UNH professor gains acclaim for book on fishing's history and the ocean's future

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

DURHAM -- W. Jeffrey Bolster grew up with an affinity for the sea. He has spent his life fishing, sailing and observing firsthand the changes taking place in the North Atlantic. So it is no wonder that Bolster's professional life has followed this passion.
"The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail" by W. Jeffrey Bolster, (2012, Belknap Press, $29.95 hardcover). 

He has been teaching early American history at the University of New Hampshire for 23 years, and during that time he has contributed to five books looking at various aspects of maritime history, including two that he solely researched and wrote.

Both of those books, including his most recent, "The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail," have earned international acclaim.

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 spent about 10 years researching and writing the real-life parable, largely a sad story of a cornerstone American industry that has been in peril for more than 150 years, since long before the advent of factory trawlers.

It is a story about the long impact of humans on their environment and the dire consequences attributable to the idea that the sea and its abundance are immortal and everlasting.

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.

"There has never been a time in my life I didn't have a boat or messed around in boats," he said.

Historical perspective

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.

Because the commercial fishing industry is the oldest ongoing business enterprise in the nation, Bolster could look at the effect that industry has had on the ecosystem over a very long period. He started with the Vikings and concluded in 2010.

Most of the book focuses on the early 1500s to the early 1900s, when the waters of the North Atlantic from Cape Cod to Newfoundland were the focus of intense commercial fishing.

"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.

As early as the Civil War, fishermen in the Northeast and Canada were reporting that fisheries were in trouble. Between the 1850s and 1870s awareness of the problem built, and states started forming fish commissions.

Over the first 75 years, it was fishermen who said something needed to be done and scientists saying there was no problem that should curtail commercial fishing. That changed in the late 1920s and 1930s, after giant factory trawlers came on the scene despite massive opposition, Bolster discovered in researching previously unpublished transcripts of congressional hearings on the issue.

"Everybody knew all these fisheries were in deep, serious trouble, and yet new technologies that can catch more fish can mask the mess," 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.

Without historical perspective, he said, there can be no understanding of the magnitude of restoration needs.

"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."

On campus

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.

With "The Mortal Sea," Gould said, Bolster has taken on the question of how history can be used to shed new light on environmental and ecological change.

"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.

Bolster also has shown that historians have a lot say about a field that is often thought of as the preserve of scientists, Gould said, calling Bolster a "fabulous writer" who has found an audience beyond academics.

He said faculty members take enormous pride in what Bolster has accomplished with his latest book and noted that prospective students get excited about the idea of working with faculty who are accomplished and recognized.

"It's wonderful ... validation that what we do is important and that people are paying attention," Gould said of Bolster's acclaim. "It also raises the department's profile."

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.

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