The ocean may be the next frontier for environmental historians. People have depended on the ocean for centuries and quietly reshaped it. Recently the tragic impact of overfishing, habitat destruction, and biological invasions has become apparent. Yet the history of human interactions with marine environments remains largely uninvestigated, in part because of the enduring assumption that the ocean exists (or existed) outside of history. Historians should take seriously the challenge to historicize the ocean. That will include investigating its changing nature and peoples’ historically specific assumptions about using and regulating it. Arguing that marine environmental history can complement on-going research in historical marine ecology, this essay invokes recent scientific work while staking out distinct terrain for historians.

FOR MILLENNIA THE bountiful sea provided a larder, a living, and the possibility of riches for intrepid fishermen. Its scale in time and space, however, even for experienced mariners, appeared all out of proportion to that of familiar worlds ashore; and seafarers and landlubbers alike could not help but regard the sea as inscrutable, threatening, and eternal. Suddenly, in the blink of a twentieth-century eye, the tables were turned: The sea appeared fragile and vulnerable in the face of human arrogance. Overfishing, destruction of marine habitats, and shipborne biological invasions cast the time-honored phrase “men against the sea” in a new light. Following publication in the journal Nature of an essay estimating that large predatory fish had declined worldwide by 90 percent, Newsweek’s cover story on July 14, 2003, asked, “Are the oceans dying?”[1] That question, unimaginable not long ago, seemed all the more ominous for its lack of historical precedent.

The recent crisis in the ocean has been regarded rightfully as an ecological and political problem, but rarely understood in light of history—as if nature and science were somehow realms separate from the study of the past. During the 1990s the Black Sea ecosystem collapsed, literally starved to death by a bloom of invasive jellyfish that indiscrim-inately devoured zoo-plankton, phytoplank-ton, and larval fish, leaving virtually nothing for the rest of the food chain. For creatures in and people around the nearly landlocked Black Sea, the horror un-leashed by the cteno-phore Mnemiopsis leidyi was immediate and vivid; but ships have been carrying invasive marine hitchhikers from one sea to another for centuries, quietly re-shaping the oceans of the world. The Black Sea catastrophe was differ-ent because of its scale and the presence of cameras.[2]

Figure 1. Newsweek Cover, July 14, 2003.

Cover image courtesy of Newsweek.

The ominous question posed by Newsweek in 2003 seemed especially startling because the ocean has rarely been understood as if it existed in history.

When the Canadian government closed the Grand Banks cod fishery in 1992, cod stocks and spawning biomass were frighteningly low, and the average size of individual fish had plummeted. Fishermen knew they were catching juveniles and that the fishery was unsustainable, but few Newfoundlanders could imagine alternatives. To hear politicians at the time, however, one might have thought that the problem was a recent one, and that the closures would be brief. Fourteen years later the decimated cod population has not yet rebounded, the fishery remains closed, and Newfoundland’s coastal economy and society are still staggering. The collapse, of course, was hardly just a few years in the making: Newfoundland’s banks had been fished rigorously for centuries.[3] Initially that ecosystem’s productivity was staggering. In 1578 Anthony Parkhurst wrote from Newfoundland of capturing capelin, a bait-fish favored by cod, “with a shove-net as plentiful as you do wheat with a shovel, [enough] in three or four hours for a whole city.” In 1664, when European fishermen were already catching about 200,000 tons of cod each season, the Jesuit Relations noted “these waters so abound in codfish … that ships are quickly filled with them.” Yet as early as 1703 an Englishman lamented from coastal Newfoundland that “the fish grows less, the old store being consumed by our continual fishing.” By then the five-hundred- year fishing spree that ended in 1992 was well underway. When the Canadian government finally pulled the plug, Newfoundland’s marine ecosystem had changed beyond recognition from the one described by Parkhurst or the Jesuits.[4]

If the bookends of initial abundance and contemporary scarcity in the oceans are well known by now, most waypoints between them remain obscured or uninvestigated, ripe for historical analysis. It is increasingly clear that people have been using the oceans and leaving their marks for centuries, even though the marks long appeared invisible. Isn’t it time to recognize the oceans as part of history? Encouraging the development of scholarship, publications, and programs in marine environmental history, this essay argues that historians are uniquely situated to reconstruct the inextricably tangled stories of people and the oceans.[5]


DURING THE LAST forty years dramatic biological changes have occurred in New England, West Indian, and Scandinavian waters, among other places, with profound socio-cultural consequences. The centuries-old Long Island Sound lobster fishery collapsed recently, probably from toxic insecticides, throwing lobstermen out of work and accelerating the transformation of working waterfronts into condominiums and office units.[6] Caribbean coral reefs that beguiled divers during the 1970s are moribund. Stripped of life, they no longer attract local fishers or snorkeling tourists. Meanwhile, North Atlantic fishing villages from Norway to New Bedford are grappling with their identity and economic survival; dependent on cod for centuries, they are in death throes as grim as those of the Jamaican reefs. The sea around them, moreover, has not been simply depleted by overfishing: Its web of life is being restructured in profound and increasingly unpredictable ways.[7]

Within this recently constructed and chilling metanarrative of marine environmental decline, the uncontestable truth of our era, a few alternative stories have bobbed to the surface. Maine lobstermen are not complaining. Shiny new pickup trucks at town docks from Kittery to Eastport attest to record-breaking lobster landings during the last ten years, a result, some ecologists believe, of the radical refashioning of ecological relationships among finfish, kelp, sea urchins, and lobsters initiated by the virtual eradication of cod and other demersal fish.[8] Maritime Maine has not always been the lobster coast. Maine’s maritime communities, however, have always trailed historic changes in near-coastal ecosystems with significant social and cultural adaptations. That tale, in all its detail, still awaits an environmental historian.[9]

While the long-term effects of humans’ manipulation of the ocean have become abundantly clear in recent decades, the process itself—little understood and, until recently, generally ignored—has been underway for centuries.[10] Spencer Apollonio, former commissioner of Maine’s Department of Marine Resources, suggested that human harvesters using sails, oars, hooks, and harpoons may have removed more biomass from the Gulf of Maine during the eighteenth century than did their counterparts with diesel trawlers, polyester nets, and electronic fish-finders in the twentieth century. His back-of-the-envelope figures, worthy of careful investigation, point to the impact of the colonial whale fishery, which was an early source of profits for a region that lacked a dominant export commodity such as sugar, tobacco, or wheat. New England’s peak shore whaling years were 1690 to 1725. Contemporaries claimed the near shore whaling grounds had been “fished out” by 1740, and documentary-based research indicates that a minimum of 2,459 to 3,025 right whales were killed by colonists between 1696 and 1734 in the coastal area between Delaware Bay and Maine, in addition to numerous pilot whales and occasional other great whales. Other informed estimates suggest the number of whales killed was much higher. Nor was this the earliest documented overfishing in North American waters. Sixteenth-century Basque whalers depleted right whale and bowhead populations in the Straits of Belle Isle between Labrador and Newfoundland by killing tens of thousands of whales from 1530 to 1620. Then Dutch and Basque whalers in the western Arctic killed 35,000 to 40,000 whales between 1660 and 1701, reducing stocks considerably and affecting the whales’ migratory patterns.[11]

Even if seventeenth- and eighteenth-century harvesters did not remove more biomass from the system than their twentieth-century counterparts, consequences followed from overfishing. Killing large numbers of whales in a relatively short time removed their qualitative contribution to ecosystem stability. Baleen whales are not apex predators. But as long-living large animals, whales embody vast biomass in stable form. Even in a relatively small area like the Gulf of Maine, the pre-harvest whale population concentrated hundreds of thousands of tons of biomass, thus imposing certain constraints on variability within the system. Ecosystems are defined by connections between biotic and abiotic components, including constraints in both time and space. Colonial hunters’ overharvesting of whales freed considerable prey from capture, and may have allowed prey populations to oscillate more dramatically than they had before. Overharvesting whales probably boosted populations of birds, cod, and other fish that had competed with whales for food. Right whales’ diet, for instance, consists primarily of small crustaceans such as copepods and euphausids. Larval cod eat copepods, and little else. Fewer whales meant more food for cod and other organisms. The merchantable fish stocks that colonists desired, therefore, may have been increased, albeit inadvertently, by eradication of whales along the coast. Louwrens Hacquebord has outlined a similar ripple effect beginning with whale hunting in Norway’s Svalbard archipelago.[12]

Seventeenth- and early-eighteenth-century colonists clearly were not working in a pristine coastal environment: The long reach of merchant capitalism had made appreciable inroads on North American coastal ecology before the Pilgrims hit the beach.[13] The very fact that humans’ modification of near coastal ecosystems in much of the settled world has been on-going for centuries, and has been ignored for almost as long, provides tantalizing possibilities for scholars to explore how human maritime communities were embedded in non-human marine communities, and what that meant for the course of history.

Several simple ideas anchor this enterprise. First, the ocean has a history; in fact, the deep ocean and its numerous near coastal environments have long histories in which people have been inextricably involved.[14] Second, those histories are worth reconstructing. Even though much of the story will remain unknowable, sources exist that make marine environmental history possible. Third, richly contextualized and subtle historical perspectives are crucially needed in discussions about future management of ocean resources. The oceans’ current crisis resulted from a century of vigorous fact-finding by scientists along with managers’ reliance on numbers divorced from context, and politicians’ satisfaction with exceedingly short-term solutions. If there was ever a dilemma crying out for historians’ sensibilities, this is it.

