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“The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail” by W. Jeffrey Bolster

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For much of the period “from the end of the Civil War to about 1890,” W. Jeffrey Bolster writes, the debate over the declining fish population of the North Atlantic was between fishermen on one side and scientists on the other: “Many small-scale fishermen sought to protect the resources, or at least to have it both ways, wanting fish for the future even as they insisted on fishing — often with increasingly efficient gear. The scientific community, for the most part, sided with industrialists and commercial interests, claiming that perceived depletions were simply natural fluctuations, and that nothing humans did could affect oceanic fish stocks, though some scientists’ faith faltered as crash followed crash.”

This may seem, at the remove of well over a century, yesterday’s news, but “The Mortal Sea” is highly pertinent to urgent matters before us now. If in the late 1800s the men who worked the sea for their livelihoods could see that creatures were being fished to extinction, while scientists in the employ of business interests argued that the seas were endlessly replenishable, today it is the other way around. Scientists argue that human activity has placed the planet in uncertain but potentially calamitous peril, while ordinary people shrug at the evidence and go on misusing the Earth’s resources, abetted by governments too cowardly and businesses too self-interested to take that evidence seriously.

“Policy decisions about commercial fishing,” Bolster writes, “were always financial — about jobs and profits — but . . . such decisions had ethical implications.” Exactly the same is true of decisions now being made (or, more accurately, not being made) about global climate issues, so “The Mortal Sea” should be read as a cautionary tale.

Bolster, who teaches history at the University of New Hampshire, writes about “that great arc of ocean stretching westward from the British Isles to Newfoundland [known] as the North Atlantic boreal region,” an arc that “includes the North Sea, the Irish Sea, the English Channel, the Norwegian Sea, the waters south of Ireland and Greenland, and the large marine ecosystem from the north coast of Cape Cod to Newfoundland and Southern Labrador.” His particular emphasis is on the waters off New England and eastern Canada, waters that began to be fished by European and British boats toward the end of the 16th century, well before the establishment of settler colonies in New England or the Mid-Atlantic.

Those first voyagers were utterly astonished by “the extraordinary bounty of undisturbed seas in the northwest Atlantic.” One wrote that “the sea yeeldeth great abundance of fish of divers sorts.” Another saw “Whales and Seales in great abundance,” as well as “Salmons, Lobsters, Oisters having Pearle, and infinit other sorts of fish, which are more plentifull upon those Northwest coasts of America, than in any parts of the knowen world.”

They went right to work, hauling in as many fish as their ships could carry, salting them and taking them back for sale in England, Ireland and the Continent. So far as they could tell, the supply was limitless, being “fishing folk [who] chose to believe that the sea would provide forever.” By the close of the 18th century, though, it was becoming plain — at least to those who chose to look clinically at the evidence — that the sea was as mortal as those who fished it. Seal hunting and porpoise fishing, mere “occasional pursuits” during much of that century, had turned into industries at its end, along with hunting whales and walruses. Beginning in 1795, the Newfoundland seal fishery was “an active hunt in which schooners carrying from fifteen to forty men each sailed to the ice on which seals were whelping, and moored there as the men fanned out over the ice to club and shoot the listless seals. In those conditions a single crew could kill 3,500 seals in a single week. After 1795 the seal slaughter increased annually by orders of magnitude.”

Increased, that is, until the supply of seals — like that of whales and walruses and porpoises — shrank to minuscule dimensions, a consequence of what Bolster calls “downward trends in biocomplexity and ecosystem resiliency.” Ditto for sturgeon, of which one Thomas Morton had written in 1632 that every man “may catch what hee will, there are multitudes of them,” yet which less than half a century later were so limited “that insufficient sturgeon existed for an open fishery.” Bolster writes:

“Sturgeon would not be virtually exterminated in Chesapeake and Delaware Bays and in the Hudson River until the caviar craze between 1870 and 1900. But in northern New England, where competitiveness in the emerging Atlantic economy depended on fishing and trade, only two centuries were necessary to accomplish what had taken a millennium in Europe — the severe reduction of a huge fish that in a natural state was likely to die of old age.”

The situation grew more complex, and more perilous for fish and other creatures, as human inventiveness produced ever more ingenious and efficient machinery for harvesting the sea. Early in the 19th century, a Cape Ann fisherman discovered that mackerel would bite far more enthusiastically at shiny hooks than at those baited with pork, and thus was born the “mackerel jig,” which well before the Civil War provoked one man to write that “all the mackerel men who arrive report the scarcity of this fish.”

By the 1840s the purse seine, “a long net employed by two small boats to circle a school of fish,” was hauling in not merely herring, menhaden and mackerel, but everything in its path. One Horatio Storer wrote in 1849, “The waste during the seining season is enormous, [with] many more being taken off than can possibly be cured, so that hundreds of barrels are left to rot upon the beach; and . . . for miles around, the water is completely covered by a thick oily scum, arising from the decaying fish.”

Then, in the early 20th century, came the trawler: “A vessel towing a net across the bottom radically redefined the relationship between fisher and fish. Such nets scooped up everything in their path. Young fish and old fish, spawning and spent fish, precious and worthless fish — all were taken, along with weed, coral, rocks, anemones, sea stars, crabs, and anything else in the way.” Operating to this day, trawlers can “land as much fish in one lucky hour as a seventeenth-century vessel could have landed in a season.”

In 1892 a man named Edwin W. Gould, fisheries commissioner of Maine, spoke out against a bill that would “transfer control of coastal fishing from state to federal authority,” the latter presumed to be more lax than the former. “The fecundity of fish,” Gould wrote, “is not a defense against man’s rapacity.” And: “Fish obey laws such as to render protection essential.” And: “The Canadian seal fishers off the Aleutian Islands may feel a serene confidence that they are operating upon an unlimited field. It is the same old story. The buffalo is gone; the whale is disappearing; the seal fishery is threatened with destruction.” And, finally: “Fish need protection.” The bill did not pass, but the assault upon the sea continued virtually unimpeded.

Over the years various regulations and restrictions have been imposed, but always too little, too late. “At every step of the way,” Bolster writes, “the precautionary approach could have made a difference. Modest short-term sacrifice of profit and prosperity would have perpetuated renewable resources for the future. . . . Ultimately the scale of this story, spanning centuries and stretching across the North Atlantic, reveals, as few other tales can, the tragic consequences of decisionmakers’ unwillingness to steer a precautionary course in the face of environmental uncertainties.”

Anyone who thinks that passage — or this book — is only about fish is living in a fool’s paradise.

— Jonathan Yardley

yardleyj@washpost.com

THE MORTAL SEA Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail By W. Jeffrey Bolster Belknap/Harvard Univ. 378 pp. $29.95

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