Farley Mowat (1921–2014) was a famous Canadian nature writer, a fire-breathing critic of modernity’s war on wildness. He spent much of his life close to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and the Atlantic, and was an avid outdoorsman. By 1975, he and his wife were becoming acutely aware of the sharp decline of wildlife during their own lifetimes.
Mowat chatted with 90-year olds who confirmed his suspicions, and revealed even more tragedies. Then he began researching historical documents, and his mind snapped. Early European visitors were astonished by the abundance of wildlife in North America, something long gone in the Old World. To them, the animals appeared to be infinite in number, impossible for humans to diminish, ever!
At this point, spirits of the ancestors gave him the heart-wrenching task of writing the mother of all horror stories. His book, Sea of Slaughter, focused on the last 500 years in a coastal region spanning from Labrador to Cape Cod. The book has five parts: birds, land mammals, fish, whales, and fin feet (seals, walrus).
For thousands of years, Native Americans hunted for subsistence, taking only what they needed to survive. Europeans were strikingly different. They suffered from brain worms that inflamed a maniacal obsession with wealth and status. They were bewitched by an insatiable greed that was impossible to satisfy — they could never have enough. Today, scientists refer to this devastating, highly contagious mental illness as get-rich-quick fever — the villain of this story.
In 1534, Jacques Cartier sailed by the Isle of Birds, a rookery for auks (northern penguins). He wrote, “This island is so exceedingly full of birds that all the ships of France might load a cargo of them without anyone noticing that any had been removed.” Auks were large, flightless, fat, and laid eggs in accessible locations (not cliff side nests). Vast numbers were clobbered, salted, and loaded on ships. Others were chopped into fish bait. Many were boiled in large cauldrons to extract the oil from their body fat. In Europe, it had taken over a thousand years to exterminate the auks; in the New World, advanced technology got the job done in just 300 years. The last two died in 1844.
Prior to the emergence of the petroleum industry in the late nineteenth century, civilization acquired large amounts of oil from wildlife — seabirds, whales, walrus, seals, porpoises, and fish. An adult polar bear killed in autumn provided lots of meat, a valuable pelt, and twelve gallons (45 l) of good oil. Animal oil was used for lamp fuel, lubrication, cooking oil, soap, cosmetics, margarine, and leather processing.
There are a number of repeating patterns in the book. The hunger for money was the heart of the monster. Nothing else really mattered. If there were just ten whales left in the world, and they were worth money, the hunters would not hesitate to kill them all. God made animals for us to obliterate. Whenever possible, wildlife massacres were done on an industrial scale — kill as many as possible, as fast as possible.
Conservation was an obscene, profit killing, four-letter word. When there were fewer cod, whales, or seals, the value of each corpse increased. So, the industry got more and bigger boats, used the latest technology, and raced to kill as many as possible, before competitors found them. Rules, regulations, and prohibitions were always issued far too late to matter, and they usually included enough loopholes to make them meaningless. The slaughter industry ignored them, and bureaucrats winked and looked the other way.
Five hundred years ago, cod grew to seven feet long (2.1 m), and weighed up to 200 pounds (91 kg). An observer noted, “Cods are so thick by the shore that we hardly have been able to row a boat through them.” Today the average cod is 6 pounds. For many years, they were killed in staggering numbers. By 1968, the cod fishery was rubbished. It has not recovered, because fish mining has also depleted small fish, the cod’s basic food.
Nobody ever confesses to overfishing or overhunting. What happened to the cod? Obviously, they moved somewhere else, we don’t know where. Efforts are made to find them. When searches failed, it was time to seek and destroy scapegoats: whales, porpoises, loons, otters, cormorants, and many others.
In 1850, loons lived in nearly every lake and large pond in the northeast, from Virginia to the high arctic. Hunters rarely ate them, but they were excellent flying targets for gun geeks. When folks noticed salmon and trout numbers declining, it was time to look for loon nests and smash their eggs. Cormorants got the same treatment. Their rookeries were invaded, and all eggs and chicks destroyed. Sometimes they sprayed the eggs with kerosene, to kill the embryos. Birds continued sitting on lifeless eggs, instead of laying new eggs.
Big game hunting was a profitable industry, catering to <bleepity-bleeps> who found killing to be thrilling. It generated the shiny coins that make men crazy. What could be more fun than cruising around shooting beluga whales? In the old days, many beaches were jam-packed with walrus that could grow to 14 feet long (4.2 m), and weigh up to 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg). Rich lads enjoyed walrus hunting competitions. One guy, in three weeks, killed 84 bulls, 20 cows, and a number of youngsters, not counting those that died unseen after being wounded.
Mature whales and walrus had no natural predators, so they never evolved defensive aspects or strategies. They didn’t need to be aggressive or speedy. They were often curious and friendly. Hunters preferred to kill black right whales. Their bodies had a layer of blubber up to 20 inches (51 cm) thick, containing up to 3,500 gallons (12,250 l) of oil. Abundant blubber meant that the dead ones floated. Other species sank when killed, and were lost. With regard to all whale species, it was common for the number of lost carcasses (sinkers) to exceed the number landed and butchered. Extreme waste didn’t matter as long as the carcasses landed were profitable.
Anyway, Sea of Slaughter is over 400 pages of back-to-back horror stories with no rest stops. The book is painful, disgusting, and illuminating — a mind-bending experience. Reading it puts you into an altered state of consciousness, an otherworldly trance state. Our brains aren’t designed to process flash floods of stupidity.
Many readers will be shocked to see the degree to which screw brained beliefs can turn ordinary people into mindless monsters — an important concept for folks trying to understand the world. Some readers may be tempted to dismiss the foolish destruction as an aspect of the bad old days, when we didn’t know any better. Readers having a larger collection of working brain cells will realize that the greed is still with us, in a multitude of new forms, and it’s destroying more than ever before — a vital idea to grasp.
It’s much easier for us to acknowledge horrors that happened in the past, rather than the horrors our shopping is causing today. History can be powerful medicine when it is taught by competent elders, instead of the usual cheerleaders for wealth, empire, progress, and human supremacy. Mowat was an excellent wordsmith, and a passionate storyteller. You will never forget this one.
Postscript. In 1985, following the publication of Sea of Slaughter, Mowat was scheduled to do a book tour in the U.S. Shortly after boarding his plane in Toronto, customs officials escorted him back off. He learned that he was forever forbidden to travel to the land of freedom — and they wouldn’t tell him why. This was the Reagan era, and Mowat had pissed off many conservatives. Banishment inspired him to write a smart-assed new book, My Discovery of America.
Mowat, Farley, Sea of Slaughter, 1984, Reprint, Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver, British Columbia, 2012.
The Sea of Slaughter documentary, with Farley Mowat (1 hr, 45 min) is HERE.