Professional historians routinely critique broad generalizations and essentialist arguments by providing gritty details to the contrary. We have the ability to reconstruct the actions of historically specific people who relied on ocean resources, and thus to illuminate the nature that mattered, and how it mattered, to otherwise well-known maritime people: colonial New Englanders, seventeenth-century Dutch and Danish herring fishers, nineteenth-century West Indian turtlers, twentieth-century Filipino whalers, or contemporary Alaskan salmon trollers, to name a few. Only historians have the contextual understanding of archival documents that illuminate abundance and distribution of marine organisms in pre-scientific time.[15] The unfortunate truth is that contemporary managers charged with rebuilding depleted stocks of fish or marine mammals rarely possess any genuine knowledge of those stocks’ past size. Their data often reach back only a few decades at best. Painstakingly produced marine environmental history would be a significant contribution to debates on the future use of the oceans.[16]

Finally, there is history for its own sake. Scholars in the humanities retain the conviction that compelling stories communicate their own truths and that well-documented tales about the complexities of the past can be profoundly rewarding. Such stories need not be linear, or based on quantifiable evidence. They need not be inspired by a rigid work plan, or based on testable hypotheses. In fact, as every historian knows, great histories often emerge from rather open-ended inquiries or serendipitous discoveries. Historians, thankfully, still have the personal freedom to explore what they wish. Marine environmental history need not be validated by presentist justifications of the sort that drive funded scientific research. It might begin with what Richard Henry Dana called the “witchery in the sea,” an attraction felt by generations of oceanographers and maritime historians. Rewriting maritime histories by considering the living ocean as a dynamic player in human dramas could generate significant contributions to what we know about people as ecological actors. And it just might lead to carefully wrought stories breathtaking in their own right.[17]

This essay makes a case for the support and development of marine environmental history. We need to better understand many things: how different groups of people made themselves in the context of marine environments, how race, class, fashion, and geo-politics influenced the exploitation and conservation of marine resources, how individual and community identities (and economies) changed as a function of the availability of marine resources, how technological innovation frequently masked declining catches, how fishermen’s knowledge of localized depletions accumulated in the past, how public policy debates revealed historically specific values associated with the ocean, how collaboration between (and then antagonism among) fishermen and scientists affected marine environments, how faith in the certainty of marine science waxed and waned, how different cultures perceived the ocean at specific times, and—when possible—how past marine environments looked in terms of abundance and distribution of important species.[18]

These are the constituent parts that get to a deeper historical question: the nature of the greatest sea change in human history. Only good marine environmental history can get to the heart of the ecological and cultural transformations that have cast the twenty-first-century ocean as vulnerable rather than eternal. Despite obstacles and problems, preliminary work in this field makes it look immediately relevant, professionally challenging, and intellectually rewarding.


CONSIDERING WHY THE environmental history of the oceans has been ignored so profoundly seems like a good place to begin. While an essay of this length can make only passing reference to what Philip E. Steinberg calls “the social construction of the ocean,” intriguing evidence suggests that the ocean was long considered separate from nature. More significantly for historians, western civilization assumed the oceans to be timeless. These ideas have had considerable reach and endurance.[19]

Loathsome to the ancients, the ocean was a realm that early Christians regarded as distinct from the rest of creation. As Alain Corbin explains, it was “the remnant of that undifferentiated primordial substance on which form had to be imposed so that it might become part of Creation.”[20] Recent scholarship, including that of Corbin and Helen M. Rozwadowski, has begun to reconstruct the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century process through which Europeans and Americans became attracted to the sea and intrigued with it.[21] But we still don’t know exactly when educated Europeans began to imagine the ocean as part of nature. In Man and the Natural World Keith Thomas explains that during the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries English people developed an intense interest in animals, trees, flowers, and landscape. They posed new and penetrating questions about the relationship of humans to the natural world. Inquisitiveness about the sea was barely noticeable, however, even though England was rapidly becoming the foremost sea power in the Atlantic world. Thomas’s book on the early modern natural world ignores the ocean entirely, a reflection of prevailing cultural attitudes at that time.[22] Apparently never having succumbed, like continental landscapes, to humans’ attempts to impose order on its wildness, the ocean was long imagined as distinct from other wild places.

The myth of the timeless ocean had a proud place in nineteenth- and twentieth-century literature. “We do not associate the idea of antiquity with the ocean, nor wonder how it looked a thousand years ago,” noted Henry David Thoreau, “for it was equally wild and unfathomable always.” Melville embroidered this theme into Moby Dick, as Charles Dickens did in Dombey and Son. Joseph Conrad, the prolific Victorian novelist who spent years as a mariner before turning to literature, peppered his prose with references to “the incorruptible ocean” and “the immortal sea.” T. S. Eliot might have spoken for them all in “The Dry Salvages,” when he invoked the ocean as a cosmic metronome marking something separate from “our time.”
And under the oppression of the silent fog
The tolling bell
Measures time, not our time, rung by the unhurried
Ground swell, a time
Older than the time of chronometers…
When time stops and time is never ending;
And the ground swell, that is and was from the beginning,
The bell.[23]

Figure 2. A Lobster Trap in Maine.

Photo by Peter Ralston.

While the scene is stunningly beautiful, the ocean along the coast of Maine is anything but pristine. People have been exploiting its resources for centuries, and quietly restructuring its web of life.

This literary and spiritual sense of the ocean’s immortality, the idea that it rolled on before human life existed, and that it will roll on changelessly thereafter, long contributed to the fundamentally flawed assumption that the ocean, unlike forests, plains, and deserts, has always existed outside of history.

The myth of the timeless ocean has been so seductive that even professional historians have succumbed. “To stand on a sea-washed promontory looking westwards at sunset over the Atlantic is to share a timeless human experience.” So begins Barry Cunliffe’s Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples, 8000 BC-AD 1500. “We are in awe of the unchanging and unchangeable as all have been before us and all will be.” This is a rather ahistorical opening to a history book. It suspends attention to the viewers’ cultural frames of reference and to changes in the sea. But it is remarkably similar in its mythic content to the first two lines of medievalist Vincent H. Cassidy’s The Sea Around Them: The Atlantic Ocean, A.D. 1250. “No gesture is equal in futility to scratching the surface of the sea. Although many a momentary wake left by some frail ocean-borne craft has been of permanent significance to mankind, the ocean has made more of an impression upon men than they have made upon the ocean.”[24]

This conceptual stumbling block has impeded the development of marine environmental history. A new generation of historians can make their mark by delineating how cultural assumptions about the oceans (and the oceans themselves) have changed through time, sometimes dramatically within a short span of years. People today neither use nor imagine the oceans in the same ways as their ancestors.[25]

Until very recently it has been difficult for historians to imagine the unsustainability of industrial fisheries, much less pre-industrial ones. The idea of the eternal sea, after all, had intellectual legitimacy for centuries. In the first half of the eighteenth century Baron du Montesquieu asserted that oceanic fish were limitless. J. B. Lamarck concurred. “But animals living in the waters, especially the sea waters,” he wrote in 1809 in his Zoological Philosophy, “are protected from the destruction of their species by man. Their multiplication is so rapid and their means of evading pursuits or traps are so great, that there is no likelihood of his being able to destroy the entire species of any these animals.”[26]

By the 1860s and 1870s, however, European and American fishermen expressed genuine concerns about decreasing catches. Spencer Baird, the first United States commissioner of Fish and Fisheries, tried to allay such fears. “The principle may safely be considered as established,” he wrote in 1873, “that line-fishing, no matter how extensively prosecuted, will never materially affect the supply of fish in the sea.” Renowned British biologist Thomas Huxley reaffirmed Montesquieu, Lamarck, and Baird. “In relation to our present modes of fishing, a number of the most important sea fisheries, such as the cod fishery, the herring fishery, and the mackerel fishery, are inexhaustible,” he announced in 1883. As Huxley told his audience at London’s Fisheries Exhibition, “the multitude of these fishes is so inconceivably great that the number we catch is relatively insignificant; and secondly, that the magnitude of the destructive agencies at work upon them is so prodigious, that the destruction effected by the fisherman cannot sensibly increase the death rate.” Theory, bolstered by the age-old attitude that the oceans were untouchable, trumped fishermen’s complaints.[27]

In hindsight it is obvious that overfishing was the precondition to scientific investigations into fisheries productivity such as those overseen by Huxley and Baird during the 1870s and 1880s. At the time, however, whether in the North Sea, in Norway’s Lofoten Islands, or along the east coast of the United States, most investigators considered overfishing to be merely a localized economic problem rather than a systemic ecological problem. (A prescient dissenter from the popular mood, James G. Bertram, argued in 1865 that “there are doubtless plenty of fish still in the sea, but the trouble of capturing them increases daily, and the instruments of capture have to be yearly augmented, indicating but too clearly to all who have studied the subject that we are beginning to overfish.”)[28]

The mutually reinforcing ideas that the ocean existed outside of time and beyond the pale of society, and that it remained incorruptible, became a trope tenaciously retained by western culture for centuries, despite the unsound science and unsound history on which it was based. No less an authority than Rachel Carson reiterated it in The Sea Around Us. Man, she argued in 1951, “cannot control or change the ocean as, in his brief tenancy of earth, he has subdued and plundered the continents.”[29]

Carson rarely called it wrong. Were she alive today, she would be among the most vocal proponents of marine environmental history. Carson would want to understand why the best and brightest in her field had gotten this story wrong for so long. It is not exactly news that people have hunted and fished for millennia in polar, temperate, and tropical seas, depleting local populations of certain marine species, pushing others to extinction, like Steller’s Sea Cow, last seen in 1768, and—in ships from afar—introducing invasive organisms that altered marine communities. But it was all too easy to forget how long ago these effects were felt, or how extensive they became worldwide; easy to forget that one of humanity’s defining encounters with nature through the centuries occurred in salt water. Burdened by centuries of assertions that this could not be happening, keen observers were blind to dramas unfolding in plain sight.

