Thursday, December 5, 2013

The Mortal Sea

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.  Forests were cut, fields were plowed, and streams were loaded with eroded soil, livestock wastes, human sewage, and industrial discharges.  Hungry mobs got too good at catching too many fish with too many traps.  England passed the Salmon Preservation Act in 1285, but it was little enforced and generally ignored.

Meanwhile, Viking innovations resulted in boat designs that were excellent for travelling the open seas.  They made it possible to aggressively pursue saltwater seafood, which was incredibly abundant.  Vikings learned to air-dry cod, which could be stored for years, and provide sustenance for long voyages of walrus hunting, auk killing, raping, and pillaging.  Before long, all coastal communities started building seaworthy boats, and hauling in the cod, mackerel, herring, and so on.  The human population grew, and marine life diminished.

In the sixteenth century, when Europeans explored the American shoreline, they were astonished by the abundance of sea life.  They observed hundreds of thousands of walruses, which could grow up to 2,600 pounds (1,180 kg), critters that were nearly extinct at home.  In those days, the oil industry was based on whales, walruses, and seals.

Halibut could grow to 700 pounds (317 kg).  There were sturgeons more than 600 pounds (272 kg), and cod five feet long (1.5 m).  One lad caught 250 cod in an hour, with just four hooks.  They killed seabirds like there was no tomorrow, using many for fish bait.  Lobsters were huge and plentiful, but their flesh spoiled quickly, so they were fed to hogs, used for bait, and spread on fields for fertilizer.

Maine and northward was home to the Mi’kmaqs and Malecites, who got 90 percent of their calories from sea life.  Their population was not supersized by agriculture.  They had no metal tools or high tech boats, nor a spirituality in which humans were the masters of the universe.  For some reason, they had failed to destroy their ecosystem.  Then, they were discovered, and the whites went crazy with astonishing greed.  “By 1800 the northwest Atlantic was beginning to resemble European seas.”  Where’s the fish?

Between America and Europe, the boreal North Atlantic had been among the world’s most productive fishing grounds.  The bulk of the book discusses how clever white folks skillfully transformed unimaginable abundance into an aquatic disaster area.  In the waters off Maine, Peak Cod occurred around the Civil War, long before industrial fish mining.  By 1875, writers were speculating about the extinction of menhaden, lobster, halibut, eider, shad, salmon, mackerel, and cod.

The fish mining industry was driven by a desperate arms race.  Hand-line fishing had been the norm since the Middle Ages.  Each fisherman set four to twenty-eight baited hooks.  Then, geniuses invented long-line fishing, which used 4,000 hooks.  More fish were caught, and more money was made.  By 1870, some fishers were setting 63 miles of lines with 96,000 baited hooks.

By 1880, geniuses were delighted to discover that gill nets could triple the haul — and they eliminated the need for bait, which was getting scarce and expensive.  For mackerel mining, the new purse seines were fabulous.  They used nets to surround an entire school of fish, and could land 150,000 per day.  In 1905 came steam-powered otter trawls — huge nets dragged across the sea floor that caught everything.  Only 45 percent of the fish landed were kept.  Unmarketable fish were tossed back dead, including juveniles of marketable species.  Millions of dead juveniles did not grow into mature fish, reproduce, and maintain the viability of the species.

Throughout the long gang rape of the North Atlantic, there were always voices urging caution and conservation, but they never ran the show.  As more and more capital poured into fish mining enterprises, resistance to regulation increased.  The one and only objective for fat cats was maximizing short-term profits.  Government bureaucrats who monitored the industry experimented with many interesting programs for increasing fish stocks — everything except for reducing fishing pressure.

New technology expanded the market for seafood.  Salting and drying were replaced by keeping fish on ice, and shipping them to market by rail.  Later, canneries created even bigger demand for fish.  The first floating fish factory was launched in 1954, and was followed by many more.  These boats had assembly lines for gutting, cleaning, and filleting the fish.  The fillets were quick frozen, for indefinite storage.  Waste was turned to fishmeal, another source of profit.

In 1992, the cod landings in Canada vanished, and the fishery was closed.  The U.S. closed fishing on Georges Bank and the Gulf of Maine.  “The impossible had occurred.  People had killed most of the fish in the ocean.”  Folks had been overfishing since Viking days, but industrial fishing put the process into overdrive.  The cod show no signs of recovery.

Bolster concluded that the way to avoid unsustainable harvests was to adopt the precautionary approach, which meant always selecting the least destructive option.  This was an excellent idea, for a world ruled by pure reason.  Maybe we should contemplate phasing out all commercial fishing, because history is clear: any enterprise having to do with the accumulation of personal property, wealth, and social status tends to turn ambitious folks into insatiable parasites with no respect for the future.  Actually, the industry is working hard to terminate itself — before oceanic acidification beats it.

One more thing before I go.  Some folks have dreams of replacing today’s maritime fleet with zero emission sailing ships, but they don’t remember the downside.  Bolster warns us, “Fishing made coal mining look safe.  No other occupation in America came close to the deep-sea fisheries for workplace mortality.”  In just Gloucester, from 1866 to 1890, more than 380 schooners and 2,450 men were lost at sea.  When powerful squalls race in, sailboats are hard to control, and very dangerous.

Over the centuries, interregional commerce has made many fat cats fatter, but it’s also led to many catastrophes, like the spread of bubonic plague, cholera, malaria, influenza, measles, smallpox, rinderpest, potato blight, chestnut blight, assorted empires, and on and on.  Countless millions have died as an unintended consequence of long-distance travel.  It isn’t necessary for a sustainable future.

Bolster, W. Jeffrey, The Mortal Sea — Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail, The Belknap Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2012.


Ned said...


I'm the Anon who suggested this book. I know it's incredibly depressing but I hope you enjoyed it, and I'm really glad you read it.


What Is Sustainable said...

Ned, thanks! It added some pieces to the great puzzle. I'm not sure that I'll read the other book, since it's 900 pages.

Ned said...


Well it is quite long, but it's the only book I've encountered with actual information about how civilization reacted to climate crisis, as opposed to just conjecture about what might happen. I have a few other suggestions if you are interested - "The Lost Art of Finding Our Way" by John Huth, "Stung!" by Lisa-Ann Gershwin (about jellyfish and the terrible shape the oceans are in), and "Debt: The First 5,000 Years" by David Graeber. Sorry If you've reviewed these already. I'm continuing to enjoy your reviews, thank you for your work.


What Is Sustainable said...

Ned, a good book on the history of climate and civilization is The Little Ice Age. I posted a review on 15 October 2012.

Thanks for the recommendations. For the coming months, I'm going to be devoting more attention to marketing, in an effort to get my books into classrooms.

Ned said...


Thanks for the recommendation, I'll check it out. Good luck with the marketing!