's recommendations should be taken seriously by everyone concerned with the regulation of marine resources."

In a New York Times interview with Claudia Dreifus, Roberts described his passion for fish. "For me, they are as individual as dogs," stated Roberts. "They are incredibly varied. And quite intelligent. People underestimate fish." Yet, though he appreciates the wonderful qualities of fish, Roberts admits that he eats them. "That may seem paradoxical," he explained. "But we've fished for thousands of years, and it's part of our heritage as a species. I think, however, we shouldn't drive marine species to extinction in our search for food. There are now ways consumers can start choosing more rationally what kinds of fish to eat."

Roberts, who specializes in the study of coral reefs, has served on the U.S. National Research Council Committee on Marine Protected Areas and has worked with the Marine Reserves Working Group. In addition he worked with the Coral Reef Fish Specialist Group of the World Conservation Union.



Roberts, Callum, The Unnatural History of the Sea, Island Press/Shearwater Books (Washington, DC), 2007.


Audubon, September 1, 2007, Andrea Anderson, review of The Unnatural History of the Sea, p. 108.

Booklist, August 1, 2007, Colleen Mondor, review of The Unnatural History of the Sea, p. 30.

Business Week Online, August 2, 2004, "Give Seas a Chance; Marine Conservation Biologist Callum Roberts Explains Why Closing Large Swaths of Ocean to Fishing Ultimately Will Revive the Industry."

Globe and Mail, August 18, 2007, Terry Glavin, "Not So Long Ago, Fish Really Were That Big."

Issues in Science and Technology, September 22, 2007, Martin W. Lewis, "Despoiled Seas," p. 91.

Library Journal, July 1, 2007, Judith B. Barnett, review of The Unnatural History of the Sea, p. 116.

New York Times, March 5, 2002, Claudia Dreifus, "A Biologist Decries the ‘Strip Mining’ of the Deep Sea," p. 4.

Philadelphia Inquirer, September 19, 2007, Sandy Bauers, review of The Unnatural History of the Sea.

Publishers Weekly, June 4, 2007, review of The Unnatural History of the Sea, p. 44.

Science News, September 1, 2007, review of The Unnatural History of the Sea, p. 143.

Washington Post Book World, July 29, 2007, "Jonathan Yardley: How Humans Imperil the Oceans and All That Lives in Them," p. 15.


SeaWeb, (April 17, 2008), review of The Unnatural History of the Sea.

York University Web site, (April 17, 2008), faculty profile.

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