The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail
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.
Prologue: The Historic Ocean
1. Depleted European Seas and the Discovery of America
2. Plucking the Low-Hanging Fruit
3. The Sea Serpent and the Mackerel Jig
4. Making the Case for Caution
5. Waves in a Troubled Sea
6. An Avalanche of Cheap Fish
Epilogue: Changes in the Sea
"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."
- Joyce E. Chaplin, author of The First Scientific American: Benjamin Franklin and the Pursuit of Genius
“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.”
- Jeremy Jackson, coeditor of Shifting Baselines: The Past and the Future of Ocean Fisheries
“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 grâce in the twentieth century.”
- Daniel Pauly, author of 5 Easy Pieces: The Impact of Fisheries on Marine Ecosystems
“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.”
- Daniel Vickers, University of British Columbia
W. Jeffrey Bolster is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of New Hampshire.
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