Man's Changing Views of the Oceans

Following are a set of quotations that I have assembled concerning the oceans and reflecting society's changing views of the marine environment. I cannot imagine a modern poet seeing the ocean as "The blue, the fresh, the ever free!", as did Bryan Procter (as Barry Cornwall) in the late 1830s, nor a scientist now referring to the sea as "a conservator of wastes and a reservoir of food," as was stated in a 1917 government report (below). Still, few members of today's public realize how dire the situation seems to have become, indicated in some of the last quotations from well-respected marine scientists near the end of the twentieth century and the beginning of the new millenium. The Shifting Baselines quotation near the end is from a website that opened in early 2003, written by a group of prominent marine biologists, as the present choice of communication to the masses - seeking to inform the public that things are not well and that it is going to take resolution and action by all of us to fix it.

The quotations are offered in chronological order:


A dark

Illimitable ocean without bound,

Without dimension, where length, breadth, and highth

And time and place are lost

-- John Milton excerpt from "Paradise Lost" 1667


“Animals living in the waters, especially the sea waters . . .
are protected from the destruction of their species by man.
Their multiplication is so rapid and their means of evading
pursuit or traps is so great, that there is no likelihood of his
being able to destroy the entire species of any of these animals.”

-- Jean-Baptiste Lamarck, 1809


Roll on, thou deep and dark blue Ocean -- roll!

Ten thousand fleets sweep over thee in vain;

Man marks the earth with ruin -- his control

Stops with the shore.

-- Lord Byron excerpt from "Childe Harold's Pilgrimage" 1818


The sea! the sea! the open sea!

The blue, the fresh, the ever free!

-- Bryan W. Procter excerpt from "The Sea" ca. 1837


To me the sea is a continual miracle;

The fishes that swim--the rocks--the motion of the

waves--the ships, with men in them,

What stranger miracles are there?

-- Walt Whitman excerpt from "Miracles" 1856


"Any tendency to over-fishing will meet with its natural check in the diminution
of the supply ... this check will always come into operation long before anything
like permanent exhaustion has occurred."

-- Thomas Huxley, 1883 address to the International Fisheries Exhibition in London


"The Sea as a Conservator of Wastes and a Reservoir of Food"

-- Title of a Smithsonian Institution Annual Report for 1917 by H. F. Moore


There is the life of the plankton in almost endless variety; there are the
many kinds of fish, both surface and bottom living; there are the hosts of
different invertebrate creatures on the sea-floor; and there are those almost
grotesque forms of pelagic life in the oceans depths. Then there are the
squids and cuttlefish, and the porpoises, dolphins and great whales.

-- Sir Alister Hardy "The Open Sea" 1956


It was during and after the Second World War that the great expansion
[in oceanography], which is still going on, began. The realization by governments
of the importance of marine problems and their readiness to make money available
for research, the growth in the number of scientists at work and the increasing
sophistication of scientific equipment, have made it feasible to study the ocean
on a scale and to a degree of complexity never attempted and never possible before.
... As man increasingly overcrowds and exploits his tiny planet, the significance of
the oceans which cover seven tenths of its surface have suddenly become apparent.

-- Margaret Deacon "Scientists and the Sea 1650-1900" 1971


[It is] immoral to damage needlessly a remote and largely unknown
assemblage of organisms -- even if they are out-of-sight, out-of-mind,
and apparently of little importance to the general ecological processes
in the ocean -- through negligent and ignorant abuse of the oceans.

-- Martin Angel in "Ocean Trench Conservation" 1982


The last fallen mahogany would lie perceptibly on the landscape, and the last black rhino
would be obvious in its loneliness, but a marine species may disappear beneath the waves
unobserved and the sea would seem to roll on the same as always.

-- G. Carleton Ray in "Biodiversity", National Academy Press, 1988


The tradition of freedom of the high seas has its roots in an era when
there were too few people to seriously violate the oceans -- but in hindsight
that era ended some 150 years ago with the increase of global whaling.

-- Jim Carlton and Claudia Mills in speech to University of Washington School of Marine Affairs, 1998


Each succeeding generation of biologists has markedly different expectations
of what is natural, because they study increasingly altered systems that bear
less and less resemblance to the former, preexploitation versions.

-- Paul Dayton in "Science" 1998


We suggest that in the next decades fisheries management will have
to emphasize the rebuilding of fish populations embedded within
functional food webs, within large 'no-take' marine protected areas.

-- Daniel Pauly et al. in "Science" 1998


We estimate that large predatory fish biomass today is only about 10% of pre-industrial levels.
We conclude that declines of large predators in coastal regions have extended throughout the
global ocean, with potentially serious consequences for ecosystems.

-- Ransom Myers and Boris Worm in "Nature" 2003


What this project is about: the truth about ocean decline. This website seeks to review
the current problems, from coral-reef death, to kelp forest over-fishing, to global fisheries
depletion. We are not exaggerating the problems -- the facts speak loud enough. We want
you to realize how serious the problems have become; learn that today's ocean problems
are at the global and ecosystem level.

-- (2003 text)


I often struggle to find words that will communicate the vastness of the Pacific Ocean to people who have never been to sea. Day after day, Alguita was the only vehicle on a highway without landmarks, stretching from horizon to horizon. Yet as I gazed from the deck at the surface of what ought to have been a pristine ocean, I was confronted, as far as the eye could see, with the sight of plastic.

It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments. Months later, after I discussed what I had seen with the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, perhaps the world's leading expert on flotsam, he began referring to the area as the "eastern garbage patch." But "patch" doesn't begin to convey the reality. Ebbesmeyer has estimated that the area, nearly covered with floating plastic debris, is roughly the size of Texas.

-- Charles Moore in "Natural History" 2003 (full text of article online)


The first traces of plastic debris have been found in what was thought to be the pristine environment of the Southern Ocean, according to a study released by the French scientific research vessel Tara. Samples taken in the Southern Ocean and Antarctica revealed traces of plastic at a measure of approximately 50,000 fragments per square km -- a rate comparable to the global average. "Discovering plastic at these very high levels was completely unexpected because the Southern Ocean is relatively separated from the world's other oceans and does not normally mix with them" stated Chris Bowler, scientific co-ordinator of Tara Oceans.


** This page is maintained by C. E. Mills; established October 1998; last updated 27 September 2012 **

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