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The Lower Depths : SONG FOR THE BLUE OCEAN: Encounters Along the World's Coasts and Beneath the Seas. By Carl Safina . Henry Holt: 458 pp., $30

January 18, 1998|RICHARD ELLIS | Richard Ellis is the author of "Deep Atlantic," "Monsters of the Sea," "The Book of Whales," "Dolphins and Porpoises," "The Book of Sharks," "Men and Whales" and "Great White Shark" with John McCosker

I hereby nominate Carl Safina as Official Informer. Not as a snitch but, rather, as the person whose job it will be to inform the rest of us about what's really going on in the world. He is an ecologist with the soul of a poet: a writer of graceful prose on ungraceful, disturbing subjects.

Safina's "Song for the Blue Ocean" is a heartbreaking requiem for the world's aquatic resources. Is the extinction of the bluefin tuna, a creature that Safina lovingly describes as "half a ton of laminated muscle rocketing through the sea as fast as you drive your car," the price we must all pay because some Japanese are willing to fork over $50 an ounce for sashimi? Are we going to lose the steelheads, Chinooks and coho salmon because local politicians are on the take from the lumber industry? Have we already lost 90% of the forests of the Pacific Northwest? Will we poison the exotic and distant coral reefs of the South Pacific?

When he flies over the Valley of the Giants in Oregon (named for the great evergreen forests), he sees "a far-and-wide landscape of mud, stumps, slash, bark and a few green sprigs . . . the land, forcibly stripped naked, the stump-studded hills standing in goose bumps, suffering from exposure. The cutters won't willingly leave trees along the streams to keep the water cool and clean for salmon, but they will voluntarily leave trees along the roads, to fool us into complacency." Your reaction to this is one of uncontrolled outrage: Wait a minute! Is this stuff really happening? How come nobody told me before?

Yes, "Song" is about wildlife and forests and deep blue oceans, but more than that, it is about people. People, after all, have turned pristine forests into scorched-earth, clear-cut disasters. People have dammed the Columbia, the Klamath, the Snake, the San Joaquin and the Sacramento rivers, making it impossible for the salmon to swim upstream to spawn. ("Fish ladders," you ask, those devices designed to allow the fish to get upriver anyway? Forget it. The biggest dams, like the Grand Coulee and the Bonneville, have no such ladders.)

Nor is this a book about fish and trees versus the evil Army Corps of Engineers and Weyerhauser Co. (although sometimes you want it to be); it is a book that chronicles the legacy of those who struggled to retain their tenuous hold on the wonders of the world in the face of corporate greed, government corruption and bungling. People like Ed Chaney, who has devoted the last 30 years to a one-man crusade to save the salmon; Willow Burch, a 37-year-old part-Cherokee, part-Czech grandmother who lost her house and her livelihood when the salmon disappeared; Grandfather Oliver, 96, who says that "there seemed to be so many trees and so many fish. I didn't see the end coming."

People's wastes have been allowed to leak into the crystal-clear waters of Palau to contaminate and kill the corals. The fish, some of them already endangered, are being hauled out of the water to be shipped--alive--to the market in Hong Kong, where, Safina estimates, 25 million fish are sold every year. (There is no way of estimating the number of fish that are killed in the collecting process or die en route, but probably only a small proportion make it to the market.) People eat the fish they catch in Palau and the Philippines. People spend lots of money for brightly colored reef fish to put in their home aquariums. Writes Safina of a trip to Dong-dong Island in the Philippines: "It has seemed more an expedition into the heart of a world apart than an outing to--of all things--catch aquarium fish for living rooms in the United States. I would not have guessed that such seemingly frivolous hobbies could have at their origin such deadly serious business a world away."

In one sense, "Song for a Blue Ocean" is about the vast gulf between the haves and the have-nots of the world. Tuna fishermen (the have-nots of New England until they catch a giant tuna, at which point they are transformed into haves) hunt for plump tuna to sell to Japanese brokers so that Tokyo businessmen can pay $50 for a piece of toro the size of a Ritz cracker. Salmon fishers in the Pacific Northwest (have-nots) lost their fish and their livelihood because their predecessors fished out the resource, and the lumber companies and the farmers (who needed the water elsewhere) rerouted and dammed the rivers. Surely the most profoundly deprived of the people in question are the subsistence fishermen of Palau and the Philippines, who risk their lives (and kill off most of their inheritance of fish and corals) so that businessmen in Hong Kong, Taipei and Singapore can impress colleagues with their ability to pay a small fortune for a platter of lips from the Napoleon wrasse. ("Taking full-sized Napoleon wrasses off the reefs," a biologist tells Safina, "is like killing tigers. And they suffer appallingly before they are killed, as do all these reef fish that are kept in crowded conditions.")

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