New Maine Times Book Review: The Mortal Sea

Posted Wednesday, August 28, 2013 in Culture

New Maine Times Book Review: The Mortal Sea
By W. Jeffrey Bolster.
Harvard University Press, 2012.
378 pages, $29.95.
ISBN 978-0-674-04765-5.
Reviewed by William D. Bushnell
    In the past twenty years New England states, the federal government, and fishermen have struggled to understand and regulate Atlantic fisheries, seeking a contentious balance between commercial livelihood and resource sustainability.  Perhaps fishermen and regulators should read Jeffrey Bolster’s new book, THE MORTAL SEA.
    Although the complete title of Bolster’s book is THE MORTAL SEA:  FISHING THE ATLANTIC IN THE AGE OF SAIL, focusing on the history of North Atlantic fisheries during the age of sail, from 1500 to 1920, his historical message is that resource depletion and regulatory attempts go back hundreds of years and are greatly affected by the weather, seasons, natural cycles, and man’s influence.
    Bolster is a former captain of the Maine-based schooner “Harvey Gamage,” and has fished all over the Atlantic, especially in the waters of the Gulf of Maine.  His fascinating book highlights the rise and fall of various ocean species impacted by Mother Nature and man, revealing that “the ocean is an extraordinarily changeable environment” as it “changes daily, seasonally, and historically.”
    Bolster explains that the first real impact of man on New England’s fisheries began in the early 1600s when European fishermen (Spanish, English, French, Dutch, Portuguese) moved west across the Atlantic precisely because their European fisheries collapsed from overfishing.  They quickly found the productive fishing grounds from Newfoundland to Massachusetts, particularly the Gulf of Maine which was viewed as “a garden, one of the most productive coast ecosystems in the world.”
    Those early European fishermen found such bounty that they eagerly thought that every cod “had a coin in its mouth,” and “that the sea would provide forever.”  It would not be very long before they realized they were wrong.  The demand for fish as food to feed the rapidly growing European and colonial populations quickly resulted in overfishing of popular species like cod and mackerel.
    Bolster colorfully describes age of sail fishing techniques like hand-lining, gill netting, trawling, trolling, and jigging, as well as types of sail rigs and vessels like the Chebacco boat and the pinky schooner, and the markets (especially the commercial fish markets controlled by the Hanseatic League, and the dangers of Atlantic fishing which “made coal mining look safe.”
    Numerous chapter focus on specific fish species, describing their life cycle, feeding, predators (including man), and how the natural cycle of life and death impacted fish populations, making fish “biologically productive only in specific places and in its seasons.”  Through experience fishermen knew when each species was most prolific in which season, in which location, and so targeted that species until overfishing forced them to focus on another species.  Species featured include cod, haddock, mackerel, herring, menhaden, halibut, sturgeon, alewives, clams, oysters, and lobsters.
    Bolster reveals that even as early as the mid-1600s, the North American colonies recognized the dangers of overfishing and began to regulate certain fisheries in an effort to ensure sustainability.  The Massachusetts colony was the first to try regulation of alewives and sea bass but with little success.
    Demand and greed drove the markets.  An abundant fishing year for cod, for example, attracted more fishermen and more boats, resulting in larger and larger numbers of fish landings until the fishery collapsed.  Bolster’s history clearly reflects what is happening to fisheries today.  As he discusses fisheries overexploitation over the centuries, a familiar theme is driven home – “Destruction will take care of itself.  Preservation requires action and purposeful vigilance.”
    Learn too which fish is the “ocean’s kidneys,” how the simple mackerel jig was invented and how it revolutionized the mackerel fishing industry, about Maine’s first lobster fishery collapse in 1899, and about the remarkably intense Blue Hill Menhaden Wars of the 1850s.
    Bolster cannot offer any concrete, simple, or fool-proof answers to resource overexploitation, there are just too many variables not controlled by man, but he does a masterful job of laying out the history of Atlantic fisheries, explaining why fishery resources need man’s attention to maintain their future sustainability.
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