Mark Kurlansky, the venerable chronicler of Cod, Salt, and The Last Fish Tale, clearly cares about fish and future generations of fish-eaters and fishermen. Indeed, the inspiration behind his newest book, the illustrated World Without Fish, is Kurlansky's 10-year old daughter Talia, who often doubles as his fishing companion.
World Without Fish provides modern stories about the destruction of the ocean ecosystem (the book's release coincides with one-year anniversary of the Gulf oil spill). He explains, in considerable historical detail, what we've done to imperil fish, what the decline of fish means for the entire ocean ecosystem, and what needs to change. It doesn't exactly sound like kid stuff, hitting serious and seriously devastating problems—pollution, bycatch, and trawling—so it's somewhat of a relief that Frank Stockton provided illustrations and comic panels to make the message more accessible (although his hand-drawn lettering sometimes seems a little melodramatic).
There's no doubt that oceanographic science deserves more attention, but what little silver lining there is here comes in a dark shade of gray. Chapter seven, for example, has has this hopeful title, "Being a detailed look at four possible solutions." But it's followed quickly by this bummer of a caveat: "They alone won't work."
Is this catastrophic message about our impact on the world too much, too soon? Richard Louv, author of The Nature Principle, told ABC's "All in the Mind" that learning about eco-catastrophe could cause children "to associate nature with fear and destruction and the end," which "won't produce good conversationalists and environmentalists in the future."
So, in the end, the book's greatest strength is its greatest weakness; it provides a useful overview of the world's fisheries, but, being an overview, is also an over-simplification. Well-meaning consumers (themselves part of the problem, as Kurlansky wrote on The New York Times online) should pick up this book. "[I]f you are not careful you end up boycotting good sustainable fisheries and then these fishermen have no incentive to do it well. So before you do anything, try to understand what’s going on."
A World Without Fish, as sad and scary and heavy-handed as it is, may a good place to start—no matter how old you are.
Illustrations: Frank Stockton, courtesy of Workman Publishing