Rozwadowski, The Sea Knows No Boundaries

Published by Jacob Darwin Hamblin in Isis 94:3 (2003), 560–561

Rozwadowski, Helen.  The Sea Knows No Boundaries: A Century of Marine Science Under ICES. ix + 410 pp. Illus., bibl., index. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002.  $50, £37.95 (cloth).

The title of this book suggests the familiar theme that marine science is inherently international because its object of study exists outside national borders.  The International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES) promoted international cooperation with similar reasoning throughout the twentieth century, weathering the political strains of two world wars and a cold war.  Helen Rozwadowski has written a thoroughly-researched and accessible book that takes stock of ICES after its first one hundred years.

ICES began simply as the International Council, and its goals were practical. Northern Europeans wanted a scientific basis for sensible fishing regulations, to prevent the depletion of plaice, cod, and herring in neighboring seas.  Many founding members were Scandinavians, whose economies depended heavily on fishing.  Throughout its life, the Council prioritized the rational, controlled exploitation of the sea as its first aim.

The Council considered itself a scientific body, and in 1926 it established the Journal du Conseil in part to reaffirm its scientific foundations.  But it made no pretense of promoting research for its own sake.  Scientists such as Johan Hjort of Norway and Michael Graham of Britain provided theoretical tools to determine optimum catches, and fisheries scientists developed a sense of responsibility for keeping fisheries from becoming unprofitable.  The most visible problem was the rapid growth of Antarctic whaling in the 1920s.  Although it lacked the power to create restrictions, Rozwadowski credits the Council for stimulating thought and action on whaling regulation from the 1930s onwards.

The Council’s pragmatism steered it through the stormy seas of the twentieth century.  National animosities during the Boer War were set aside in favor of national desires to exploit the seas.  The Council barred Germany from membership after the First World War, as did other international scientific bodies, but worked toward its return to ensure adherence to conservation recommendations.  The Second World War halted work virtually everywhere, and the Council’s General Secretary died of dysentery in a prison camp.  Yet the Council saw opportunity amidst tragedy: it could study the effects of the wartime closure of fisheries on fish stocks.

In 1955, the Council officially became ICES, another victim of the acronym plague that struck international science in the 1950s and 1960s.  It organized the Polar Front Survey during the International Geophysical Year (1957-58).  But the IGY also stimulated global bodies that increasingly placed ICES on the periphery.  Nevertheless, ICES benefited from the new climate of cooperation through new members, such as the Soviet Union, enabling ambitious regional studies such as the Overflow expeditions.  The involvement of ICES in other trends of research, such as environmental challenges and global climate change, is hardly surprising given the funds available for such research.

This book demonstrates that the strength of ICES was its ability to adapt.  It was not bound by intergovernmental treaties or formal relationships with industry.  It was a scientific body that could respond to changing demands for knowledge while offering its own vision of the most sensible regulatory policies.

Rozwadowski claims that her book counterbalances other historians’ emphases on academic or military work, and she is right.  The book provides thoughtful coverage of the interplay of international science and government sponsorship outside of these contexts.  She also criticizes historians of oceanography for chronicling national science while ignoring developments elsewhere.  This book presents a rare opportunity to discuss marine science without the United States, which was not a member of ICES.  Rozwadowski offers insights into issues and problems that, refreshingly, are not framed in relation to the United States.  Still, given the importance of the United States in marine science after 1945, that also makes these portions of the book less compelling than those covering the early history, when ICES truly was the premier international body for marine science.


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