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.