UNH professor gains acclaim for book on fishing's history and the ocean's future
By GRETYL MACALASTER
Sunday News Correspondent | November 23. 2013 2:18AM
University of New Hampshire history professor W. Jeffrey Bolster, photographed here overlooking the Portsmouth Commercial Fishing Pier, spent 10 years researching his most recent book, "The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail." GRETYL MACALASTER
"The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail" by W. Jeffrey Bolster, (2012, Belknap Press, $29.95 hardcover).
This year, Bolster has received the American Historical Association's Albert J. Beveridge Prize and the James Rawley Prize in Atlantic History for his work on "The Mortal Sea." In addition, Columbia University named him one of two recipients of the 2013 Bancroft Prize, considered one of the most distinguished academic awards in the field of history.
Bolster, who grew up in coastal Norwalk, Conn., said he's always been attracted to the sea and to boats. He took up fishing as a child, worked at a local boat yard as a young man, captained a yacht in Maine in college, and later worked on ocean research vessels and sailing-school ships.
In "The Mortal Sea," Bolster bridges his passion for the North Atlantic coast with his passion for history and his understanding of the importance of historical context in modern-day management decisions.
"If I was able to document human-induced changes in the sea, wouldn't that possibly get people's attention? It wasn't just ... steel ships, pinpoint navigation and sophisticated fish finders ... It turns out guys in rowboats with handlines could make an impact," Bolster said.
Bolster said applying historical perspective to fisheries management is a relatively recent and overdue methodology. His research shows the effects the industry has had on the ecosystem dating back to its earliest days.
"The history of destructive overharvesting is very long," he said.
Only fairly recently, Bolster said, have historians viewed the environment as more than a backdrop and scientists paid greater attention to change over time, the two groups "recognizing humans and natural systems are really connected and we need to appreciate change through time to really understand either one of those."
UNH History Department chairman Eliga Gould has known Bolster since the two were in graduate school together at Johns Hopkins University in Maryland and joined the UNH faculty a year after Bolster. Gould, who focuses his research and writing on the period of the American Revolution. He said his friend and colleague is a pioneer in two fields, noting that Bolster's first book, "Black Jacks: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail" is still considered the standard work in that field more than 15 years after it was written.
"He's not the only one who has done this, but I think he has written a book that is likely to be the standard again for many years to come," he said.
For his part, Bolster said he set out to write a book that would be respected in his field and would also have a larger impact but didn't envision the kind of recognition it has received. He said he is humbled by it, many accolades and awards later.