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‘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 In “The Mortal Sea,’’ Bolster skillfully weaves material from historical documents and newspaper and scientific reports with tales of fishermen to demonstrate how the activities of individuals have affected the northwest Atlantic, for better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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  • Tyranipocrit

    Tom, please ask Mr. Bolster if he ever read

    America’s Ocean Wilderness: A Cultural History of Twentieth-Century Exploration by Gary Kroll (Mar 18, 2008).

    He teaches Environmental History at Plattsburgh State University of NY. He wrote a stunning account on this topic before 2008–where are his props?  He even had a 30 second segment on NPR years back. 
    America’s Ocean Wilderness: A Cultural History of Twentieth-Century Exploration by Gary Kroll (Mar 18, 2008)

  • JobExperience

    And another look at Capitalism: It kills oceanic biomes.
    “Soylent green, from the green soy bean. ”
    Visit the Gulf Coast on your summer vacation.
    Learn to play tar ball. Thanks BP.

  • sickofthechit

    “We live on a limited resource in the middle of nowhere”
    Charles A. Bowsher

  • Aaron Miller

    All life depends on the oceans. We’re not simply talking about overfishing anymore. Ocean temperatures and acidity are rising at alarming rates. Major currents are shifting or slowing down. Invasive species are spreading. More algae blooms are sucking oxygen and life from everything in their path. This is not just about depletion, it’s now about the very survival of the oceans themselves.

  • Wm_James_from_Missouri

    1. I find it interesting that a radio show that is coming from Boston, a city near the ocean, would have so few comments posted about the ocean. Do the people near the oceans not love their precious ocean ?
    2. Which country is having the most destructive impact on life in the ocean and the health of the Ocean ?
    3. The looming death of the Ocean is more proof that we do not have a people shortage. Our insatiable sexual lust seems to be affecting every aspect of the biosphere and yet this force is never named as the culprit.

    • http://www.facebook.com/toby.hoffman Toby Hoffman

      So true – forbidden topic.

    • NrthOfTheBorder

      Have you ever read: Ronald Wright’s “Short History of Progress” ?  http://www.cbc.ca/ideas/massey-archives/2004/11/07/massey-lectures-2004-a-short-history-of-progress/  it keeps coming to mind when these topics are raised.  It is frightening there are so few conversations on such an urgent topic. 

      • Wm_James_from_Missouri

        Thanks for the information. I will listen to the links you provided.

  • http://www.facebook.com/whagist Warren H.

    Traditional fishermen continue to herald the depletion of the seas: West and East African fishing communities (who rely on wooden boats with motors) are having their livelihoods destroyed by European and Asian trawlers, shipping maritime wealth to different continents. Increasingly, African fishers abandon this disappearing livelihood and emigrate.

  • ThirdWayForward

    Mark Kurlansky’s book “Cod” is really worthwhile in this context.

    Overfishing and the collapse of cod was the world’s first global ecological disaster.

    What we are doing to the oceans now through our ever-more-effective fishing technologies may end up being worse even than global warming.

  • WHW111

    Technology can help us see what’s under the waves. Then perhaps we can conserve the wildlife, not collide with underseamounts and cease dumping tons of toxic waste.  

  • RA Hendrickson

    I see krill pills on natural food stores. I am worried that harvesting krill will collapse the whole food chain. Would like comment on that.

    • OnpointListener

      Ditto!  I hope Tom raises this important subject.  In the meantime, people should switch to walnuts, flaxseed, eggs and milk from grass fed cows.

    • NrthOfTheBorder

      I don’t know about harvesting as a threat – but pollutants?

  • pn6898

    I urge listeners to log on to the Environmental Defense Fund web site.  www.edf.org  This is a nonprofit organization that is making headway is preserving fisheries in their Fisheries Program. They also, among other world-wide programs, have an Oceans Program. EDF has over 400 scientist employed.

  • skeptic150

    Like all things, including discussions about economics as in the previous hour, our historical models/theories have not been applied to the numbers of humans that now occupy the planet (and will occupy in the future).  Personally, I think we need to “think outside the box” to be able to feed the numbers of humans on this planet now and in the future.  We certainly need to address our destructive fingerprints on the sea (as well as on the land).
    1) As the obesity epidemic suggests, we should probably reduce our consumption of all foods, including seafood.  How to do this is another question.  It may be a moot point if the sea simply stops producing enough.
    2) We should probably seriously consider eating insects (as in other countries) – “bug” burgers are in the works, and probably need to be just as available and common as “veggie” burgers.

