With dogged industriousness--and to devastating effect--Mowat chronicles what has happened to the major native bird, fish,...



With dogged industriousness--and to devastating effect--Mowat chronicles what has happened to the major native bird, fish, and mammal species of the north Atlantic and subarctic coasts of North America since the European arrival. Most are (or were) heavily insulated cold-water species, originally distributed in dense local populations that presented splendid targets to early cashers-in on the boom in ""train oil"" (rendered blubber from whales, walruses, seals, and even a few birds such as the great auk). The point that human predation was the prime cause of today's pitifully reduced populations (or extinctions) may seem obvious, but Mowat finds it to have been shamefully fudged by authorities who should know better. The Canadian Fisheries and Oceans Department comes in for repeated brickbats: justifying seal ""culls"" and the destruction of cormorants for the supposed protection of fish populations that the Department's own quotas have allowed to be fished to the verge of commercial extinction; enthusiastically supporting boondoggles like a 1950s Newfoundland-based scheme to ranch mink on a diet of pilot whales; dragging its collective feet on most international attempts to limit the slaughter of great whales. Much of the book's value lies in Mowat's attempts to document estimated death tolls and establish historical territorial ranges in order to corroborate the scope of the disaster. Thus he shows that what are called polar bears were once widely distributed over much of the North Atlantic mainland as far south as the Gulf of St. Lawrence (and possibly Delaware Bay); he recounts the little-known decimation of the Eastern buffalo by hunters and explores in the forest east of the Appalachians decades before the Mayflower got to Plymouth. (A pity this material is not footnoted, though there is a fair-sized bibliography.) Mowat's repeated accounts of slaughter are necessarily monotonous, and it's not his habit to ponder shifting cultural attitudes or suggest practical middle ground between commercial and conservationist courses. What he has produced is one single-minded and savage howl of outrage, ultimately convincing by the very repetitiveness of the evidence.

Pub Date: April 23, 1985


Page Count: -

Publisher: Atlantic Monthly--dist. by Little, Brown

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 1985