‘The Mortal Sea’

“The Mortal Sea.” A ship’s captain turned scholar tracks our impact on the oceans through time.

The Fog Warning, Winslow Homer, 1885

The Fog Warning, Winslow Homer, 1885

Rachel Carson, author of “Silent Spring,” was no mean observer of the natural world.  But on one huge front, she was wrong.  Mankind, she wrote in 1951, could never subdue and plunder the wide ocean as it had the lands of Earth.

Well, look around, says my guest today.  And look way back.  Even in the long age of sail, of little wooden boats and tall-masted ships, humans were leaving a deep imprint on the vast seas.  Hauling in catches so great they ate away at the sea’s capacity to renew and replenish.  It’s all utterly relevant now.

This hour, On Point:  the age of sail and the “mortal sea.”

-Tom Ashbrook


W. Jeffrey Bolster, author of “The Mortal Sea: Fishing The Atlantic In The Age Of Sail,” associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire in Durham and a licensed shipmaster.

Justin Baker Ries, assistant professor of marine geology in the department of marine sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

From Tom’s Reading List

The Boston Globe “The culprit was overfishing, writes Bolster, a University of New Hampshire historian, in his 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 In “The Mortal Sea,’’ Bolster skillfully weaves material from historical documents and newspaper and scientific reports with tales of fishermen to demonstrate how the activities of individuals have affected the northwest Atlantic, for better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.”

National Geographic “In the 1990’s many U.S. fisheries found themselves in crisis. The fish they relied on were deeply depleted from decades of getting caught faster than they could reproduce. After years of bitter argument and concerted conservation-group efforts, Congress in 1996 passed a sweeping set of amendments to the federal fisheries law, including a mandatory end to overfishing and mandatory recovery of depleted fish populations. Now, those legal mandates are bearing fruit in the form of dozens of rebuilding fish populations in U.S. waters.”

Science World Report “A lot of things in America are supersized: our portions, our drinks and now, apparently, our crabs. New research reveals that crabs can grow much faster and larger when water is saturated with carbon. This means that as greenhouse gas emissions grow, so will these crustaceans. Carbon pollution is emitted by power plants, factories and vehicles, pouring into our atmosphere. Yet these emissions don’t only mix with our air. Like sugar dissolving into a cup of coffee, the carbon pollution also mixes and dissolves into our water; this changes the composition and dynamics of underwater ecosystems.”

Excerpt: ‘The Mortal Sea’ by W. Jeffrey Bolster

From THE MORTAL SEA by W. Jeffrey Bolster. Copyright © 2012 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. Used by permission. All rights reserved.

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