Now that we acknowledge the crisis, well-documented and cogently-argued marine environmental histories can begin to explain what happened. More often than not such stories will be tragic, lamenting the loss of fish and fishermen. They also will be laced with irony. Local concerns about overfishing are hardly new: Documents from before the American Revolution acknowledged depletion of right whales, shad, salmon, sturgeon, and alewives in New England. Nineteenth-century New Englanders lamented the extinction of the Great Auk, the commercial extinction of Atlantic halibut, the disappearance of menhaden north of Cape Cod, and the depletion of cod, haddock, and pollock on inshore grounds. Astute hand-liners from Swamscott, Massachusetts, fearing the ruthless efficiency of new long-line technology, petitioned the state legislature during the 1850s to outlaw long-lines, arguing that without such a ban, cod, haddock, and other bottom fish would soon become “scarce as salmon.” Meanwhile schooner crews from Beverly, Massachusetts, fishing on the Nova Scotian banks watched their seasonal landings decrease by more than 50 percent from 1852 to 1859. It is still not clear to what extent natural fluctuations or overfishing (or some synergy between them) contributed to the lack of cod during the 1850s. Fishermen at the time, however, blamed overfishing by large French factory brigs, each of which set long-lines with thousands of hooks. All of these observations, of course, occurred before mechanized fishing. Yet until quite recently, few fishermen, scientists, or politicians imagined that global fisheries would collapse to the extent that they did by the end of the twentieth century.[30]

In light of that, perhaps historians cannot be blamed for suspending attention to the sea. Publication of Carolyn Merchant’s Columbia Guide to American Environmental History, and Ted Steinberg’s Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History, both in 2002, signaled the maturation of American environmental history—and the orphan status of marine environments. Merchant, one of the most thoughtful environmental historians in the United States, produced a comprehensive overview and bibliography of the current state of the field. The opening lines of her book explained that it “introduces the many dimensions of human interaction with nature over time. As people have lived and spread out over the planet, they have modified its forests, plains, and deserts.” Steinberg, author of three respected books on nature in history, wrote an environmental history textbook showcasing how “the natural world—defined here as plants and animals, climate and weather, soil and water—has profoundly shaped the American past.”[31]

What about the oceans? Like other authors of environmental history overviews, Merchant’s and Steinberg’s silence is overwhelming, save for scattered references to Abenaki and Micmac fishing, depleted shad runs in northern and southern rivers, Rachel Carson’s career as a marine biologist, and the Coastal Zone Management Act of 1972.[32] Neither book explains that it covers only terrestrial environmental history, and that complementary marine histories are waiting to be told. It is as if Nantucket’s whalers, Oregon’s Clatsop salmon fishers, conch harvesters in Key West, and the twentieth-century swordfish crew made famous by The Perfect Storm were not part of America’s human encounter with the natural world. Readers of The Columbia Guide and Down to Earth, and virtually all other environmental history syntheses, could almost be excused for imagining that Americans, whether aboriginal, pre-modern, or modern, were as landlocked as the Swiss. The point is not to impugn Merchant’s and Steinberg’s scholarship: Although more fisheries history exists than they acknowledged, including a small percentage with an environmental perspective, it is fair to say that the field they surveyed so thoroughly has ignored one of America’s longest running and most profound interactions with the environment. Fishing, after all, is the oldest continuous commercial enterprise in North America. Yet the story of human-induced changes in the ocean environment is still waiting to be told.[33]

Part of the problem is that, unlike environments ashore, where humans’ manipulation with axes, plows, fire, and domesticated herds wrought visible transformations (often called “improvements”) in the landscape, the ocean appeared forever unchanged. Despite increasing numbers of fishing boats and the periodic deployment of more efficient gear, fishers and lawmakers easily assumed that the unchanging appearance of the ocean mirrored an unchanged biota. Meanwhile, humans on every inhabited continent compromised the estuaries that were the nurseries of marine life. Untreated sewage, garbage, and sawdust flowed into the sea, followed by heavy metals and petroleum as economies diversified. During the twentieth century otter trawls raked popular fishing banks, smashing benthic organisms and rearranging sediment forms that had provided habitat for bottom dwellers. While the extent of habitat destruction caused by trawling is not yet known, the process has gone on virtually unnoticed—and unhindered—for more than a century.[34] Benthic organisms on Georges Bank and the Dogger Bank had no defenders as did forests in the White Mountains or on the Olympic Peninsula. Recently television has been complicit in perpetuating the myth of the eternal ocean. Producers typically select footage for brilliance and biodiversity, and viewers can hardly be blamed for assuming that the ocean remains vibrant: They rarely see the dying coral reefs or denuded fishing banks that are more genuinely representative of today’s marine environment. In hindsight it is apparent that deeply embedded cultural assumptions about the nature of the sea have retarded the development of marine environmental histories.


THAT THE OCEANS do not exist outside of history has been noticed recently by an unlikely group—ecologists. The assumption behind generations of ecological field work, whether in forests, grasslands, estuaries, or elsewhere, was that study sites existed in a “natural” state. Ecologists lived easily with the fiction that energy exchange, disturbance succession, predator-prey networks, and community structure and function could be, or perhaps even should be studied as if human impacts were extraneous. Just as historians, wearing their own disciplinary blinders, ignored the environment except as a “setting” for the real action, ecologists suspended attention to the role of humans on the systems they studied. Times have changed.

During the last few years, senior scientists such as James T. Carlton, Jeremy Jackson, Tim Smith, Robert Steneck, and Daniel Pauly have chided colleagues for paying insufficient attention to humans’ role in marine ecology. Conceptually provocative papers have called explicitly for historical investigations. “Although the scholarly records of marine life—albeit frustratingly thin and almost always qualitative—reach back in a relatively accessible manner to at least the 1500s,” notes Carlton, “it is safe to say that 99% of this record remains essentially unread by modern marine ecologists and marine conservation biologists.” In his estimation, “what we need now is a well-supported discipline of marine environmental history.” Jackson agrees. “Paleoecological, archeological, and historical data are the only means,” he writes, “for extending ecological records back long enough to document the characteristic variability of marine ecosystems and the magnitude of earlier anthropogenic change.”[35]

Figure 3. A Deck Load of Fish.

Photo by Howard Schuck, 1953. Courtesy of the NorthEast Fisheries Science Center Photo Archives www.nefsc.noaa.gov.

F/V Wisconsin with a deck load of haddock off New England. Otter trawling has consequences beyond killing fish: The heavy chains and wire ropes on fishing nets have smashed benthic organisms and rearranged sediment forms in thousands of square miles of ocean floor.

Of course, marine scientists look to the past primarily for ecosystem trends and baselines—baselines to indicate prior abundance and distribution of marine species, baselines to reveal biological fluctuations, baselines that delineate species composition in specific systems at specific times, baselines against which climate change can be charted. Driven to understand contemporary marine ecosystems, and increasingly willing to advocate for the restoration of degraded ecosystems, those scientists are looking to the past to answer their most compelling questions. They suspect that clues to vanished species, to species not yet described in the taxonomic literature, and to other changes in the sea are probably lurking in evidence from the past. This impressive work should not be ignored by historians. But ecologists’ questions are not historians’ questions. Interest in the past is not the same as interest in history, understood by our profession as analysis of a specific part of the past based on verifiable sources and recognizable historical methodology. To flourish as it should, marine environmental history must take a different tack from historical marine ecology.

Marine environmental historians need to keep people and human culture squarely in their sights, and to capitalize on their storytelling capabilities. Marine scientists, even those conscious of human effects on marine ecosystems, see humans primarily as the instruments through which stocks are overfished, invasive species are transported, habitats are degraded, and pollution introduced. They are less interested in how historically and culturally specific people made themselves as they remade the world around them. Ecologists, moreover, rarely present what they know in narrative form. The challenge for historians is to create compelling accounts of the changing nature of marine environments in which contradictory human aspirations, values, behaviors, and institutions play central roles. As every reader of this journal knows, the heart of environmental history is the observation that people always try to manage their surroundings, even as those non-human natural surroundings are influencing the peoples’ economic production and culture, and that this occurs in a contingent, and thus historical, fashion.[36] This truth is as applicable to the ocean, especially to near-coastal areas frequented by mariners, as it is to the woodlands, plains, and fens with which historians have been typically concerned. To come into its own, marine environmental history must do more than provide details for an ecological jeremiad, even though overexploitation of fish stocks is one of the most compelling environmental issues of our time.[37]

Ironically, in light of its fledgling status, marine environmental history is the only environmental history subfield in which interdisciplinary collaboration between historians and scientists has been institutionalized and generously funded. That collaboration’s initial successes, tensions and criticisms illuminate not only the complicated marriage of interdisciplinary work, but fundamental conceptual disagreements about the relationship of the past to the present and future.

The visionary History of Marine Animal Populations project (HMAP), initiated in the fall of 1999, received substantial underwriting from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation “to improve our understanding of long-term ecosystem change, especially as regards the impact of humans” and to “build an institutional framework for the training of specialists in marine environmental history and historical ecology.” An arm of the Census of Marine Life, a decade-long scientific assessment of the past, present, and future of life in the oceans, HMAP billed its research approach as “unique in drawing history and ecology into collaborative study.”[38]

Through summer schools, conferences, funding for research, and academic centers at the University of Southern Denmark, the University of Hull, U.K., and the University of New Hampshire, HMAP has focused attention on what is knowable about past fish and whale stocks. Surveys of historical sources have been undertaken for fisheries in medieval and early modern Scandinavia, in the White and Barents seas from the seventeenth century to the present, and in South Africa, Peru, Australia, and Canada. Studies have focused on one fishery, such as whaling, or a single species, such as northwest Atlantic cod, or an ecosystem, such as Caribbean coral reefs. Dissertations and masters’ theses are being produced, and important articles published as a result of HMAP’s inspiration.[39] In the future the project’s open-access database of marine landings worldwide, circa 160–000, may prove to be a boon to marine environmental history researchers. Despite some philosophical differences and communication problems among HMAP researchers, who not only straddle the epistemological and methodological divide between history and marine ecology, but other conceptual gaps within each of those fields, HMAP has successfully drawn attention to changes in the sea over time. It has, moreover, inspired a small but dedicated group of graduate students to commit to careers in marine environmental history or historical ecology, at HMAP centers and elsewhere.

