The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail

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Since the Viking ascendancy in the Middle Ages, the Atlantic has shaped the lives of people who depend upon it for survival. And just as surely, people have shaped the Atlantic. In his innovative account of this interdependency, W. Jeffrey Bolster, a historian and professional seafarer, takes us through a millennium-long environmental history of our impact on one of the largest ecosystems in the world.

While overfishing is often thought of as a contemporary problem, Bolster reveals that humans were transforming the sea long before factory trawlers turned fishing from a handliner's art into an industrial enterprise. The western Atlantic's legendary fishing banks, stretching from Cape Cod to Newfoundland, have attracted fishermen for more than five hundred years. Bolster follows the effects of this siren's song from its medieval European origins to the advent of industrialized fishing in American waters at the beginning of the twentieth century.

Blending marine biology, ecological insight, and a remarkable cast of characters, from notable explorers to scientists to an army of unknown fishermen, Bolster tells a story that is both ecological and human: the prelude to an environmental disaster. Over generations, harvesters created a quiet catastrophe as the sea could no longer renew itself. Bolster writes in the hope that the intimate relationship humans have long had with the ocean, and the species that live within it, can be restored for future generations.

2013 Bancroft Prize Winner

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Editorial Reviews

The Washington Post
The Mortal Sea should be read as a cautionary tale…"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
Publishers Weekly
Bolster, an associate professor at the University of New Hampshire where he teaches early American history, demonstrates detailed research of the New England fishing industry from the 16th century to the early 20th century, including excerpts from centuries-old reports, from “Renaissance seafarers” and countless history texts to newspaper accounts and fishery management publications and data. But he weaves the story of the common fishermen—those who relied on the ocean to survive and today’s fishermen who “are descendants of the oldest continually operated business enterprise in the New World”—into his tale to create a story that is personal as well as informative. This varied collection of information makes for an exhaustive and scholarly analysis of marine history and demonstrates that problems of environmental stress and overfishing have confronted humans since they arrived in these waters and continue to this day. By demonstrating the “catastrophic changes in the sea” over the past 400-plus years, Bolster has created a work that is not only a comprehensive chronicling of North Atlantic fishing but also a harrowing cautionary tale of human consumption and a challenge to those who have the final chance to restore “our exhausted seas.” (Oct.)
Daniel Pauly
Bolster gives a fascinating account of the devastating impact of the sail-driven machinery that was unleashed on the North Atlantic since the early Middle Ages, which now appears like a trial run for the coup de coup de grâce in the twentieth century.
Joyce E. Chaplin
All hands on deck! Bolster makes an all-too-convincing case that the northwest Atlantic has been overfished for centuries and that we must act now to avert catastrophe.
Daniel Vickers
The Mortal Sea looks at the North Atlantic and reveals how the marine stocks of the world arrived at the desperate pass they are in. This is a work of stunning importance.
Jeremy Jackson
This remarkable book will forever change our understanding of the human tragedy of overfishing that has fueled the downward spiral of ecological destruction of the oceans. It is a story of hubris, greed, and a stubborn failure to learn from experience that continues unabated to this day.
Washington Post - Jonathan Yardley
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...The Mortal Sea should be read as a cautionary tale...Anyone who thinks...this book is only about fish is living in a fool's paradise.
Historian and seafarer Jeffrey Bolster 'writes the ocean into history,' tracing the currents leading to today's serious fish-stock depletion. Focusing on the North Atlantic from Cape Cod to Newfoundland's Grand Banks, he shows how one species after another--halibut, lobster, cod--has been exploited for centuries, long before industrialization. Bolster braids marine biology into a narrative driven by courageous chancers, such as fifteenth-century explorer John Cabot and unnamed hordes of fishermen, to argue that the precautionary approach is key to heading off collapse.
Boston Globe - Michael Kenney
[A] well-documented and fascinating chronicle of New England's interdependence with the sea from the 16th century to the World War I era. In The Mortal Sea, Bolster skillfully weaves material from historical documents and newspaper and scientific reports with tales of fishermen to demonstrate how the activities of individuals have affected the northwest Atlantic, for better and worse.
Times Literary Supplement - Richard Shelton
The Mortal Sea chronicles the history of the fishing industry in the North West Atlantic over the past 500 years. Based on a comprehensive set of original sources, it charts the fascinating and ultimately disastrous story of how successive waves of European seafarers arrived to take advantage of the fishing opportunities that had become distant memories in their own more circumscribed and heavily exploited home waters...Such is the complexity of marine ecosystems that the recovery of severely depleted cod populations is taking decades longer than simple theory would suggest. The Mortal Sea is a beautifully written chronicle of what lay before this latest catastrophe and much earlier dire outcomes of poorly regulated fishing. As an authoritatively written natural history of the developing fishing communities of the North West Atlantic, it makes an important contribution to fishery science as well as to social history.
Choice - G. C. Jensen
Bolster has mined evidence from a wide range of contemporary sources that convincingly demonstrates the widespread overfishing and sequential depletion of bird, fish, and marine mammal stocks before the advent of steamships and modern trawlers...Essential reading for anyone interested in the sea and its resources.
Historian and seafarer Jeffrey Bolster 'writes the ocean into history,' tracing the currents leading to today's serious fish-stock depletion. Focusing on the North Atlantic from Cape Cod to Newfoundland's Grand Banks, he shows how one species after another--halibut, lobster, cod--has been exploited for centuries, long before industrialization. Bolster braids marine biology into a narrative driven by courageous chancers, such as fifteenth-century explorer John Cabot and unnamed hordes of fishermen, to argue that the precautionary approach is key to heading off collapse.
Cape Cod Times - Lauren Daly
The Mortal Sea is a fascinating look back at the last millennium of fishing--and overfishing--the North Atlantic, from Cape Cod to Cape Breton.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674047655
  • Publisher: Harvard
  • Publication date: 10/8/2012
  • Pages: 416
  • Sales rank: 580,124
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.20 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

