Song for the Blue Ocean

Bookshelf: Song for the Blue Ocean

Song for the Blue Ocean – Carl Safina

Song for the Blue Ocean
Song for the Blue Ocean

This book is at once insanely depressing, magnificently written and completely inspiring. It is really, really hard to read – not because of Safina’s writing, which is beautifully eloquent, but because of his subject matter.

The chapters are organised by location, as Safina travels from place to place visiting with fishermen and those whose business revolves around the ocean. He even attends a meeting of ICCAT (the International Conspiracy to Catch All Tuna, as he suggests it should be renamed), the laughably ineffective and corrupt legislative body that controls (well, sort of) tuna fisheries around the world.

The fishermen portrayed in the early chapters of the book fall quite neatly into two groups: those who are intent on catching as much as possible, and attribute the apparent scarcity of bluefin tuna, swordfish and other pelagic giants to their increased wiliness and ability to avoid capture, and those who used to make a good living from fishing – 30, 40 or more years ago – and are now unable to make ends meet and are painfully aware of how different the ocean landscape was in their youth.

I was alarmed at how scientists are perceived by the fishermen and fisheries lobbyists, who appear to believe that everyone must share their cynical inability to consider anyone or anything other than themselves and their own welfare. Safina attempts to understand why bluefin tuna fishermen deny that there is any problem with fish stocks, whereas scientists studying this magnificent fish assert that the breeding population is on the verge of collapse.

Safina also writes extensively on salmon, a fish I’d never thought much about before save enjoying photographs of bears trying to catch them as they leap upstream to their breeding grounds, and as a tasty ingredient in my favourite sushi meal. They are remarkable fish, too: the adaptations they have to life in freshwater and the ocean, their ability to return to the stream – the exact tributary – that they were born in, and the design of their bodies makes it all the more tragic that habitat destruction and overfishing is severley endangering wild salmon stocks. Safina describes the ancient forests on America’s northwestern coast, populated by trees that are five to ten centuries old, and how a fallen tree provides habitat and food for an entire mini-ecosystem, including shelter for salmon fry (when the tree falls across a stream). Aggressive logging practices mean that most of these forests, and the creatures they shelter, are being lost forever.

The final chapters detail a visit Safina conducted to the islands of Palau, where he witnessed staggering diversity on the reefs there but also disturbing and heartbreaking overfishing and the extensive use of cyanide to stun and capture reef fish for live sale at the fish market in Hong Kong, amongst other eastern locations. The cyanide poisons the reefs, and often causes horrible illnesses in the divers who deploy it. These sections made me want to go to Palau to dive, fast, before it’s all gone.

Some of the information Safina presents may have dated slightly, as the book was published in 1997, but the trends are excruciatingly clear. (Here’s a recent article by Safina on the state of tuna conservation.) There’s a lot of reported conversation with the users of the resources that Safina analyses – loggers, fishermen and cattle farmers (everything is connected!) and quite a lot of political and legal detail (some editing may have been beneficial here). It alternated between lulling me to sleep and making my blood boil! The chapters on Hong Kong and on the bluefin tuna fishermen and lobbyists in the USA are particularly nauseating – I find it hard to relate to, or condone, the attitudes of the businessmen and legislators who refuse to exercise any due diligence on where the fish they purchase comes from, and whether it’s from an endangered population or not.

You can buy the book here if you’re in South Africa, and here if you’re not. If you want to read it on your Kindle, go here. It’s an uncomfortable wake up call.

Published by


Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *