From W. Jeffrey Bolster’s The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail, new this month:
For centuries, from Cape Cod to Newfoundland the return of fish, birds, and marine mammals—each in their season—sparked quiet rejoicing in fishing towns and outport villages. Many of those communities had few economic alternatives to harvesting the sea, and fishing folk chose to believe that the sea would provide forever. That belief dovetailed with the attitude of naturalists and scientists, who often insisted, at least until the mid-twentieth century, that the sea was eternal and unchanging, even though almost every generation of harvesters noted evidence to the contrary and raised disturbing questions about the perpetuity of the stocks on which they relied. Beginning in the nineteenth century, however, fishermen’s hard-won knowledge all too often disappeared as new technologies increased catches. Bumper catches obliterated memories of how the same number of men, with the same gear, fishing in the same place, had been catching fewer fish as time passed—an indicator that stocks were diminishing. Shoreside naturalists’ insistence that the sea was eternal and fishermen’s periodic loss of vernacular knowledge that stocks were declining reinforced each other. Combined, they camouflaged one of the northwest Atlantic’s great untold sea stories, a true tale of changes in the sea.
An irony sharp as a sculpin’s spines pervades that story. No profession has ever placed more emphasis on avoiding disaster than seafaring. Mariners instinctively anticipated danger, maintained a sharp lookout, and constantly scanned their surroundings for indication of the slightest problem. To relax vigilance was to court catastrophe. Yet disaster struck for both fish and fishermen, periodically in the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries, then universally at the end of the twentieth century, in part because neither fishers nor scientists nor policymakers chose to believe that what they were seeing was happening. The sea was not immortal.