The wonders that live at the bottom of the sea
The Deep Sea that Scales portrays is a largely invisible realm that is continually plundered, often by people who have little notion of what they are destroying. Between the two writers, Scales is the most gracious storyteller, but Widder has (by far) the most compelling story to tell. Indeed, Scales’ vanity – of traveling on a research vessel for a few weeks in the Gulf of Mexico – seems a bit thin, and not just compared to Widder’s heroism. She never physically ventures into the abyss, as Widder did, and as fellow science writer James Nestor did in his excellent 2014 book, “Deep.” (In a chilling chapter, he describes a trip to a depth of 2,500 feet in “a homemade, unlicensed submarine,” cobbled together by an eccentric from New Jersey.) But for its flaws, “The Brilliant Abyss Has many virtues. Scales’s great gift is to transmute our admiration at the wonders of the deep sea into a kind of quiet rage that they may soon be no longer.
In one of the most appalling chapters of the book, she describes the sad plight of the orange roughy, a remarkably slow-growing fish living in the depths. Formerly known as slimehead, the species was renamed in the 1970s to better attract consumers. Demand skyrocketed and a “gold rush mentality” ensued. Trawls were dragged along the seabed, hauling not only roughies, but also the wrecks of coral reefs – “ancient forests cultivated by animals” – which were thrown overboard as bycatch. Predictably, the fish population quickly collapsed, and they – and the ecosystems that were razed to catch them – have yet to regain their former vigor.
Scales not only denounces the orange roughy killers, but the entire industry. Globally, she writes, deep-sea trawlers make only $ 60 million in profit per year, yet they receive subsidies of $ 152 million. “If it costs so much, provides so little food, and harvests such enormous ecological damage, the glaring question is, why trawl the deep? Ladders ask. Some have started calling for a global ban on deep-sea trawling. Scales goes even further. Looking to the future, where mining rare earth metals and dumping carbon into deep waters promises to become lucrative (if not destructive) industries, she urges us to err on the side of preservation: no mining. on the high seas, fishing, drilling or extracting oil of any kind. The abyss, she argues, is too vulnerable and too crucial to the functioning of the planet to be trashed indiscriminately. (Among other things, the ocean acts like a huge carbon sequestration device, which we decisively break down, if inadvertently.)
She concludes: “If industrialists and powerful states do what they want and the depths are open to them, then it raises the ironic and dismal prospect that the deep sea will become empty and lifeless, just 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 teeming with life. Another is that unlike the stars, the sparkling lights of the deep sea are hidden from view. “As soon as you stop thinking about it, the depths can so easily disappear from the mind,” warns Scales. She and Widder have worked hard to bring the abyss to light. It is our duty, as clumsy inhabitants of an aquatic planet, to look and remember.
Robert Moor is the author of “On Trails: An Exploration”.
UNDER THE EDGE OF DARK A memoir exploring light and life in the deep sea, by Edith Widder | 353 pages. Random house. $ 28.
THE SHINING ABYSS Exploring the majestic hidden life of the deep ocean and the looming threat that puts it at risk, by Helen Scales | 288 pages. Atlantic Monthly Press. $ 27.