Impressive as its accomplishments have been, HMAP’s contribution to mainstream historical studies has been somewhat limited. Money is one reason. Initially, funding drove the agenda. Substantial grants are available for hypothesis-driven scientific work, particularly in response to perceived crises such as the unprecedented decline in fish stocks. Little funding exists for open-ended historical research. As one HMAP scientist put it, “historians are accustomed to living on a few grains of rice.” Since science grants have funded the research so far, scientists’ preferences for what is worth investigating and how it should be done have prevailed, and the supposedly interdisciplinary collaboration has been lopsided from the start. Though relying on data from the past, the majority of HMAP projects have not been driven by the sort of questions that most American environmental historians ask; in fact, virtually all HMAP investigations have been quantitative, as if establishing benchmarks against which to measure loss is the raison d’être of marine environmental history.

That thrust also reflects the bias of HMAP’s founders. While its initial statement of purpose emphasized “a balance between historical and ecological studies,” the two historians on the HMAP Steering Group were clearly comfortable with historical research that would illuminate the scope of pre-modern marine populations, primarily by assembling reports of catches from the past. During his opening address to the HMAP Summer Workshop in 2001, Poul Holm, a historian from the University of Southern Denmark and one of HMAP’s founders, shared his philosophy of the proposed collaboration. “For historians to influence biologists,” he argued, “we need to present well-defined data and recurrent phenomena and hypotheses.” Narratives based on anecdotal data would not suffice.[40]

=HMAP’s social-science vision of an accessible past rich with predictive possibilities is shared by some historians, but not all. Many imagine the past “as a foreign country,” in David Lowenthal’s words, a realm whose reach is beyond all possibility of exclusion, yet nevertheless a realm so different from the present and future that its correlation to them is simply not linear. What this means, of course, is that it is impossible to talk about collaboration between historians and ecologists as if all historians were in lockstep about the fundamentals within their discipline.[41]

Critics of HMAP, led by historian Lance van Sittert, a former HMAP project leader, have dismissed its “unexamined cultural assumptions” and its “search for reliable facts to be pressed into the service of positivist science.”[42] Calling for historicization of the ocean, and for historicization of natural science modeling, with its presumptions about correspondence to an external and factual reality, van Sittert’s approach has considerable merit. That is not equivalent, however, to a monopoly on legitimacy. It has been a long time since professional history functioned, as Peter Novick reminds us, “as a community of scholars united by common aims, common standards, and common purposes.”[43]

Van Sittert’s outspoken critique has driven a wedge between researchers with shared interests who could more profitably be natural allies, while overlooking the very real accomplishments of HMAP. Its founders took considerable professional risk by daring to commit to marine environmental history; then compounded that risk by working on interdisciplinary projects collaboratively—strange territory for historians, even though it goes without saying that many important questions cannot be answered by individual scholars working alone, despite the norms of the historical profession. Moreover, a research plan like that envisioned by van Sittert would not have generated comparable academic interest, especially by collaborative groups, nor would it have attracted major foundation funding. Funding matters, especially in start-up ventures. HMAP’s scale and gravitas have accelerated interest in marine environmental history substantially, and spin-off projects that are not primarily quantitative have already begun. HMAP should be honored as a “first” and commended for its successes, even as historians from other epistemological traditions proceed with alternative inquiries into the history of the ocean.

Historians have a great deal to add to ecologists’ understanding of the sea. Although it is clear that much about past marine ecosystems will remain unknowable, several HMAP projects and similar inquiries have illuminated the magnitude of specific fish and whale stocks in the past, making concrete contributions to the sort of modeling on which fisheries managers rely. As long as modeling and policy making based on modeling remain in the forefront of humans’ attempts to manage nature, those models should reach as far back in time as possible. At the very least, historians can provide perspective on the magnitude of environmental change, reminding politicians and managers of the world we have lost.

Yet it seems just as obvious that ecological modeling—which began for fisheries in a serious way during the 1930s—has failed to provide effective stewardship of marine resources. Modeling nature conveys a potential mastery of nature that simply has never existed. More data and better models seem unlikely to fix the problem of depleted resources, even if the models include data from the past. If we are serious about restoring the abundance of renewable natural resources, society as a whole (meaning politicians, managers, and judges who make decisions about natural resources) not only needs to be more precautionary, but it needs to take a new tack.

Charting a new course for the stewardship of resources will require new ways of thinking, including new stories about the relationship of people to fish, timber, grazing lands, and water. Central to such stories will be the recognition, common to some historians, that complex variables create historically specific situations—not universal ones, or replicable ones, or natural ones, but historically specific situations. Historians who honor the past on its own terms, who strive to make that past legible to the present, but who lack the conviction that the past is predictive, have something to add to this discussion. Those historians think about time in a radically different way from most scientists. They recognize that time (including ecological time) is not linear, and that long-gone contexts and now-invisible contingencies affected the past in such a way that it was qualitatively different. This is not a concession of the irrelevance of history; far from it. It is a suggestion, however, that we need to think about non-human nature in a fundamentally different way if we want different results. Assuming that nature has a history specific to different periods and circumstances, ie. that historical contexts matter, is a good place to begin.[44]


A REFLECTION LIKE this would be remiss without concrete suggestions about how aspiring marine environmental historians might get their feet wet. There are at least two basic approaches, the single-species approach at the heart of Taylor’s Making Salmon, and the regional approach central to McEvoy’s The Fisherman’s Problem.[45] Marine environmental historians of the future will regard those texts as foundational. Transcending a simple history of overfishing, Taylor embeds the salmon’s story in a tale of “mining, logging, grazing, irrigation, fishing, and urbanization,” all of which combined drastically to shrink salmon habitat. Central to his analysis is the tragic hubris with which scientists and managers assessed the problem. If nature couldn’t make enough fish, they reasoned, hatcheries would. Yet artificial propagation of salmon by fish culturists never lived up to its expectation. While Making Salmon is a model for single-species studies, one caveat is relevant to those who would follow his pioneering path. Anadromous fish—none more so than salmon—created a substantially richer documentary trail than oceanic fish.[46]

Figure 4. Bahamian Spongers.

Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection, LC-USZ6–14276.

A sponge yard along the docks in Nassau, Bahamas, c. 1904. During the early 20th-century Bahamian spongers’ overharvesting eliminated a lucrative enterprise, and greatly reduced the sponges’ filtration function in the shallow banks ecosystem.

Many important species like salmon warrant a multi-faceted history of their exploitation, economic value, cultural significance, and changing place in the ecosystem.[47] Alewives, menhaden, swordfish, tunas, grouper, striped bass, eels, halibut, spiny dogfish, mackerel, and the gadoid family (cod, haddock, pollock, cusk, and hake) lead the list.[48] Some are worthy of book-length studies. For others, monographs will suffice. Invertebrates, including sponges, crabs, oysters, clams, mussels, abalone, and shrimp also need their historians.[49] So do many species of marine mammals, birds, and sea turtles. Each of these organisms was tightly tied to communities of local producers, which, in turn, were affected by changing foodways and markets, evolving fisheries technology, breakthroughs in transportation and preservation, scientific studies, regulations regarding access, and contradictory opinions regarding sustainability. Many of these species histories’ speak to the rise and fall of vernacular folkways, to immigration, industrialization, race, and other topics of perennial interest to historians.

Consider an environmental history of Bahamian sponging. Hardscrabble Bahamian mariners, both black and white, began harvesting sponges during the 1840s, instigated by a French entrepreneur. By the 1890s sponging was the primary maritime industry in the Bahamian archipelago. At the turn of the century over five thousand men were “on the mud,” as they called it, harvesting sponges from a fleet of sloops and schooners. As Paul Albury writes, “up to 1925 it must have seemed that sponge-fishing would endure forever and get better and better. At that time, the total income earned by sponge fishermen soared to £200,000, and a local song, ‘Sponger Money Never Done,’ commemorated both the durability and prosperity. The series of severe hurricanes, which began in 1926, did much damage to the sponge beds, but apart from this there developed unmistakable evidence of overfishing. … By 1932, the fishermen were finding it difficult to make a living.” Six years later a “deadly malady,” possibly a virus, killed off 90 percent of the remaining sponges. Albury’s synopsis contains all the elements necessary for a compelling environmental history. Economic, cultural, and ecological analysis would bolster a powerful narrative that could be substantiated through archival sources and biological literature.[50]

An alternative to the single-species approach is a regional study along lines pioneered by McEvoy, in The Fisherman’s Problem, arguably the gold standard for marine environmental history. There is a caveat: “Region” is more complicated conceptually than it appears because politically defined regions rarely correspond precisely to bioregions. Sometimes cultural regions add yet another layer of complexity. Environmental historians in the future may wish to develop bioregional histories of marine environments, or histories of cultural areas that depended on certain marine resources. While region is a useful organizing device, it needs to be carefully defined.

