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

4.7 out of 5 stars 21 customer reviews

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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: 6.4 x 1.4 x 9.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.7 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (21 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #755,158 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

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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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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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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Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
I gave this book five stars because it is meticulously-researched, well-written, and because it deals with an important and interesting topic. Jeffrey Bolster takes up the history of fishing and the marine ecosystem of the North Atlantic. He focuses on the four centuries between 1520 and 1920. Bolster says that during this period, each successive generation that fished the rivers and off the coasts of places like Massachusetts, Maine, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland perceived that it was depleting the natural environment. What none of those generations realized, though, was that not only was their perception correct, successive generations were doing the same thing--overfishing--in an unbroken chain. Each generation's baseline for what counted as large and numerous fish moved a step further down. Moreover, the ecosystem in which they worked was not immortal, as many assumed. It was not immutable, as many hoped. In reality, it was much more complex and vulnerable than anyone fully understood. Consequently, over hundreds of years that ecosystem was being pushed closer and closer to the brink of collapse, the condition we find today.

With this book, Bolster does at least four things. First, he tells the environmental history of the North Atlantic from the standpoint of the longue duree, the long view. Second, and related to the first point, he shows how only a centuries-long study can point up the ocean's fragility and decline. Third, he insists that, at long last, the Atlantic itself should be recognized as a character in the history of the Atlantic World. Fourth, he sounds an alarm by announcing how far humans have to go in any course designed to resuscitate the North Atlantic. Because of its many strengths, this book will continue to be significant for long while.
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