Book review – The Empty Sea: The Future of the Blue Economy

7-minute read

By now, most people are aware of greenwashing; the marketing spin used by companies and organisations to convince you that their products and practices and environmentally friendly when in reality they are not. In The Empty Sea, physical chemist Ilaria Perissi joins forces with her colleague, self-styled “collapsologist” Ugo Bardi, to take a hard-nosed look at the blue economy. This is the collective term for economic activities related to the sea, and there is something decidedly fishy about its promises of prosperity and abundance.

The Empty Sea

The Empty Sea: The Future of the Blue Economy, written by Ilaria Perissi and Ugo Bardi, published by Springer in February 2021 (hardback, 203 pages)

This book was originally published in Italian as Il Mare Svuotato by Editori Riuniti. The English translation is published by Springer and is branded as A Report to the Club of Rome, the international think tank promoting the understanding of long-term challenges to humanity. It is the third report from Bardi after Extracted and The Seneca Effect. A foreword by two co-presidents of the Club of Rome calls the book a brainchild of the Club’s first report for applying similar models to the marine economy. A second foreword by famous fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly praises it as an accessible book for a broad audience on overfishing.

Indeed, The Empty Sea mostly deals with one facet of the blue economy, fishing, in five of its six chapters. When discussing the early history of fishing, Perissi & Bardi’s narrative largely agrees with that of Brian Fagan’s Fishing of it being a subsistence activity until the rise of civilizations allowed it to become a trade. They claim that a big problem of fishing was preserving the catch, something only the Norwegians successfully managed to do with stockfish as ambient temperatures in Norway were ideal for this. Salting was used, but salt was an expensive commodity. Those claims appear hasty in light of the archaeological research described by Fagan. There is evidence to suggest that ancient Egyptians were smoking catfish and handing it out as rations to the workers constructing the Giza pyramids. Fagan similarly discussed the existence of Roman fish-salting facilities, with Sicily being a major centre and other salting workshops found around the Mediterranean.

What is without a doubt is that industrial fishing as we know it required numerous technical inventions regarding boats, engines, canning, and (later) on-board refrigeration, plus relentless funding by governments. Perissi & Bardi walk the reader through four examples of overexploitation of marine animals: whaling, Caspian Sea sturgeon to produce caviar, Atlantic cod, and Peruvian anchovy.

“Worryingly, […] global fishing effort seems to have peaked lately, despite using bigger and more powerful vessels, suggesting we might be approaching a larger collapse”

After this, they discuss their application of the Lotka-Volterra equations to industrial fishing. These are better known as the equations that describe fluctuations in population abundance of predator-prey dyads*. This chapter hits many other relevant notes such as Garrett Hardin’s tragedy of the commons and Elinor Ostrom’s work in response, how economists continue to ignore ecological models, and how fisheries concepts such as Individual Transferable Quotas (ITQs) and Maximum Sustainable Yield (MSY) have failed to halt overfishing.

The frequently observed pattern of fish landings for a species peaking and then declining, followed by a peak and decline in fishing effort looks just like one predator-prey cycle that the Lotka-Volterra model would produce. From this, the authors argue that this model can more generally describe the dynamics of overexploitation of natural resources. As a limited application of this model, this seems true. However, as the name implies, non-renewable resources such as ores will not recover after the predator (read: human) population crashes, whereas renewable resources such as fish populations or forests could theoretically rebound. Worryingly, as shown here, global fishing effort seems to have peaked lately, despite using bigger and more powerful vessels, suggesting we might be approaching a larger collapse.

A brief section on other problems (plastic pollution and sea-level rise) leaves unmentioned issues such as acidification, eutrophication, oxygen loss and dead zones, and water temperature and the potential impact on ocean circulation. This incomplete detour could have been left out and is emblematic of what troubles this book. Though the chapters are individually interesting and accessibly written, the book meanders somewhat aimlessly, lacking an overarching structure or narrative, instead dipping into a few topics here and a few topics there. And despite the friendly price for a Springer book and Pauly’s praise, the authors have stiff competition – there is no shortage of well-written popular books documenting overfishing. They mention Lament for an Ocean regarding Atlantic cod, but Callum Robert’s The Unnatural History of the Sea and Ocean of Life come to mind, as does The End of the Line that inspired the documentary by the same name. The same is true for the history of whaling.

“As long as we keep talking of the world in terms of natural resources, as a larder to be plundered, the blue economy is just one more case of greenwashing what is business as usual.”

What keeps me coming back to Bardi’s writing, both online and in print, is that he never ceases to be a thorn in the side of optimists and relentlessly skewers overblown claims with a healthy dose of realism. Economic growth and technological development have created “many [problems] for which we can’t find solutions, except the unnameable ones that would involve stopping, or even reducing, economic growth” (p. 88). Especially the last chapter pulls no punches. It covers other facets of the blue economy, described here as “a true fish soup of various activities, seasoned with fashionable words like “sustainable”, [and] “smart”” (p. 131). I wish the authors had been briefer on the history of overfishing and developed this part more fully, as they make some really interesting observations.

For instance, estimates of how much energy we could generate from the sea’s tides, currents, or waves are not particularly impressive compared to current consumption, and the diffuse nature of the sea makes it very hard to harness them. Harvesting dissolved minerals from seawater is shown to be completely uneconomical and, for something like uranium, might cost more energy than it would generate. Deep-sea mining is put down as senseless as there is nothing of value down there, though in The Brilliant Abyss, Helen Scales showed that companies are exploring it and obtaining mining concessions, which suggests otherwise. Enthusiasm for the blue economy has been predominantly driven by the staggering economic growth seen in aquaculture. As discussed here, it is far from the success story of human ingenuity that it is made out to be and has many serious drawbacks.

Despite the somewhat hit-and-miss character of this book, its central message is important and comes through loud and clear. As long as we keep talking of the world in terms of natural resources, as a larder to be plundered, the blue economy is just one more case of greenwashing what is business as usual. This concept has nothing new to offer us and will become one more chapter in the continuing saga of humans overexploiting their environment.


* What is not mentioned is that the Lotka-Volterra model has been criticized for its unrealistic assumptions. Other models have been developed, though which approach best describes reality unsurprisingly continues to be discussed.

Disclosure: The publisher provided a review copy of this book. The opinion expressed here is my own, however.

The Empty Sea

Other recommended books mentioned in this review:

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