Recounting the “wanton destruction” of California’s fisheries from 1850 to 1980, McEvoy situated his tale in light of the profound connections between ecology, law, and economic production. Ironically, as he explained, political debates during the collapse of the sardine fishery never superseded the binary opposition about whether fluctuations in catch “were due to overfishing or to ‘natural,’ that is to say unpredictable, unavoidable, and thus legally irrelevant, causes.” It was both. His place-based methodology challenges historians to unpack the relationships between ecology, economic production, and law, being attentive to how they “evolve in tandem; each partly according to its own particular logic and partly in response to changes in the other two.”[51]

Long-settled and culturally distinctive places such as Chesapeake Bay, Long Island Sound, Albemarle Sound, sections of the Gulf coast from the Florida panhandle to Texas, and the Florida Keys lend themselves to a regional approach. Recently defined Marine Sanctuaries, such as the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary off Massachusetts or the Gray’s Reef Sanctuary off Georgia, administered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, also might provide a geographic focus for monographic studies, as could Marine Protected Areas, whether in American waters or elsewhere.[52] Shorelines and biodiversity have changed in all coastal areas frequented by humans, though we could know more about this. Coral reef systems worldwide are in crisis, for instance, but this did not just happen overnight. Shallow banks such as Georges Bank have been altered, some researchers claim, as profoundly as clear-cut forests. Ralph Stanley, who fished the coast of Maine as a boy, recently recollected what happened on Jones’s Grounds, ” 12 miles southeast of Mount Desert Rock,” where his father had set trawls during World War II. The bottom there, he said, “was covered in some kind of ‘vegetation.’ Pieces of this stuff would come up on the trawl hooks. It looked like tree limbs, pretty colors of purple, pink, and orange. It was a great place in March to set trawls for big cod, hake and cusk. In the 1950s the draggers fishing for redfish or ocean perch gradually dragged into that bottom until all the ‘tree growth’ was gone.” To the extent possible, stories like these can be fleshed out through observations, oral histories, and data contained in the archival record.[53]

Who will write the history of the alewife, Alosa pseudoharengus, a bony herring averaging ten or eleven inches long that formerly swam in large schools along the coast from South Carolina to Newfoundland?[54] Like salmon, alewives are an anadromous fish. Returning to spawn in their natal river, alewives made an easy target at waterfalls and other congested choke points. In colonial America, they were the passenger pigeons of the sea. “Experience hath taught them at New Plymouth,” wrote one eyewitness, “that in April there is a fish much like a herring that comes up into the small brooks to spawn, and when the water is not knee deep they will presse up through your hands, yea, thow you beat at them with cudgels, and in such abundance as is incredible.”[55]

Today alewives’ numbers have plummeted. Eaten, exported, used for fertilizer and for bait, alewives were central to both market-based and subsistence economies in early New England.[56] The town of Exeter, New Hampshire, honored its debt to this lowly fish by putting it prominently on the town seal in 1930. During the seventeenth century many towns with alewife runs appointed fish wardens to oversee the harvest, but concerns about depletion were apparent before the American Revolution. “The people living upon the banks of Merrimack [River],” noted William Douglass in 1755, “observe that several species of fish such as Salmon, Shad, and Alewives, are not so plenty in their seasons as formerly.” Two months before shots were fired at Lexington and Concord, a group of more than thirty men petitioned the New Hampshire General Assembly requesting that all encumbrances and weirs be removed from Cohass Brook, a tributary of the Merrimack River, so that “Said fish may have free Liberty to pass and re-pass in Said Brook for the Insuing year without Molestation that they may increce their number.” From 1764 to 1815, petitions submitted to the Governor, Council and Legislature in New Hampshire reveal genuine concern about diminishing stocks of alewives. Similar concerns existed in Massachusetts. “Although in several portions of the state where the alewives have heretofore been most abundant,” noted D. Humphreys Storer in 1839, “the various encroachments of man have sensibly diminished them.”[57]

Central to the history of the alewife were struggles between harvesters using different types of gear. Constituencies with spears, scoop nets, and seines (each with significantly different capitalization costs) sought privileged access for themselves while trying to convince governments to regulate the other parties. Alewives were still being harvested in New England’s rivers until the late twentieth century, when annual runs had been reduced to a few paltry fish. The changing nature of the alewife fishery needs to be reconstructed there, and in other states and provinces. If possible, we need to know more about the changing size of the stock, the annual harvests, the evolution of fisheries technology and its implications, the laws regulating access and the extent to which they were honored, the incremental growth of scientific knowledge about alewives, and the constellation of conditions that encouraged people to keep fishing even though common knowledge indicated that the stock was declining.

Figure 5. Alewife Fishery in Warren, Maine.

Courtesy of the William B. Leavenworth Postcard Collection.

Alewives and other anadromous fish returning to spawn have been harvested at choke points in rivers for centuries. Note the wooden pen of fish behind the fishermen, and the long, narrow fish-ladder in the background. Circa 1905.

Few species’ stories match that of the menhaden for drama, local color, and corporate intrigue. While several preliminary studies have been completed, or are in preparation, menhaden deserve a full-blown cultural and environmental history. Another member of the herring family, also known as mossbunker, porgy, and bunker, this foot-long fish, each of which weighs about a pound, schools between Maine and Florida. Today “menhaden support the largest single-species fishery on the Atlantic coast,” notes Richard Ellis, “the most concentrated fishery in Chesapeake Bay, and, after Alaskan pollock, the second largest fishery in America.” Omega Protein Corporation, based in Houston and founded by former president George H. W. Bush, is the largest American company currently catching and processing menhaden. Although Omega Protein insists that “the menhaden resource is healthy and self-renewing,” statistics tell a different story. Total American landings during the late 1990s were just 40 percent of overall landings in the late 1950s, and “in 2000 Omega Protein laid up thirteen of its fifty-three ships and grounded twelve of its forty-five spotter planes.”[58]

Too oily for most tastes, menhaden were fished commercially only on a small scale with beach seines, rowboats, and small sloops until the 1850s, when processing plants to render fish oil were built along the coast of New England. Then, in one of the more dramatic fishery collapses of the nineteenth century, menhaden virtually disappeared from waters north of Cape Cod after 1879, stranding the owners and employees of the boats poised to catch them, and the factories ready to process them. For the next six years they were exceedingly scarce along the coast of Maine; for the next forty years their appearance in the Gulf of Maine was unpredictable. In 1905, when well-financed canning syndicates petitioned the Maine legislature to expand purse seining for herring, a legislator from Surry articulated the conservationist ethic of small-scale weir fishers by invoking the memory of the menhaden. As Richard Judd tells the story—from the perspective of that legislator—the village of Surry “had once reaped a $30,000 yearly harvest in menhadens, ‘and it didn’t take but a little money to go into the business.’ The fish disappeared when ‘people from Rhode Island, New York, Connecticut, and the western states … [came] in here.’ Melding concerns over resource exploitation with populist and localistic resistance to large, nonresident corporations, the Surry representative closed his argument: consider the fate of the menhadens, he asked, ‘and vote for the people.'” His passionate argument carried the day and down-easters celebrated the syndicates’ defeat with victory balls and galas.[59]

In the meantime, the menhaden fishery had shifted south to Virginia and North Carolina, where, in the era of hand-hauled seine nets, it attracted large numbers of black laborers and became the last bastion of American sea-chanteying in the early and mid-twentieth century. By the turn of the twenty-first century, menhaden were the chief commercial source of long-chain omega-3 proteins that health-conscious consumers ingested to fight cardiovascular disease, cancer, and arthritis. The menhaden’s role in the ecosystem of the continental shelf and in the culture of the United States makes this a fish with a story worth telling.[60]

Good history begins with good sources. Thankfully voluminous sources for the reconstruction of marine environmental histories, many untapped, exist in the National Archives of the United States, in its Washington, College Park, and regional centers, and in local, state, and private archives. Similar sources exist in many other countries. Records of commercial fish landings, logbooks’ daily catch records, early scientific surveys, customs receipts for the export of fish and whale products, correspondence of the U.S. Fish Commission and various state fish commissions, census records of maritime workers and their equipment, memoirs by fishermen and naturalists, legislative petitions, court cases, diplomatic papers, newspapers, and business records (including those of canneries and packing houses) all shed light on marine organisms’ former levels of abundance and the relationship of people to marine resources. Accurate statistics, or at least complete sets of data, are not easy to find, however, and certain fisheries, especially inshore fisheries in small boats were notoriously underreported. Historians uncovering the papers of fish-buyers or the daily logs of fishermen have the opportunity to collaborate with statisticians to recalculate published aggregate statistics, or even to create statistics for certain years and certain fisheries in what is otherwise a pre-statistical age.[61]

Textual records are sufficiently rich that the cultural intentions as well as the actions of people harvesting marine resources are recoverable for certain historically specific fisheries. During the 1850s a controversy over seining sea fish wracked town after town along the coast of Maine. Articulated in both a conservationist discourse and a rights discourse, it illuminated how locals imagined themselves in relationship to the resources on which they depended. In 1852 fishermen from Boothbay swore that “taking Menhaden fish … by means of Seines in our Bays, Rivers & Harbours is very destructive to said fish and if persisted in will eventually destroy them or drive them from our coast.” But fishermen in neighboring Surry disagreed. They claimed “the fears of a dearth of pogies or menhaden … are entirely hypothetical,” and they demanded “free trade in pogies.” Historians have more possibilities than they realize to work with such records. In a recent study of the North Sea ling and cod fisheries, circa 1840 to 1914, René Taudal Poulsen was able to combine textual records, ethnographies, and traditional social history analysis of Bohuslän county in Sweden with catch data and fisheries population modeling. His attention to a wide range of rarely-paired sources allowed him to explore that region’s adaptation to ecological change in the coastal sea.[62]

The starting point for virtually any American marine environmental history is the magisterial, multi-volume series The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States, edited by George Brown Goode, and published by the U.S. Government Printing Office between 1884 and 1887. Goode, assistant secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, had been trained as an ichthyologist by Louis Agassiz at Harvard. An active field researcher, he participated in the U.S. Fish Commission’s Atlantic coast research expeditions for several summers, and later represented the United States at international fisheries meetings in Berlin in 1880 and London in 1883. Goode was one of the nation’s foremost fishery scientists in the late nineteenth century. He simultaneously maintained a passionate interest in history. A founding member of the American Historical Association, he published, among other things, a history of natural science in America.[63] Goode’s career is a heartening reminder that the boundaries between marine science and maritime history need not be hermetically sealed. To the contrary: Science and history can both benefit from ecologists thinking historically and historians thinking ecologically.

No matter the sources they use, would-be marine environmental historians will need to address head-on the quandary of disciplinary boundaries. Deeply rooted assumptions concerning the typology of knowledge, specifically what is of interest to whom in scholarly or scientific circles, has circumscribed the development of marine environmental history. Environmental historians (terrestrial ones, mind you) faced an uphill challenge convincing colleagues in history departments that aquifers, earthworms, forest succession, and bio-regionalism were germane to history, even though every village and city throughout time relied on biological and geophysical resources, and affected its non-human natural surroundings. It goes without saying that humans’ reliance on, affection for, and intimacy with the ocean has been but a fraction of that of the land. Moreover, the results of humans’ environmental impact on the ocean have essentially remained invisible, hidden below an inscrutable surface. To be accepted, much less to flourish, marine environmental historians will need to constantly reiterate how abalone, oyster reefs, Bluefin Tuna (formerly referred to derisively as “horse mackerel”), invasive jellyfish, and marine foodwebs are the stuff of history; how, in other words, humans and the living ocean share a common destiny.

