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.
Watch a short trailer below:
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
W. Jeffrey Bolster is Associate Professor in the Department of History at the University of New Hampshire.
"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."
– Richard Shelton, The Times Literary Supplement
"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."
"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."
– Jonathan Yardley, The Washington Post
"[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."
– Michael Kenney, The Boston Globe
"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." – G.C. Jensen, Choice
"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.'"
– Publishers Weekly
"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