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  • Anne Giblin

Swirling Currents

“Swirling Currents: Controversy, Compromise and Dynamic Coastal Change” by Sandy Macfarlane.

In this ambitious, but very readable book, Sandy Macfarlane documents the challenges of coastal resource management. Through a series of case studies, she tackles many of today’s critical topics including marine mammal protection, overfishing, climate change, aquaculture, and nutrient over enrichment. Taken as a whole, the book offers a wonderful perspective on the history of our many failures, and few notable successes, in managing ocean resources. I first met Sandy Macfarlane when she was a shellfish biologist on Cape Cod where she was an early pioneer in local shellfish aquaculture. This has given her a very valuable perspective and, unlike many books on environmental issues, she usually does not take a specific point of view. Instead, she points out the complexity of the issues and how fishermen, tourists, environmentalists, and fisheries managers, all see the same issue differently, and how none of these groups may see the issues as a fish or a seal experience them.

The book covers a number of issues that featured predominately in the headlines over the last year. The book begins with lifeguards ordering people out of the water as sharks are sighted near the beach. In later chapters she returns to the issue of sharks and seals and beaches but brings in information about the history of the Marine Mammal Protection Act and how that has allowed the seal population to expand to the point where they may be competing with humans for fish. The expansion of the seal population, as delightful as seals are for tourists to see, has attracted sharks to the beaches as well. Have seal populations gotten too large? Should seals be culled for the sake of the fisheries? Will sharks now begin to control the seal population but change the nature of our beaches? Sandy shows how different constituencies are all being impacted by changes in the seal population, but rather than dictating answers, she poses questions.

The issues in the book are global and the lessons learned are universal. However, many of the examples are from Cape Cod or the Gulf of Maine so students and teachers alike will delight in learning some nearly forgotten facts about the region’s rich history with the oceans. While I thought I knew quite a bit about the long history of cod fishing in New England it was fascinating to learn how differences in preservation methods played a large role in where cod was sold and how Cape Cod, despite its name, was not the hub of the cod fishery. Instead fish like mackerel, herring, and menhaden played a crucial role in the development of Cape Cod fisheries.

Sandy is a great story teller. She uses Jeremiah’s Gutter, a now filled in connection between Cape Cod Bay and the Atlantic Ocean, to illustrate how nature and humans are constantly changing the landscape. She keeps the readers’ interest by weaving in stories about how this nearly forgotten passage was used by pirates and war ships for more than 150 years. Now the remnants of this creek flow under a traffic circle in Orleans unnoticed by the millions of tourists visiting the Cape.

I can highly recommend this book to anyone wanting a more nuanced view on the long -standing issues on how to steward our ocean’s resources. By putting these issues in a historical perspective Macfarlane shows that we tend to view issues with a very near- term perspective and don’t see how decades and centuries of human intervention have caused the baseline to shift.

How can teachers use this book? Because Sandy give a variety of points of view on an issue, and because the chapters largely stand on their own, teachers can pick a topic and have students read about it in short but thought-provoking chapters. The book is well referenced if a teacher wants to go into even more depth. I would recommend that teachers pick an issue, assign students to take various points of view and hold an in-class discussion on that issue. Such a discussion would also provide a good opportunity for students to further practice skills in holding civil conversations, learned in GOMI Climate Cafes.

Sandy ends her book with a plea for community - based stewardship:

“After all we have taken from the sea, fulfilling our desires to have it all while paying little heed to the needs of the creatures we have exploited, what gifts can we now give back? ……The first step is understanding: to see our own actions are part of a larger picture …The second step if mindful action: to recognize that even seemingly small actions have consequences…The third step is positive do whatever you can to prevent further harm to the environment…Collectively we all can make a difference, no matter how small each step may seem.”

I can think of no better message for our young students.


Anne Giblin is a senior scientist at the Ecosystems Center Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Anne’s major research interest has been on the cycling of elements in the environment. Current projects include an assessment of how climate change and sea level rise will impact salt marshes; how increased nitrogen inputs and hydrologic disturbances alters nitrogen cycling in estuaries; and how pathways of nitrogen and phosphorus cycling change with warming in arctic lakes. Anne is committed to bringing science to youth and youth to science as means of promoting good science, citizenship and stewardship.

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