Elusive Evidence of the Ocean’s Past

mortalsea(1)It’s fun to be a historian of the oceans these days.  Environmental scholarship has yielded some fascinating clashes of perspective in recent years, and the conversations are lively.  Scientists, historians of science, and environmental scholars are all working intensively to establish a narrative of the sea’s life forms, its physical and chemical conditions, and the impact of human activities.  They are doing so over extraordinary periods of time — hundreds, sometimes thousands of years.  Interpretation abound, opening a wide space for disagreement.

I recently asked Jeff Bolster to participate in an online roundtable about his Bancroft prize-winning book, The Mortal Sea.  The comments, and his response, stand up an ideal primer for some of the major issues involved in incorporating the oceans — and ocean life — into a broader story of human relations with the natural world.  Here’s my intro:

The ocean’s history is profoundly difficult to assess, and reliable documentary evidence about its ecology is hard to come by. Even when we recognize the poisoned fruits of human labor—through chemical or radioactive pollution, acidification, and depleting the life forms within the sea with over-fishing—we might still bicker about what a sustainable relationship between humans and the sea would look like. Did such a relationship ever exist? Given the multiple fisheries collapses in the twentieth century, it is tempting to believe that a fundamental change in that era turned the ocean from an inexhaustible resource into a vulnerable pool of changing chemical composition and declining biological life.

In The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail, W. Jeffrey Bolster tackles head-on the problem of understanding how humans have changed the life of the oceans. How do we know whether declines in fish populations, observed over many centuries, represent genuine population decreases? How can we develop a reliable historical narrative about decisive moments in the history of humans, fish, and the sea? The book looks in particular at the area between Cape Cod and Newfoundland, an “Atlantic crossroads” where Europeans and Natives alike fished, from the preindustrial era to the twentieth century. Although the book takes us to the First World War, the subtitle suggests not only its focus but also its main theme, namely that “the origins of today’s unnatural ocean” can be found much earlier than the era of factory trawlers and sonar (5).

Bolster suggests instead that the uptick in human impact on the oceans in the twentieth century was a matter of scale rather than changing practices. Key patterns had been established during the Age of Sail: fishermen targeting a wider range of species, expanding their use of nets while also developing long-lining, requiring high quantities of bait and new gear, and finding markets in faraway places. Bolster sees patterns of intensification in structural changes, as when state governments replaced town-based decision-making, or when new federal subsidies and massive capital investment shaped the fishing industry. All of this occurred in the Age of Sail, not the era we typically associate with techno-powered overfishing.

What’s at stake here is not whether or not fish populations went into decline, but rather what caused it and whether humans were conscious of how they were shaping sea life. Bolster notes unambiguously that, despite conventional wisdom to the contrary, fishermen prior to the twentieth century did not all believe in the inexhaustibility of the sea. Many of them worried that their practices would have serious repercussions on fish populations, and such concerns spread to their communities.

I asked Christine Keiner, an associate professor of history at Rochester Institute of Technology, to comment on The Mortal Sea. Keiner has spent years researching the conservation dimensions of the ocean, specifically in the oyster industry. Like Bolster, she wrestles with questions of regulation and cooperation. In her book The Oyster Question, for example, Keiner explores how scientific advice blended with the traditional ways of watermen in the Chesapeake region, creating a regulated commons that seemed sustainable for decades, before scientists broke ranks in favor of private interests. She challenges scholars to see the story not merely as a classic tragedy of the commons, but as part of existing struggles over agricultural reform, modernization efforts, and state politics.[1]

Poul Holm, the Trinity Long Room Hub Professor of Humanities at Trinity College Dublin, has a wide-ranging interest in the history of fisheries from the medieval period to the twentieth century. Holm chairs the executive committee of the History of Marine Animal Populations project (HMAP), a global research effort to understand past ocean life, using historical and scientific evidence. One of the clearest uses of HMAP, he contends, will be in helping to establish historical baselines for crucial fishing regions. Based on evidence from HMAP, Holm has stated that it is now possible “to begin to piece together a picture of human interaction with marine life in the North Sea in the past 1,000 years,” by adapting marine science methodology to historical data.[2]

Few countries are more closely associated with the fishing industry, and with international efforts to conserve fish populations, than Norway. That is one reason I invited Norwegian fisheries historian Vera Schwach to comment on Bolster’s book. Schwach’s existing work points out that a country’s economic system, political system, and culture make an enormous difference in its approaches to conservation. In Norway, for example, the practice of science was a critical aspect of human relations with the oceans from the eighteenth century onward, and yet economic priorities often prevailed. For centuries, fish not only were crucial as food, they formed the backbone of the national economy. She points out that the scientific community in Norway was predisposed toward an economic point of view, despite the apparatus existing to implement more rigorous regulations.[3]

Our final commentator is Helen M. Rozwadowski, an associate professor of history at University of Connecticut, Avery Point. She is the author of the award-winning book Fathoming the Ocean, a cultural history of exploration of the deep sea during the nineteenth century. She also is the author of The Sea Knows No Boundaries, an authoritative history of the most significant international body designed to assess fish populations in the North Atlantic, the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea. Rozwadowski has argued in favor of widening scholars’ attention to the history of the oceans. “The history and legacy of who controls ocean space and ocean resources,” she writes, “promises to add profoundly international and spatial dimensions to existing histories that focus on nation-states.”[4]

Before turning to the first set of comments, I would like to pause here and thank all the roundtable participants for taking part. In addition, I would like to remind readers that as an open-access forum, H-Environment Roundtable Reviews is available to scholars and non-scholars alike, around the world, free of charge. Please circulate.


[1] Christine Keiner, The Oyster Question: Scientists, Watermen, and the Maryland Chesapeake Bay since 1880 (University of Georgia Press, 2010).

[2] Poul Holm, “Fishing Down the North Sea,” in Bernd Herrmann, ed., Beiträge zum Göttinger Umwelthistorischen Kolloquium 2007-2009 (Göttingen: Universitätsverlag Göttingen, 2010), 1-12. For an overview of HMAP and a response to commentary on it, see Poul Holm, Marta Coll, Alison MacDiarmid, and Henn Ojaveer, “HMAP Response to the Marine Forum,” Environmental History 18:1 (2013), 121-126.

[3] Vera Schwach, “The Sea Around Norway: Science, Resource Management, and Environmental Concerns, 1860-1970,” Environmental History 18:1 (2013), 101-110.

[4] Helen M. Rozwadowski, Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea (Belknap, 2005); Helen M. Rozwadowski, The Sea Knows No Boundaries: A Century of Marine Science under ICES (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2002). Quote is from Helen M. Rozwadowski, “The Promise of Ocean History for Environmental History,” Journal of American History 100:1 (2013), 136-139.

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