The problems posed by the overstressed ocean today are not yet insurmountable according to some optimistic marine scientists, even though depletion of the oceans’ living resources is clearly worsening.[64] If policies and enforcement don’t encourage conservation soon, however, the species composition of the oceans will change forever, impoverishing marine ecosystems, human economies, and cultural traditions. Questions are already begging for answers: “how long have people been making an impact on the ocean,” “when did warning signs first appear,” “what constellation of assumptions and policies led to a virtually unrestrained plunder of oceanic resources and the cascading effects that followed”?

Those concerns, along with a desire to better understand the sociology of past maritime communities and a passion to tell a new generation of sea stories, provide a template for marine environmental history. Done well, it can add materially to our understanding of the interactions between human culture and non-human nature in the early modern and modern world. Lord Byron was wrong when he wrote in the early nineteenth century, “Man marks the earth with ruin, his control Stops with the shore.” It is up to historians in the early twenty-first century to explain what happened.[65]

W. Jeffrey Bolster holds the James H. Hayes and Claire Short Hayes Chair in the Humanities at the University of New Hampshire, where he is an associate professor of history. Author of Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail (Harvard, 1997) and editor of Cross-Grained and Wily Waters: A Guide to the Piscataqua Maritime Region (Peter E. Randall, 2002), Bolster is a licensed master mariner who spent ten years at sea before beginning his career in history. His current research is on the environmental history of the northwest Atlantic.


I would like to thank Karen Alexander, Mark Cioc, Kurk Dorsey, Matthew G. McKenzie, Helen Rozwadowski, Jay Taylor, and the referees, all of whom read this essay and improved it substantially with their critiques and suggestions. The errors of fact and interpretation that remain are mine. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the New England Marine Environmental History Workshop in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, in May, 2005. I thank the organizers (McKenzie and Rozwadowski) and the participants for a stimulating conference and thoughtful feedback. My work in marine environmental history has been generously supported by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s funding of HMAP (the History of Marine Animal Populations project), and by the James H. Hayes and Claire Short Hayes Chair in the Humanities at UNH. I appreciate their faith and generosity.

1. Ransom A. Myers and Boris Worm, “Rapid Worldwide Depletion of Predatory Fish Communities,” Nature 423 (May 2003): 28–3. Pew Oceans Commission, America’s Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change. Summary Report (Pew Oceans Commission, Arlington, Va.: May 2003); U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, Preliminary Report of the U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, Governor’s Draft (Washington: U.S. Government Printing Office, 2004).

2. Colin Woodard, Ocean’s End: Travels Through Endangered Seas (N.Y.: Basic Books, 2000), 1–28; James T. Carlton, “Marine Bioinvasions: The Alteration of Marine Ecosystems by Nonindigenous Species,” Oceanography 9 (1996): 36–43; James T. Carlton, “Blue Immigrants: The Marine Biology of Maritime History,” The Log of Mystic Seaport 44 (1992): 31–36.

3. Peter E. Pope, Fish into Wine: The Newfoundland Plantation in the Seventeenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press for the Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture, 2004), 1–44; Peter Pope, “Early Estimates: Assessment of Catches in the Newfoundland Cod Fishery, 1660–1690,” in Marine Resources and Human Societies in the North Atlantic Since 1500: Papers Presented at the Conference Entitled “Marine Resources and Human Societies in the North Atlantic Since 1500,” October 20–22, 1995, ed. Daniel Vickers (St. John’s: Memorial University of Newfoundland, 1997), 7–40; Jeffrey A. Hutchings, “Spatial and Temporal Variation in the Exploitation of Northern Cod, Gadus Morhua: A Historical Perspective from 1500 to Present,” in Marine Resources and Human Societies in the North Atlantic Since 1500, ed. Vickers, 41–68.

4. Anthony Parkhurst to Richard Hakluyt (1578) in The Fish and Fisheries of Colonial North America: A Documentary History of Fishing Resources of the United States and Canada, John C. Pearson, ed., Part I: The Canadian Atlantic Provinces (NOAA Report No. 72040301) (Rockville, Md.: NOAA, National Marine Fisheries Service, 1972), 7–9; Relation of what Occurred Most Remarkable in the Mission Society of Jesus in New France, 1662–63, in The Fish and Fisheries of Colonial North America, Pearson, ed., 22; William Monson, Naval Tracts (1703), in The Fish and Fisheries of Colonial North America, Pearson, 85–86.

5. Despite a few noteworthy studies by Arthur F. McEvoy, Joseph E. Taylor III, and Richard W. Judd, among others, historians have produced few investigations of previous encounters with marine environments. See Arthur F. McEvoy, The Fisherman’s Problem: Ecology and Law in the California Fisheries, 1850–1980 (Cambridge University Press, 1986); Joseph E. Taylor III, Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999); and Richard W. Judd, Common Lands, Common People: The Origins of Conservation in Northern New England (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1997).

6. Kirk Johnson, “No Recovery Soon for Lobstering in West Long Island Sound,” The New York Times, March 8, 2003.

7. Kenneth T. Frank, et al., “Trophic Cascades in a Formerly Cod-Dominated Ecosystem,” Science 308 (June 2005): 1621–23; R. S. Steneck, J. Vavrinec, and A. V. Leland, “Accelerating Trophic Level Dysfunction in Kelp Forest Ecosystems of the Western North Atlantic,” Ecosystems 7 (2004): 323–31; Edwin Grosholz, “Ecological and Evolutionary Consequences of Coastal Invasions,” Trends in Ecology and Evolution 17 (January 2002): 22–27; Michael J. Fogarty and Steven A. Murawski, “Large-Scale Disturbance and the Structure of Marine Systems: Fishery Impacts on Georges Bank,” Ecological Applications 8 (February 1998), S6–S22.

8. Robert S. Steneck, “Are We Overfishing the American Lobster? Some Biological Perspectives,” in The Decline of Fisheries Resources in New England: Evaluating the Impact of Overfishing, Contamination, and Habitat Destruction, ed. Robert Buschbaum, Judith Pederson, and William E. Robinson (Cambridge: MIT Sea Grant Program, 2001), 131–48; Philip W. Conkling and Anne Hayden, Lobsters Great and Small: How Scientists and Fishermen are Changing Our Understanding of a Maine Icon (Rockland, Maine: Island Institute, 2002).

9. The groundwork has been laid in two excellent studies. See Philip W. Conkling, Islands in Time: A Natural and Cultural History of the Islands of the Gulf of Maine (Rockland, Maine: Island Institute, 1999); and Colin Woodard, The Lobster Coast: Rebels, Rusticators, and the Struggle for a Forgotten Frontier (New York: Viking, 2004).

10. J. B. C. Jackson, et al., “Historical Overfishing and the Recent Collapse of Coastal Ecosystems,” Science 293 (July 2001): 629–38; Poul Holm, Tim D. Smith, and David J. Starkey, eds., The Exploited Seas: New Directions in Marine Environmental History (St. Johns, Newfoundland: International Maritime Economic History Association/Census of Marine Life, 2001).

11. For Apollonio’s estimates, see Conkling, Islands in Time, 260–61; and Spencer Apollonio, Hierarchical Perspectives on Marine Complexities: Searching for Systems in the Gulf of Maine (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), 173–75. For contemporaries’ observations of depletion, see William Douglass, A Summary, Historical and Political, of the First Planting, Progressive Improvements, and Present State of the British Settlements in North America, 2 vols. (Boston: 1755) 1:58–62. For conservative estimates of whale kills, see Randall R. Reeves, Jeffrey M. Breiwick, and Edward D. Mitchell, “History of Whaling and Estimated Kill of Right Whales, Balaena Glacialis, in the Northeastern United States, 1620–1924,” Marine Fisheries Review 61 (1999): 1–36. For more expansive estimates see Apollonio, Hierarchical Perspectives, 60–61. For seventeenth-century Dutch and Basque Arctic whaling, see Laurier Turgeon, “Fluctuations in Cod and Whale Stocks in the North Atlantic During the Eighteenth Century,” in Marine Resources and Human Societies, ed. Vickers, 87–122; John F. Richards, The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 584–89.

12. On whales as constraints in ecosystems, see Apollonio, Hierarchical Perspectives, 14–15, 53–71. Louwrens Hacquebord, “The Hunting of the Greenland Right Whale in Svalbard, Its Interaction with Climate and Its Impact on the Marine Ecosystem,” Polar Research 18 (1999),:375–82; Louwrens Hacquebord, “Three Centuries of Whaling and Walrus Hunting in Svalbard and Its Impact on the Arctic Ecosystem,” Environment and History 7 (2001): 169–85. For the ecological consequences of Antarctic whale harvests, see Richard M. Laws, “The Ecology of the Southern Ocean,” American Scientist 73 (1985): 26–40.

13. During the last three years a spirited debate over the size of whale populations before exploitation has pitted advocates of genetic population modeling against advocates of population modeling based on historical catch records. The estimates by genetic modelers are far greater, differing by an order of magnitude. See Joe Roman and Stephen R. Palumbi, “Whales Before Whaling in the North Atlantic,” Science 301 (2003): 508–10; S. J. Holt, “Counting Whales in the North Atlantic,” Science 303 (2004): 39–40; C. Scott Baker and Phillip J. Clapham, “Modelling the Past and Future of Whales and Whaling,” Trends in Ecology and Evolution 19 (2004): 365–71.

