Run to the sea, sea it was a-dying

Posted on June 18, 2010


O sinner man, where you gonna run to – all on that day

–  Old spiritual.

I grew up beside a bountiful sea.  I grew up next to waters where, if you dipped in a gill net, the question was not whether you caught your supper, but what your supper would be:  dog, humpback, steelhead, coho, sockeye—spring, if you’re lucky, but your father might just sell that one for cash.

I grew up in villages connected by boardwalks, boardwalks which sometimes passed over green tides.  You could see–as you commuted on foot from your house to someone else’s house–bulbs of bobbing kelp, lawns of sea grass, incidental crabs and starfish on the bottom of the bay, and darting flocks of swimmers.

My father was a fisherman.  My mother worked in a cannery, and a cannery was where I was born.  Yet that cannery was shut down forever the same year that I happened to howl into existence there.

Where a cannery was once sited and my mother cut fish on an assembly line, there is now brush, and in the brush some part of the old cannery machinery still rusts away.  Where a community used to stand on stilts along the shore, there is a beach of pebbles intermingled with weathered, broken glass.  Aside from the red-rusted iron in the berry bushes, and the admittedly equivocal evidence of me, this sea-changed glass is one of the few pieces of evidence that there was once a community peering out to sea at Inverness Passage.

A part of my ancestry has fished on the coast of British Columbia for thousands of years.  A part of my ancestry settled the Americas by sea in a great migration many thousands of years ago.  Inevitably, my migrant ancestors—the original settlers on these shores—fished too.

And before that, according to genetic records, humanity followed the shores of the seas and oceans out of Africa.  The world was settled along the salt sea edge, and eventually, we ventured out beyond the water’s edge to unconnected shores.  Humanity’s relationship to the sea is deep, abiding and necessary.

And the sea is dying.

Not just the fishery.  Not just those parts of it which we think of only as wealth.  Not just the tasty bits, or the parts we use for sushi.

The whole thing.  The entire system.  All of it.

The message comes from a new report published in the journal Science.  The report is an international effort summarizing 10 years of recent oceanic research.

What the report says is that the oceans are rapidly warming and acidifying, dead zones in the oceans’ depths are expanding, and ocean circulation is being altered.  The ecosystems surrounding kelp forests and coral reefs are in decline, marine food chains are breaking down, with fewer fish and smaller fish, and marine organisms are frequently sickly and infested with pests and parasites.

And the cause is human action.  The expanded levels of carbon in the atmosphere.  Pollution.  Over-fishing.  And in the report I’m talking about nobody even brings up oil spills.

3.5 billion people on this planet take their primary source of nutrition from the sea.  If the sea stops giving up its bounty, if its bounty fades and withers, then 3.5 billion people, or a portion of them, will have to find another source of food.

3.5 billion hungry people on the edge of a sickly ocean.

I suppose this is a story that began before I was born.  But it reminds me of another old story, fragments of which every school child in Canada learns.

The Beothuks used to live in Newfoundland.  They built high-prowed ocean-going canoes for fishing on the famously bountiful Grand Banks for cod and swordfish, and they flourished in their island home for thousands of years, leaving grave sites impregnated with red ochre with which they decorated themselves, the original red Indians.

Then, beginning in the early sixteen century, these people were chased from their ancient shores by European fishermen, and they moved to the island’s interior.  They stopped fishing and became fewer in number.  The European settlers sometimes hunted them in their hidden forest villages for sport or trophies—that is only history—but mostly the people died of diseases like tuberculosis.

By the end of the story, those people known as the “red ochre people”, the ones who yet survived—cut off from the sea which had so long fed them—had grown sickly and weak.  And in the first part of the nineteenth century, in the Beothuk’s most famous historical act, they went extinct.

Without the sea to nourish them, at least so it seems to me, the Beothuks became too weak to survive.

Beside a sickly rotting ocean, an ocean made sick by our own actions and neglect, shall the fisher soul of humanity whither and die as well?


Read about the report on the health of the oceans here: