BOOK REVIEW / A rotting crop from the harvest of the deep: 'Seven-Tenths: The Sea and its Thresholds' - James Hamilton-Paterson: Hutchinson, 16.99 pounds

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ONCE UPON a time, thoughts of the sea evoked images that reflected the stirring visions of J M W Turner. But mention the sea today and all thought is of the pollution and depletion perpetrated by man on the oceans - seven-tenths of the earth's surface.

Take the fisheries. What once was an inspirational reaping of 'the glittering harvest of the deep' becomes, in a North Sea scene witnessed by James Hamilton- Paterson, a crass symptom of modern degeneracy. From the deck of a trawler, Hamilton-Paterson watched one portion of a day's catch being hauled aboard in a sort of soft sack that resembled a large and filthy laundry bag:

'The heads of flatfish stick out at all angles . . . between them hang rags of plastic, bin liners, torn freezer packs, lengths of electric cable, flattened orange juice containers . . . The rubbish of a thousand fishing boats and oil rigs and supply vessels is daily fished up, winnowed out and thrown straight back into the sea, building up on the bottom into an ever more concentrated and handpicked stratum of garbage.'

Hamilton-Paterson's book is a series of musings on contemporary marine themes. His reflections on the appalling crisis of the world's fisheries make up only one segment of a work that ranges from considerations of reefs and wrecks to observations about islands and modern piracy. But the nature of the 'conspiracy of depletion' now killing the fisheries makes that chapter easily his most graphic. The ravages of drift netting, notably in the north Pacific but also in British inshore waters, are vividly set out, and Hamilton-Paterson rightly concludes that the worldwide plundering of marine life may turn out to be even more disastrous than the felling of rainforests. Even so, he barely mentions the atrocious state of affairs in the north-west Atlantic.

Too often this poet, fiction-writer and geographer gives himself over to rambling meditations that sound like the aimless monologues of some highbrow salt marooned on a desert island. Much vague information is dispensed about modern methods of charting as seen by the author, and he indulges in lengthy flights of prose about what might be called the metaphysics of islands. But there seems little tangible point to some of this.

Indeed, when it comes to the British Isles, this expert in the phenomenon of insularity greatly exaggerates (probably through long absences on his various voyages) the extent to which the British have thrown off the famous isolationism produced by their separation from the European mainland.

Hamilton-Paterson drifts into the realms of underwater wrecks and deep-sea exploration. Here, almost incidentally, a good deal of fascinating fact bubbles to the surface of his meandering prose. We discover, for instance, that the wreck of the US battleship Arizona at Pearl Harbor still leaks a couple of gallons of fuel oil daily, half a century after the vessel was bombed by the Japanese. 'Legend has it,' he writes, 'that it will stop seeping on the day the last survivor from the ship is buried.'

Hamilton-Paterson also sifts the chilling details of two submarine disasters and reminds us of a wreck in home waters which, according to him, constitutes a time-bomb. This is the munitions ship Richard Montgomery, lost in the Second World War off Sheerness with a load of high explosives. 'It has been estimated that if it ever does explode, it could level the town.'

The man-made plight of the oceans finds a haunting symbol in Hamilton-Paterson's recollection of encountering something that looked like a heap of floating seaweed off Asia in 1988. 'As we neared we could smell it before we finally identified it as a mass of rotting animals. We identified fish, a baby dolphin and various bird carcasses.'

A lone white tern struggled to stay alive, its feet entangled in all this death - part of a drift net unleashed by Japanese fishermen. Hamilton-Paterson's skiff rode into the welter, bumping softly among the heavier corpses. 'With some difficulty we freed the little tern . . . There was nothing else to be done.'