14. Lance van Sittert, “The Other Seven Tenths,” in “Anniversary Forum: What’s Next for Environmental History?” Environmental History 10 (January 2005): 106–09; Helen M. Rozwadowski and David K. van Keuren, eds., The Machine in Neptune’s Garden: Historical Perspectives on Technology and the Marine Environment (Science History Publications/USA: 2004); Helen M. Rozwadowski, Fathoming the Ocean: The Discovery and Exploration of the Deep Sea (Cambridge: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2005).

15. See Pope, “Early Estimates,” esp. 25–28, for a careful, methodical, and insightful study that reveals the significance of historical context for interpreting early modern fisheries landings. Pope explains underreporting in a time series of Newfoundland cod landings compiled by biologists who lacked contextual understanding of seventeenth-century data.

16. Andrew A. Rosenberg, et al., “The History of Ocean Resources: Modeling Cod Biomass Using Historical Records,” Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment 3 (March 2005): 84–90.

17. Richard Henry Dana, Two Years Before the Mast (1840; reprint, New York, Penguin, 1981), 462–63.

18. Papers that have begun to address some of these issues include Richard Price, “Caribbean Fishing and Fishermen: A Historical Sketch,” American Anthropologist 68 (1966): 1363–83; Sean Cadigan, “The Moral Economy of the Commons: Ecology and Equity in the Newfoundland Cod Fishery, 1815–1855,” Labour/Le Travail 43 (Spring 1999): 9–42; Russel Lawrence Barsh, “Netukulimk Past and Present: Míkmaw Ethics and the Atlantic Fishery,” Journal of Canadian Studies 37 (Spring 2002): 15–42; Connie Y. Chiang, “Monterey-by-the-Smell: Odors and Social Conflict on the California Coastline,” Pacific Historical Review 73 (2004): 183–214; Bill Parenteau, “A ‘Very Determined Opposition to the Law’: Conservation, Angling Leases, and Social Conflict in the Canadian Atlantic Salmon Fishery, 1867–1914,” Environmental History 93 (July 2004): 436–63.

19. Philip E. Steinberg, The Social Construction of the Ocean (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001).

20. Alain Corbin, The Lure of the Sea: The Discovery of the Seaside in the Western World 1750–1840, trans. Jocelyn Phelps (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1994), 2.

21. Two very original works charting this process are Corbin, Lure of the Sea; and Rozwadowski, Fathoming the Ocean. Margaret Deacon, Scientists and the Sea, 1650–1900: A Study of Marine Science (London and New York: Academic Press, 1971) points out a brief burst of interest in the ocean by the Royal Society from 1660 to 1675, followed by decades of no interest. It is noteworthy that most seventeenth-century Englishmen simply took the ocean for granted. It was a highway, barrier, and fishing ground, but not a political space to be ruled, a subject for naturalists’ inquiries, or a playground. See Captain John Smith, A Description of New England (London: 1616); Captain John Smith, New England’s Trials (London: 1620); and Captain John Smith, An Accidence or Pathway to Experience Necessary for all Young Sea-men (London: 1626). Navigation books ignored the ocean itself, addressing only navigation, seamanship, and the business of shipping. See Matthew Norwood, The Seamans Companion (London: 1698); James Lightbody, The Mariners Jewel: Or, A Pocket Companion for the Ingenious (London: 1697); and James Atkinson, Senior, Epitome of the Art of Navigation (London: 1718).

22. Keith Thomas, Man and the Natural World: A History of the Modern Sensibility (New York: Pantheon Books, 1983).

23. Henry D. Thoreau, Cape Cod (1865) ed. Joseph J. Moldenhauer (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 148; Herman Melville, Moby-Dick; or, The Whale (New York: Penguin Books, 1972), 685; Joseph Conrad, The Nigger of the “Narcissus” (London: 1897; reprint, New York: Penguin Modern Classics, 1985), 17, 80, 87, 135, 143; T. S. Eliot, “The Dry Salvages,” in Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1943). For Dickens, see John Peck, Maritime Fiction: Sailors and the Sea in British and American Novels, 1719–1917 (Houndsmill, Hampshire, UK, and New York: Palgrave: 2001), 80.

24. Barry Cunliffe, Facing the Ocean: The Atlantic and Its Peoples 8000 BC-AD 1500 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001), 1; Vincent H. Cassidy, The Sea Around Them: The Atlantic Ocean, A.D. 1250 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1968), xv.

25. Rozwadowski, Fathoming the Ocean.

26. Montesquieu cited in Clarence J. Glacken, Traces on the Rhodian Shore: Nature and Culture in Western Thought from Ancient Times to the End of the Eighteenth Century (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of Californian Press, 1967), 659; J. B. Lamarck, Zoological Philosophy: An Exposition with Regard to the Natural History of Animals (1809; reprint, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984), 45. I thank James T. Carlton for the reference to Lamarck.

27. Spencer F. Baird, U.S. Commission on Fish and Fisheries. Part I. Report on the Condition of the Sea Fisheries of the South Coast of New England in 1871 and 1872 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1873), xxx–xxxi; Thomas H. Huxley, “Inaugural Address,” Fisheries Exhibition, London, 1883.

28. E. F. Rivinus and E. M Youssef, Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), 141–51; Tim D. Smith, Scaling Fisheries: The Science of Measuring the Effects of Fishing, 1855–1955 (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 38–69; James G. Bertram, The Harvest of the Seas: a Contribution to the Natural and Economic History of the British Food Fishes (London: Murray, 1865), 475.

29. Rachel L. Carson, The Sea Around Us (New York: Oxford University Press, 1951), 15. Most environmental historians know Carson through Silent Spring (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1962), but she was foremost a marine biologist whose earlier books included Under the Sea Wind (New York: E. P. Dutton, 1952) and The Edge of the Sea (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1955). For the ocean as “insulated from social forces” during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, see Steinberg, Social Construction, 112–24, quotation on 112.

30. For the Swamscott petitioners, see U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries, The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States, ed. George Brown Goode, (5 secs., 7 vols.; Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1884–1887), Section 1, 226; G. Brown Goode Collection, Series 3, Collected Material on Fish and Fisheries, Box 14, folder “Misc Notes, Mss, Lists, Statistics,” RU 7050, Smithsonian Institution. For drastic reductions in landings in the Beverly fleet, see W. Jeffrey Bolster and Karen E. Alexander, “The Abundance of Cod on the Nova Scotian Shelf, 1852–1859,” in J. B. C. Jackson, ed., Marine Biodiversity: Using the Past to Inform the Future (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, forthcoming); William L venworth, “Opening Pandora’s Box: Tradition, Competition and Technology on the Scotian Shelf, 1852–1860,” Studia Atlantica (forthcoming). For declining catches in the inshore Newfoundland cod fishery circa 1815–1855, see Cadigan, “The Moral Economy of the Commons.” A longer term perspective on the dynamics of Newfoundland cod stocks is found in Hutchins, “Spatial and Temporal Variation in the Exploitation of Northern Cod,” in Marine Resources and Human Societies, ed. Vickers, 41–68.

31. Carolyn Merchant, The Columbia Guide to American Environmental History (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002), xiii; Ted Steinberg, Down to Earth: Nature’s Role in American History (New York: Oxford University Press, 2002), ix.

32. Other respected environmental histories are equally silent about the marine environment, notably John Opie, Nature’s Nation: An Environmental History of the United States (Fort Worth: Harcourt Brace, 1998). J. Donald Hughes, An Environmental History of the World: Humankind’s Changing Role in the Community of Life (London and New York: Routledge, 2001) mentions the marine environment only in passing. J. R. McNeill, Something New Under the Sun: An Environmental History of the Twentieth-Century World (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2000) has the most coverage, with a brief section on “Whaling and Fishing.” Richards, The Unending Frontier, contains chapters on fishing and whaling, but they are framed like traditional maritime histories, ignoring non-human nature and ecological relationships. I. G. Simmons, Environmental History: A Concise Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1993) has three pages on the ocean.

33. Far and away the best bibliography in fisheries history, and a necessary starting point for marine environmental history, is in Taylor, Making Salmon, 379–410. His thorough compilation includes important questions and a brief survey of primary sources.

34. National Research Council, Committee on Ecosystem Effects of Fishing, Effects of Trawling and Dredging on Seafloor Habitat (Washington, D.C.: National Academy Press, 2002); Les Watling and Elliott A. Norse, “Disturbance of the Seabed by Mobile Fishing Gear: A Comparison to Forest Clearcutting,” Conservation Biology 12 (December 1998): 1178–97.

35. James T. Carlton, “Apostrophe to the Ocean,” Conservation Biology 12 (December 1998): 1165–67, quotations on 1166 and 1167; Jeremy B. C. Jackson, “What Was Natural in the Coastal Oceans?” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences USA 98 (May 8, 2001), 5411–18, quotation on 5411; Daniel Pauly, “Anecdotes and the Shifting Baseline Syndrome of Fisheries,” Trends in Ecology and Evolution 10 (October 1995): 430; Robert S. Steneck and James T. Carlton, “Human Alterations of Marine Communities: Students Beware!” in Marine Community Ecology, ed. Mark D. Bertness, et al., (Sunderland, Mass.: Sinauer Publishers, 2001), 445–68; Smith, Scaling Fisheries.

36. On the importance of narrative in environmental history, see William Cronon, “A Place for Stories: Nature, History and Narrative,” Journal of American History 78 (March 1992): 1347–76.

37. Mark Kurlansky, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World (New York: Walker and Co., 1997) was a well-received call-to-arms, but his journalist’s approach did not produce history as our profession understands it. Nevertheless, many capable journalists recently have turned their attention to the ocean’s plight, addressing it, at least partially, in light of history. See Woodard, Ocean’s End; John McPhee, The Founding Fish (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2002); Carl Safina, Eye of the Albatross: Visions of Hope and Survival (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2002); Richard Ellis, The Empty Ocean: Plundering the World’s Marine Life (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2003); Trevor Corson, The Secret Life of Lobsters: How Fishermen and Scientists are Unraveling the Mysteries of our Favorite Crustacean (New York: HarperCollins, 2004); David Helvarg, Blue Frontier: Saving America’s Living Seas (New York: Henry Holt and Company, 2001); David Dobbs, The Great Gulf: Fishermen, Scientists, and the Struggle to Revive the World’s Greatest Fishery (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2000); Paul Molyneaux, The Doryman’s Reflection: A Fisherman’s Life (New York: Thunder’s Mouth Press, 2005).