    • Human898

      I’m not sure why life observance does not seem to have people seeing that in most everything, there are saturation points.   Eat too much, take too much…..Too much of anything…too little of anything or basically, an imbalance causes problems.    A lot of it is basic math and thinking about cause and effect. I’m not sure why that capacity seems to be diminishing.

      • skeptic150

        Seems reasonable enough to me.  But excessive consumption and lack of awareness of our impact, imo, is reflected in all the food wasted and garbage generated every day.  Until we all recognize our individual and societal footprints and act to reduce them, including that one butt, it seems generalized apathy is, and will be, a significant issue for the future of our planet.

        • skeptic150

          Oh, but that might diminish economic growth, productivity, profits, etc.  Silly me.

          • Human898

            I think that is where not only attitudes on what defines “success” and “happiness”, but innovation in how to live in harmony with what environmentally makes life possible instead of exploiting it to our own demise.   One can have a very fulfilling life while leaving a small footprint I believe.   Try to teach cause and effect and you’re thought of as a heretic in this the “Inqusition” Revival era.

  • http://neilblanchard.blogspot.com/ Neil Blanchard

    Have you discussed the acidification of the ocean, that is being caused by climate change?  Plankton (and shellfish) are being severely affected by this.

  • apaddler

    Anyone remember the movie SOYLENT GREEN?  It’s been said that the science behind this film was the most valid of any sci-fi movie. The basic premise:  the oceans had warmed disrupting the world’s food supply

  • http://hammernews.com/ hammermann

    I’m in Ukraine at the moment where they still have sturgeon in supermarket tanks from the Caspian Sea (lake). They’ve become smaller and smaller, but was shocked a week ago to see almost all the ancient fish under 1 1/2 ft, some maybe 1 ft! They can’t be more than 1-2 years old, so where can the 100 year old 13ft monsters ever come from? Give it 20 years, and tuna, swordfish, mahi, et. al. will only exist in stories.

    We have become the destroyers, and mankind is heading for a catastrophic die-off. 

    • Human898

      It is interesting, isn’t it hammerman?  We like to think of ourselves as being of “higher intelligence”, but ultimately we seem to be no more aware of our fate than cancer cells that overwhelm their hosts by unbridled multiplication and/or consumption (as a result), killing not only their host and source of life, but themselves.

      • http://hammernews.com/ hammermann

         Especially with clowns like Imhofe and the other Repubs and carbon-industry prostitute AGW deniers. In 10-20 years they may be considered mass-murderers.

  • Human898

    I’m not sure why the works of people like Jacques Cousteau and Stan Waterman and the ongoing work of Cousteau’s son has not been mentioned.  I remember seeing Stan Waterman’s films and Jacques Cousteau’s “World Without Sun”.   This was decades ago and were meant to raise awareness of what we were doing to the seas then.

    I’m not sure why so many people seem reluctant to talk about the obvious, more humans equals more consumption, even at the same rate of consumption per person. The earth and its systems and environs are finite. At some point, even with technology and science, there will be no way to make up for the growing numbers of humans on the globe at one time. This is not about not loving children, its about loving one’s children more, by not creating more competition for them and their chances of survival with shrinking pieces of the “pie” by adding to population growth.

    • http://depravda.posterous.com Paul Zink

      Too many people wanting things is the root cause of all our resource depletion problems, from fish to grain to wood to fresh water to rhinoceros horns (if you want to call that a ‘resource’).

  • Roy-in-Boise

    This show is all about Capitalism also: There is always someone willing to catch the last fish today without regard for tomorrow.

  • Robert Fizek

    A striking image of how little precious water we have…

  • andrea5

    I urge everyone to please remember to recycle your water bottles, coffee drink lids from Dunkin’ Donuts and Starbucks, etc. So much plastic ends up in our environment and in the ocean… I’m told (if they haven’t already mentioned it) that there is an area the size of Texas out in the Pacific where bits of plastic have congregated, like some perverse Sargasso Sea.

  • BuffaloGary

    Hi Tom,

    If this guy comes on your show in the future, could you help him to back away from the microphone when he is swallowing? I am sorry, I am probably sounding superficial, but I HAD to turn this off as I was getting nauseous with all of his swallowing…

  • TJPhoto40

    This was an informative program, thanks in large part to a guest who’s quite articulate about the subject.  Thanks for presenting this.  On a similar subject, you may know that the LA Times presented a five-part series (in print and on CD) in 2007 called Altered Oceans, mostly focusing on the effects of pollution in the oceans. 

  • Fredlinskip


    • Fredlinskip


      • Fredlinskip


  • http://depravda.posterous.com Paul Zink

    Disturbing and worth taking note before it’s too late.

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