The stories are well-known: European seafarers and explorers encountered a western Atlantic Ocean filled with numerous, large, and robust fish, unlike anything they had seen before. According to W. Jeffrey Bolster, who begins his book, The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail, on the other side of the Atlantic, these early documentarians did not realize that the abundance they saw in American waters reflected depletion in their own home waters. Instead, they believed the sea to be immortal, impossible for humans to affect.
“So much remained unknown that it was easy for people to imagine the ocean as infinite and overwhelming,” writes Bolster. Denial swam freely in this imagined ocean, where cod fishing, whaling, and seabird hunting “destabilized the ecosystem.”
Not until the nineteenth-century harvest of menhaden (overfished in a mere 30 years), mackerel, halibut (a “flash-in-the-pan” fishery), and lobster, did fishers begin to acknowledge the ocean’s limits. Bolster, an associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, conducted much of the research for the book as part of the Census of Marine Life’s Gulf of Maine Cod Project. But its resemblance to academic papers or scientific journal articles or even other popular history books on the Atlantic ends there. This is history at its most engaging, and most powerful.
Read the rest of the review in The Working Waterfront here.