Wonders Living at the Bottom of the Sea

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The deep sea that Scales depicts is a largely unseen realm that is constantly being plundered, mostly by people who have little idea what they are destroying. Between the two writers, Scales is the more elegant storyteller, but Widder has (by far) a more compelling story to tell. Indeed, the smugness of Scales—traveling in the Gulf of Mexico for a few weeks on a research vessel—feels a little weak, and it’s not just when compared to Widder’s prowess. It is never physically thrown into the abyss, as Widder did, and as science writer James Nestor did in his excellent 2014 book Deep. (In a chilling episode, he describes traveling to a depth of 2,500 feet in a “home-built, unlicensed submarine” put together by a New Jersey eccentric.) But “The Brilliant Abyss” has many virtues. Scales’ great gift is to transform our fear of the wonders of the deep sea into a kind of silent rage that soon they will no longer be.

In one of the scariest chapters in the book, he describes the sad fate of the orange jagged fish, a rather slow-growing, deep-dwelling fish. Formerly known as slime, the strain was rebranded in the 1970s to better appeal to consumers. Demand increased and a “gold rush mentality” emerged. Trawler nets dragged along the seafloor, pulling not only the rough terrain but also the debris from coral reefs (“millennial, animal-raised forests”) that was thrown into the sea as by-catch. Predictably, the fish population collapsed rapidly, and they – and the ecosystems destroyed to catch them – have yet to return to their former strength.

Scales piss off the entire industry, not just the killers of orange roughness. Globally, he writes, deep-sea trawlers make just $60 million in profits per year, yet still receive $152 million in subsidies. “If it’s so expensive, providing so little food, and causing so much ecological damage, the glaring question is, why are you fishing at the depths?” Scales ask. Some began to call for a global ban on deep-sea trawling. Scales go one step further. As we look to the future, where the mining of rare earth metals and the dumping of carbon into the deep seas promise to be profitable (if destructive) industries, it urges us to err on the side of conservation: no deep-sea mining, no fishing, oil drilling or any extraction. He argues that skin is too vulnerable to be looted blindly and is crucial to the functioning of the planet. (Among other things, the ocean acts as an enormous carbon sequestration device that we are decisively breaking, albeit unintentionally.)

He concludes: “If industrialists and powerful states find their way and the depths open up to them, then there is the ironic and depressing possibility that the deep sea will become as empty and lifeless as people once thought.”

Comparisons are often made between the deep sea and the cosmos. One obvious difference between the two is that the abyss below is full of life. Another is that, unlike the stars, the shimmering lights of the deep sea are hidden from view. “The deep can easily slip out of your mind as soon as you stop thinking,” Scales warns. He and Widder have worked hard to bring the abyss to light. As clumsy land-bound inhabitants of an aquatic planet, it is our duty to look and remember.

Robert Moor is the author of “On Trails: An Exploration.”


UNDER THE DARK EDGE Memories of Discovering Light and Life in the Deep Sea by Edith Widder | 353 p. Random House. 28 dollars.

BRIGHT TIP Exploring the Glorious Secret Life of the Deep Ocean and the Imminent Threat That Threatens It, by Helen Scales | 288 p. Atlantic Monthly Press. 27 dollars.

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