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  • A Science on the Scales: The Rise of Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Biology, 1898–1939
  • Joseph Gough
Jennifer Hubbard . A Science on the Scales: The Rise of Canadian Atlantic Fisheries Biology, 1898–1939. University of Toronto Press. x, 351. $65.00

When Canada began setting up its first fisheries biological station in 1898, scientific knowledge of Atlantic waters was minimal. Soon, under the Biological Board of Canada, a volunteer corps of professors and students was descending each summer on St Andrews, New Brunswick, to investigate not only fishes but currents and ocean conditions, plankton growth, fish-processing methods, and whatever intrigued researchers. Their work had no overall focus, but that approach constituted a kind of wisdom; intuitive early efforts often foreshadowed whole fields of research.

The theory of evolution had generated great interest in the development and relationships of species, and marine creatures lent themselves to such study. Work on systematics – identifying and relating species, documenting life histories, and so on – predominated. Archibald Gowanlock Huntsman, the chief figure at the St Andrews station in its early decades, said that 'perhaps the most important undertaking . . . has been to work out the conditions of life generally in the waters along our Atlantic coast.'

Huntsman led Canada's marine science for decades, not always in the right direction. Hubbard portrays him as following, to a large degree, the thinking of the famed Thomas Henry Huxley, who described sea fisheries as inexhaustible. Huntsman and many whom he influenced gave little attention to modelling fishery abundance. By contrast, Canada's Pacific biological station at Nanaimo, at first the wallflower sister to the St Andrews station, made vital contributions to population dynamics, which helped give that station prominence.

On the Atlantic, some early scientists wanted to help the fishery directly, and the federal fisheries department often requested such aid. The Biological Board set up a Fisheries Experimental Station, in Halifax, devoted mainly to fish processing. Researchers helped solve major problems in lobster canneries (largely a matter of cleanliness) and in the curing of fish on the outdoor 'flakes' (drying racks) that used to line the shores of Maritime communities. The board tried to educate [End Page 294] fishers in good practices, although that effort and others weakened with budget cuts during the Great Depression.

The Biological Board by then had moved away from its dependence on university volunteers. Professional, full-time staff took over. Later, in the 1970s, the board's successor organization, the Fisheries Research Board of Canada, got absorbed into the federal fisheries department. The author suggests that Atlantic fishery science, though it grew larger in scale, never recovered its wide-ranging early dynamism.

This book embodies broad research and presents a valuable account of a new discipline trying to find its feet. It provides excellent international context. But it makes some unprofitable detours. For example, the author spends considerable time discussing potential frictions between pure and applied science, only to concede that this was never a real problem.

Readers might have benefitted from a more connected treatment of fisheries biology itself: how field, vessel, and lab work take place, and the gradual development of different fields of knowledge. Such information comes in fits and starts, in a sometimes bumpy narrative. And some assertions, such as saying that federal fisheries never developed a compulsory system of fish-product inspection, are incorrect.

The epilogue, the weakest part of the book, jumps forward to discuss the Atlantic cod collapse of the early 1990s. Regretting the decline of the original, wide-ranging style of the Biological Board, the author intimates that a different and more ecologically oriented approach, and a more responsive science bureaucracy, could have saved the day. But federal fisheries scientists did, in 1989–90, call for huge quota cuts well before the cod collapse of 1992, and researchers at the department's several biological stations continue to undertake a vast array of population, ecosystem, and other studies. Even if these appear more incremental and less inspirational than early efforts, initial foreshadowings are no substitute for the higher degree of certainty that gradually accumulates from patient efforts to make sense of the ocean's bewildering array of variables.

In a book of this range...


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