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  • The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail by W. Jeffrey Bolster
  • George A. Rose
The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail. By W. Jeffrey Bolster. (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 2012) 378 pp. $29.95.

This book, large both in the Newfoundland sense of goodness and promise and in the depth of its research, attempts to reconcile (or not) the attitudes and actions of fishermen with the emerging fisheries science of the nineteenth century. After a general introduction, it more or less follows a chronological path from the first exploitation of the northwest Atlantic by European fishermen through the onset of rampant industrialized and mechanized fisheries. As a historian with much experience at sea, Bolster is well positioned to address most aspects of this multidisciplinary story (although some of the biological content in the book is questionable and in some cases incorrect).

One central theme of the work is that over-exploitation and, in some cases, habitat destruction was part and parcel of the fisheries from the earliest times. To a large extent, this argument holds; few ocean scientists today would contest Bolster’s account of dire human influence, although many of them, including this reviewer, would recognize that the scale of the damage, and the potential for further damage, became much greater during the second half of the twentieth century. In addition, as Bolster acknowledges, certain effects of maritime changes are not directly attributable to human causes. Nonetheless, the extirpation of the great auk and the southern populations of walrus testify to the damage that overharvesting by humans can cause, as do its consequences for the populations of Atlantic halibut and herring, and even the Atlantic cod and mackerel.

A deeper and more salient theme, however, owes its cogency to the multidisciplinary approach of this work. By addressing the commentaries of the people associated with the fisheries, and what is basically catch data, Bolster shows that the greed, short-term economic interests, and base human exploitation of the oceans—attitudes that have remained the same for centuries—turned what might have been a sustainable approach to fisheries into something more like a mining operation. As the number of fishermen and the types of tools in the fishing industry increased nearly exponentially after the age of sail, the devastation continued to escalate.

Invaluable as this book is to anyone interested in the fisheries, any recommendation must be qualified by a few weaknesses and areas open to misinterpretation, which likely stem from the breadth of the topic and the author’s background. For one thing, the book is too dismissive of science and too friendly to traditional and local knowledge. Bolster sometimes appears to suggest that fishermen would be on perfectly good terms with the sea if science would just get out of the way. Although fishermen undoubtedly had, and still have, important inside knowledge, they are no less fallible than the scientists are. Leslie Harris, in Independent Review of the State of the Northern Cod Stock (Ottawa, 1990), debunks once and for all the myth of the all-knowing small-boat fisherman. Moreover, [End Page 275] even when fishermen are aware of the most environmentally safe procedures, they do not necessarily follow them.

The biological information in the book’s glossary is disappointing—not so much for its brevity as for its inaccuracy, which might attract unfounded skepticism about the whole work. As a case in point, cod are not “bottom feeders” (339). In fact, the cod diet varies extensively, but most often, pelagic fishes are its staple. Furthermore, contrary to Bolster’s description, cod—at least a good many of them—eat and take baited hooks even while spawning.1 Haddock are not rare off Newfoundland; they are, in fact, common on the southern Grand Banks and St. Pierre Bank of Newfoundland. Although the historical levels of haddock in these waters are unknown, haddock were one of the main catches there during the 1950s and 1960s.2 One important error of omission is the vaunted codtrap, which forever changed the Newfoundland and Labrador fisheries. For biological information about the fisheries of the Atlantic Northwest, readers would do well to...


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