38. For HMAP, http://www.hmapcoml.org/; for Census of Marine Life, http://www.coml.org/coml.htm.

39. Holm, Smith, and Starkey, eds., The Exploited Seas; Rosenberg, et al., “The History of Ocean Resources;” Bolster and Alexander, “Abundance of Cod on the Nova Scotian Shelf;” Leavenworth, “Opening Pandora’s Box”; Randall R. Reeves, Matthew G. McKenzie, and Tim D. Smith, “History of Bermuda Shore Whaling, Mainly for Humpback Whales,” International Journal of Cetacean Research and Management (forthcoming); Tim D. Smith and Randall R. Reeves, “Estimating American 19th Century Catches of Humpback Whales in the West Indies and Cape Verde Islands,” Caribbean Journal of Science 39 (2003): 286–97; Randall R. Reeves, et al., “Humpback and Fin Whaling in the Gulf of Maine from 1800–1918,” Marine Fisheries Review 64 (2002): 1–12; Heike Lotze and K. Reise, “Editorial: Ecological History of the Wadden Sea,” Helgoland Marine Research 59 (2005): 1; Heike Lotze, “Radical Changes in the Wadden Sea Fauna and Flora over the Last 2000 Years,” Helgoland Marine Research 59 (2005):71–83; Heike Lotze, et al., “Human Transformations of the Wadden Sea Ecosystem Through Time: A Synthesis,” Helgoland Marine Research 59 (2005): 84–95; Bo Poulsen, “Historical Exploitation of North Sea Herring Stocks—An Environmental History of the Dutch Herring Fisheries, c. 1600–1860” (PhD diss., University of Southern Denmark, Esbjerg, 2005); René Taudal Poulsen, “An Environmental History of North Sea Ling and Cod Fisheries, 1840–1914” (PhD diss., University of Southern Denmark, Esbjerg, 2005); Katherine Magness, “Development of Fishing Policy in the Gulf of Maine, Late Nineteenth Century” (MS thesis, University of New Hampshire, 2005); Martin Wilcox, “Apprenticed Labour in the English Fishing Industry, 1850–1914” (PhD diss., University of Hull, UK, 2006); Susan Capes, “Overfishing the North Sea? Human Harvesting and Marine Resource Depletion, 1850–1914” (MA thesis, University of Hull, UK, 2003).

40. Poul Holm, “Exploited Seas,” lecture at HMAP Summer Workshop, Esbjerg, Denmark, August, 2001. The other historian on the HMAP Steering Group is David Starkey, University of Hull, UK.

41. David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (London: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

42. Van Sittert, “The Other Seven Tenths.”

43. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 628. See also Georg G. Iggers, Historiography in the Twentieth Century: From Scientific Objectivity to the Post-Modern Challenge (Hanover and London: Wesleyan University Press, published by the University Press of New England, 1997); and Joyce Appleby, Lynn Hunt and Margaret Jacob, Telling The Truth About History (New York: W.W. Norton, 1994).

44. My thinking along these lines has benefited from discussions with Jay Taylor.

45. In the spirit of absolute accuracy it should be noted that Taylor’s book discusses six species of Pacific salmon, all in the genus Oncorhynchus. In common parlance, however, they are often referred to simply as salmon.

46. Taylor, Making Salmon, 241.

47. For the single-species approach, see Charles Hardy III, “Fish or Foul: A History of the Delaware River Basin Through the Perspective of the American Shad, 1682 to the Present,” Pennsylvania History 66 (1999): 506–34; Briton C. Busch, The War Against the Seals: A History of the North American Seal Fishery (McGill-Queens University Press, 1985); and Charles Dana Gibson, The Broadbill Swordfishery of the Northwestern Atlantic: The Fishery’s Economic and Natural History (Early 1800s through 1995) (Camden, Maine: Ensign Press, 1998).

48. American taxonomists group hake with the gadoids, while Europeans separate hake into a different family. From a fisherman’s perspective, hake is closely related to the gadoids, and hake seem to fulfill what Spencer Apollonio calls a “gadoid function” in the ecosystem. Apollonio, Hierarchical Perspectives, 79–83.

49. One of the most successful accounts ever written of a single marine species won a Pulitzer Prize. See William W. Warner, Beautiful Swimmers: Watermen, Crabs, and the Chesapeake Bay (Boston: Little Brown and Company, 1976).

50. Paul Albury, The Story of the Bahamas (London: Macmillan Caribbean, 1975), 158–60, 189–90. As this article was being revised I was pleased to learn that Loren McClenachan, a graduate student at Scripps Institution, is working on the historical ecology of the Key West sponge industry along similar lines.

51. Quotations from Arthur F. McEvoy, “Toward an Interactive Theory of Nature and Culture: Ecology, Production and Cognition in the California Fishing Industry,” in The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History, ed. Donald Worster (New York and Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 211–29, quotations on 229.

52. Recent examples of the regional approach include John R.Wennersten, The Chesapeake: An Environmental Biography (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 2001); Tom Andersen, This Fine Piece of Water: An Environmental History of Long Island Sound (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2002); and Margaret Beattie Bogue, Fishing the Great Lakes: An Environmental History, 1783–1933 (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2000). For marine sanctuaries, see www.sanctuaries.nos.noaa.gov/.

53. Jeremy B. C. Jackson, “Reefs Since Columbus,” Coral Reefs 16 (Suppl, 1997): S23–S32.; Sue Robinson, “The Battle over Bottom Trawling,” National Fisherman (July 1999), 24–25; Watling and Norse, “Disturbance of the Seabed by Mobile Fishing Gear”; Effects of Trawling and Dredging on Seafloor Habitat; Ralph Stanley to William B. Leavenworth, personal e-mail in possession of the author, February 15, 2006.

54. For a classic meditation on the alewives by a respected naturalist, see John Hay, The Run (1959; reprint, Boston: Beacon Press, 1999).

55. On alewives as passenger pigeons of the sea, see William Cronon, Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England (New York: Hill and Wang, 1983), 23; Captain Charles Whitborne, in The True Travels of Captain John Smith (1616), quoted in Henry B. Bigelow and William C. Schroeder, Fishes of the Gulf of Maine (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1953), 102.

56. The best work by historians on east coast anadromous fish is Gary Kulick, “Dams, Fish and Farmers: Defense of Public Rights in Eighteenth-Century Rhode Island,” in The Countryside in the Age of Capitalist Transformation: Essays in the Social History of Rural America, ed. Steven Hahn and Jonathan Prude (Chapel Hill, 1985), 25–50; Harry L. Watson, “‘The Common Rights of Mankind’: Subsistence, Shad and Commerce in the Early Republican South,” Journal of American History 83 (June 1996): 13–43; Daniel Vickers, “Those Damned Shad: Would the River Fisheries of New England Have Survived in the Absence of Industrialization?” William and Mary Quarterly 3rd. ser. LXI (October 2004): 685–712. Of these, Vickers is the most ecologically sensitive.

57. Douglass, A Summary, Historical and Political, of the First Planting, Progressive Improvements, and Present State of the British Settlements in North America, 2: 212; Petitions to the Governor, Council and Legislature, NH Division of Archives, Concord, N.H., (indexed under “alewives”), quotation February 5, 1776; D. Humphreys Storer, M.D., “A Report on the Fisheries of Massachusetts,” Boston Journal of Natural History 2 (1839): 289–558.

58. Quotations from Ellis, Empty Ocean, 25–28. See also Bonnie J. McCay, “A Footnote to the History of New Jersey Fisheries: Menhaden as Food and Fertilizer,” New Jersey History 98 (1980): 212–20; Nathan Adams, “Closing Destiny: The Menhaden Fishery of the 19th and Early 20th Century,” unpublished paper in possession of the author. I thank Mr. Adams, a student at University of Connecticut, Avery Point, for allowing me to read his paper.

59. Adams, “Closing Destiny”; Judd, Common Lands, Common People, 245.

60. Barbara J. Garrity-Blake, The Fish Factory: Work and Meaning for Black and White Fishermen of the American Menhaden Industry (Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1994).

61. Relying heavily on published statistics while not examining fishermen’s daily logs led Wayne M. O’Leary to overlook the significance of substantial small boat fisheries in the Penobscot, Frenchmen’s Bay, and Machias Customs Districts during the 1850s and 1860s. See Wayne M. O’Leary, Maine Sea Fisheries: The Rise and Fall of a Native Industry, 1830–1890 (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1996); and Bolster and Alexander, “The Abundance of Cod on the Nova Scotian Shelf.” For historical investigation leading to previously unknown fishery statistics, see Rosenberg, et al., “The History of Ocean Resources.”

62. Petition of the inhabitants of Southport, Boothbay, and vicinity, January, 1852, Maine State Archives, Legislative Laws, 1852, box 265, folder 125; Petition of the inhabitants of Surry, March 1854, Maine State Archives, Legislative graveyard, 1855, box 241, folder 9; Poulsen, “An Environmental History of North Sea Ling and Cod Fisheries, 1840–1914.”

63. Rivinus and Youssef, Spencer Baird of the Smithsonian, 168–69; G. Brown Goode, “The Beginnings of Natural History in America,” Proceedings of the Biological Society of Washington 3 (Washington, D.C.: 1886): 35–105; http://www.mnh.si.edu/vert/fishes/baird/goode.html.

64. Daniel Pauly and Jay Maclean, In a Perfect Ocean: The State of Fisheries and Ecosystems in the North Atlantic Ocean (Washington, D.C.: Island Press, 2003).

65. George Gordon Byron, “Apostrophe to the Ocean,” in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (London: 1818), quoted by Carlton, “Apostrophe to the Ocean.”