W. Jeffrey Bolster is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of New Hampshire.

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Read an Excerpt

Chapter 3: The Sea Serpent and the Mackerel Jig

As the human race has extended over the surface of the earth, man has more or less modified the animal population of different regions, either by exterminating certain species, or introducing others. Louis Agassiz and Augustus M. Gould, Principles of Zoölogy (1848)

Sometime around 1815 in a Cape Ann fishing station called Pigeon Cove—named for the abundant passenger pigeons that once roosted on near-by Pigeon Hill—Abraham Lurvey experimented casting molten lead and pewter around the shank of a mackerel hook. Decades later a few old-timers gave credit for the jig to others, but the actual inventor had considerably less significance than the invention itself. Mackerel hooks were relatively small. Being iron, they rusted. Lurvey sensed that a bit of dried sharkskin or other sandpaper could shine the pewter sleeve, attracting mackerel in lieu of bait. As far back as anyone could remember, fishermen always had baited mackerel hooks with pieces of pork “as big as a four-pence ha’penny,” or more typically with bait from the sea. But bait had costs, and baiting took time. Mackerel hit shiny jigs faster than they ever had baited hooks. And though Lurvey and the men with whom he fished tried to keep their jigs secret, word spread.

Dexterous jiggers could twitch a mackerel from the sea into a barrel on deck; jerk it from the hook with a technique they called “slatting,” then flick the jig back into the water without touching fish or hook: no baiting, no handling, no wasted motion. Ground chum dumped over the rail attracted the fish, and if they bit slowly the men stuck morsels of bait on their hooks for better results. But when the fish bit relentlessly no need for baiting existed, and a skilled man could land several hundred pounds of mackerel an hour, considerably more than with the older methods. Quintessential Yankee tinkering, simple as it seemed, had produced gear with more fishing power. And nineteenth-century America’s growing infatuation with mackerel, and later with menhaden and other species, would rely on increasingly efficient gear.

Cast pewter mackerel jigs created quite a buzz on the waterfront during the next few summers, but nothing comparable to the sea stories coming out of near-by Gloucester in August of 1817. The Essex Register on August 16th noted “an unusual fish or serpent .º.º. discovered by the fishermen” in Gloucester harbor, “quick in its motions,” very long, and extremely evasive. According to the editor, “All attempts to take the fish had been ineffectual.” Some people claimed to have seen two of the serpents, and a letter-writer to the newspaper worried openly that “our small craft are fearful of venturing out a fishing.” One eyewitness explained the serpent appeared “in joints like the wooden buoys on a net rope .º.º. like a string of gallon kegs 100 feet long.” The “head of it, eight feet out of water, was as large as the head of a horse.” Later that month a broadside published in Boston stoked the excitement with assertions that “A Monstrous Sea Serpent: The largest ever seen in America” hovered in the vicinity of Gloucester. Initially “believed to be a creature of the imagination,” as the broadside’s author put it, the monster “has since come within the harbor of Gloucester, and has been seen by hundreds of people.”

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Table of Contents

Preface ix

Prologue: The Historic Ocean 1

1 Depleted European Seas and the Discovery of America 12

2 Plucking the Low-Hanging Fruit 49

3 The Sea Serpent and the Mackerel Jig 88

4 Making the Case for Caution 121

5 Waves in a Troubled Sea 169

6 An Avalanche of Cheap Fish 223

Epilogue: Changes in the Sea 265

Appendix: Figures 285

Notes 291

Glossary 335

Acknowledgments 357

Index 361

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