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The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail Hardcover – October 8, 2012

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Editorial Reviews


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 coup de grâce in the twentieth century. (Daniel Pauly, author of 5 Easy Pieces: The Impact of Fisheries on Marine Ecosystems)

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)

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)

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)

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 2012-07-23)

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 Washington Post 2012-10-28)

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. (Nature 2012-10-01)

[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 Boston Globe 2012-11-07)

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 Times Literary Supplement 2013-03-22)

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 2013-05-01)

The Mortal Sea is a fascinating look back at the last millennium of fishing--and overfishing--the North Atlantic, from Cape Cod to Cape Breton. (Lauren Daly Cape Cod Times 2014-04-06)

About the Author

W. Jeffrey Bolster is Professor of History at the University of New Hampshire.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 416 pages
  • Publisher: Belknap Press; 1st edition (October 8, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0674047656
  • ISBN-13: 978-0674047655
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.4 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (19 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #500,229 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

25 of 27 people found the following review helpful By John Michael Albert on February 3, 2013
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
A stupendous book. Of course, growing up in the age of Mrs. Paul's fish sticks and TV ads for Gortons of Gloucester, and Captains Courageous and The Perfect Storm, I've been aware of fish and fishing. Add to that the health industry's not very helpful back-and-forth of "fish is bad for you, it has mercury in it" and "fish is good for you, it has omega 3 oils." But since I moved to the New Hampshire seacoast (fourteen years ago yesterday, Feb 02, 2013) my curiosity has been piqued. The news about the fishing industry is constant. And government opinions and scientists' opinions in the local and national news, are constantly counter balanced (and what a balance it is, with at least three armies battling for the high ground) with the fishermen and their families who are my ubiquitous neighbors.

I bought this book after it was reviewed and the author interviewed in the Portsmouth (NH) local paper, THE WiRE. At last, a book that attempts to make it all clear for the reader: what is the problem, how did it become the problem, what is the solution. But, as with all good stories, nothing about fishing is that simple. So the author begins with the Vikings in the New World and covers the history of fishing the northwest Atlantic until about 1930's, and the last cry of the age of sails. It's a tremendous story, full of rich detail, and every actor in it has contradictory motives.

It is also, I must warn, an extremely erudite book. This was a hard read, on a Masters or Doctorate level. Extremely rich, complex vocabulary and compound-complex sentence structure that had me re-reading pages on many occasions. But I don't get the impression that it is showiness for the sake of showiness. (Grammar usually goes hay-wire when an author is substituting ego-driven logorrhea for sense.
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18 of 19 people found the following review helpful By jjohn the seafarer on October 25, 2012
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Jeff Bolster writes about the sea as few know how to do. He demolishes the myth of the
eternal sea, showing how much the North Atlantic has changed over hundreds of years of human
exploitation. He knows his fish, but he also knows the fishers. This is environmental and
social history of the highest order, a decisive intervention in the current debates about
our future relationship to the oceans. It takes history offshore, and returns it richer
for the voyage into this largely unknown past.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Lawrence Meyer on March 15, 2013
Format: Hardcover
This is a very convincing ecological history about the destruction of fish and other aquatic species from Cape Cod to Newfoundland that reached a zenith in the late 1800s. Most compelling is the author's evidence that both the practice of overfishing and the concerns about it go back a long way and didn't just happen because foreign factory ships one day appeared off the coast of the US and Canada late in the 20th century. The degradation of fish stocks started early and proceeded systematically. Fishermen themselves were repeatedly the conscience for an impulse for conservation, but never did an effective conservation coalition coalesce. Too often, the anecdotal evidence of fishermen themselves outpaced the evidence of hard science. Too often, scientists abstained from having an opinion and free range was therefore given to next onslaught on a species.

As I am a Farley Mowat fan, I was a bit perplexed at there being no mention of his book, Sea of Slaughter, as it covered much the same ground and proceeded from a like inspiration. Mowat and Bolster both cite the sense of fishermen that they knew the fishing grounds were in trouble as reasons they undertook their books.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Richard Reese (author of Sustainable or Bust) on December 5, 2013
Format: Hardcover
Until the twentieth century, it was commonly believed that the oceans, filled with vast quantities of fish, were immortal. It was impossible for mere humans to ever make a dent in the sea’s enormous bounty. Similarly, iron miners once believed that the Lake Superior lodes could be mined for eternity. The white pines of the region were so numerous that it would be impossible to cut them all down. Incredible fantasies are common among folks who are blissfully ignorant of eco-history, and don’t understand the reality of fish mining, mineral mining, forest mining, soil mining.

A society unaware of eco-history is like an elder lost in an Alzheimer’s fog. He doesn’t recognize his wife or children, and has no memory of who he is, where he is, or what he’s done. History turns on floodlights, sharply illuminating the path of our journey, making the boo-boos stand out like sore thumbs. It’s more than a little embarrassing, but if we can see the pitfalls, we’re less likely to leap into them. In theory, we are capable of learning from our mistakes.

Jeffrey Bolster is a history professor who once loved to fish. He realized that the Hall of History desperately needed more illumination on humankind’s abusive relationship with the oceans, because it was a tragicomedy of endlessly repeated self-defeating mistakes. He wrote The Mortal Sea, which focused on the rape of the North Atlantic — and he quit fishing.

In prehistoric Western Europe, many folks congregated along the water’s edge. They harvested shellfish from the sea, but most of their fish came from rivers and estuaries. Following the transition to agriculture and metal tools, their population grew and grew.
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