- by Carol Standish
Let's get right to the point of this review. Everyone who lives near, works or plays on an ocean should read Ocean's End. Heck, everybody who breathes should read it!
Ocean's End (Basic Books, 300pp, $26.) is a travel book, of sorts. Author/journalist, Colin Woodard, takes the reader with him on his recent visits to an odd mix of wonderful corners of the world in a relaxed, easy going, almost chatty prose that creates immediate enthusiasm for the trip.
The peculiarity of the itinerary, however, suggests a few bumps in the road. In the first chapter Woodard visits the eastern European countries which share the coast of the Black Sea. Next he is on a 14 hour ferry ride to Newfoundland. The steamy exotic Mississippi Delta is the third stop. Belize, the Marshall Islands and the Antarctic Peninsula wind up the trip.
What the trip and the book are really about is the mass destruction of marine ecologies all over our ocean planet. For instance, since the beginning of the industrial revolution, the rivers of Eastern Europe and Russia have been used as sewers. The largest, the Danube, the Dneister and the Don and many others empty into the Black Sea. Today the only life the sea supports is a type of stinging jelly fish that feeds on a sole surviving microorganism. The poisoned water of the Black Sea flows through the Bosphorus Straits, into the Mediterranean.
A closer to home instance is the Mississippi River basin. Since the beginning of the agricultural revolution, the River and its tributaries have functioned as the drainage system for the fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and animal waste of the entire breadbasket of the country. And then there are the thousands of factories, power and petrochemical plants along the rivers' banks. "A toxic gumbo" as Woodard describes it, is "carried to the delta and the Gulf." The health of the river itself, aside, the human-produced effluent carried to the sea has created a seasonal dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico-a 7,000-square-mile swath of oxygen-less water. Creatures who can't move suffocate. This dead zone in the Gulf, a seasonal version of the now permanent blanket of death which has laid waste to the entire Black Sea basin, is the harbinger of an imminent larger disaster.
Then there is the cod fishery. Most of us in the Northeast are familiar with that disaster. Some of us continue to explain the condition as temporary, that fish stocks are naturally in flux. Woodard acknowledges those arguments but refutes them utterly. As for eco-conscious little Belize, the Marshall Islands and Antarctica, you may wonder how such remote and pristine places could be suffering from the same ham-fisted abuse as waterways surrounded by large populations. Read on.
Ocean's End is a riveting page turner, partly because of its accessible style and partly because reading it is like driving slowly by a highway accident. Woodard gives us a big gulping glimpse of the writhing body. Not all travel books are about pleasant treks through Provence or Tuscany. This one, however, is more important to read than all the others combined.
In the end, Woodard gives the reader hope. There is a chance of nursing the planet's oceans back to health. Lots of informed people have good workable ideas. The only obstacles are runaway consumption and population growth, greed, corruption, ignorance and indifference. Simple.