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‘The Mortal Sea’

Rebroadcast: originally broadcast on April 10, 2013.

“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

Guests

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 In “The Mortal Sea,’’ Bolster skillfully weaves material from historical documents and newspaper and scientific reports with tales of fishermen to demonstrate how the activities of individuals have affected the northwest Atlantic, for better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

    FIrst the EUropeans fished out their rivers and lakes. They then did the same to the surrounding oceans. They invaded North America and proceeded to do the same here. But it is not only fishing, it is also (and maybe more importantly) the amount of pollution, waste and trash that is being dumped into the oceans. So we find ourselves with severely diminished fish stocks and severely polluted oceans. It will take many years to repair the damage even if we stopped it all right now. But we are not stopping it at all, we are increasing our damage to the oceans every year. Now we are opening the Arctic Ocean for shipping, fishing and petroleum exploration. Things do not look good for the oceans, nor for us.

    • brettearle

      “It will take many years to repair the damage”….

      Are there not some credible Oceanographers who claim that the current dangers are irreversible?

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

    Too many people wanting stuff 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’, regrettably). There is no technology that can alter that equation. And to those who point to test-tube beef and farm-raised fish as solutions, I would point out that there will always be a premium market for “the real thing” (e.g., grass-fed beef, wild-caught fish), and an increasing market at that, given the increase in wealth among the human population.

    • Bluejay2fly

      I pray for a plague to sweep through and kill off about 3 or 4 Billion people.

  • Jim

    I will share my story. on Memorial day 2001 my colleagues and I went to sea on a charter boat in Gloucester… one of the best days i have ever had.. I caught 8 huge cods… 4 dogfishes (thrown back out)… 4 clownfish (thrown back out)…

    Now fast forward in 2009,… I caught no cod, 1 clownfish (thrown back out), and plenty of dogfishes..

    I am saddened to see these poor fishermen asking for higher quotas.. I think they need to retool and find new jobs.

    THERE ARE NO MORE FISHES IN THE COAST OF MASSACHUSETTS. STOP OVERFISHING!

    • brettearle

      There is off-limit territory where Cod is, apparently, plentiful.

  • Roberto1194

    PLEASE CONTEMPLATE this image
    IT’S ALL WE HAVE…
    http://ga.water.usgs.gov/edu/2010/gallery/global-water-volume.html
    I’m constantly surprised and shocked at this image and how
    very little is understood about the truly precious life resource
    we have to support our little bubble of existence.

  • Duncan Steeves

    The Unnatural History of the Sea by Callum Robert
    This is a excellent book for those interested in the subject.

  • Scott B

    It would be worth paying fishmen not to fish some species, or better, to also clean up the ocean, for even a year, to let the ocean go “fallow”, like farmers do, enabling the land (in this case water) to recover.

  • Todd Smith

    This story shows why we need a “sustainability average,” or “sustainability index.” NPR reports the Dow Jones Industrial average every day, but it only promotes short-term thinking: “How’s the market do today? How’s it going to do tomorrow?” We need a new index that will incorporate environmental and economic factors and help show how our short-term thinking is going to affect us on a longer-term scale.

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