Sunday, March 13, 2005


Maritime historian: Nova Scotia fish stocks down 96% since 1850; 'may be irreversible'


Shore Publishing
By Danielle Sherry
March 11, 2005

The fish stocks on the Nova Scotia Shelf have dropped off by more than 96 percent since 1850, and the decline may be irreversible, a prominent maritime historian warned last week.

Dr. Jeffery Bolster, associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, delivered this unsettling news during a Coastal Perspectives lecture on the Avery Point campus of the University of Connecticut that coincided with the publication of a study in the new edition of "Frontiers in Ecology," a scientific journal.

"The timing really was impeccable," said Ellen Anderson, director of recruitment and retention for the university's Coastal and Maritime Studies programs. "The next morning the results of the study were all over the U.S. and world news."

The research on the study was the first of its kind. Scientists, historians, ecologists, and mathematicians all joined forces to calculate the first-ever historical estimate of cod levels. The group used old schooner logbooks and catch records, in coordination with a new mathematical formula to reach their results.

Bolster said he hopes that this study will be a useful baseline for environmental policymakers in the future. "I'd like people to start thinking historically. Most of us don't have enough time to think much past our own lifetimes, let alone a time frame of over 150 years. Our study has put a number on what used to be just a concept, and hopefully that will have a dramatic effect on the ecology policies that are made from here on out," he said.

In the lecture hall the audience was a diverse mixture of academics, students, fishermen, and environmentally conscious people. Bolster, author of the 1999 novel "Black Jack: African American Seamen in the Age of Sail," was quick to say that he was not suggesting the closure of all fisheries, in Nova Scotia or otherwise, for the next 150 years.

"We have a great history in this country of closing the barn door after the horse has already run away. I'm suggesting that if we continue to follow the management policies in place now, then the fisheries will eventually be gone. We need to better legislate policies in order to preserve the fish for future generations," said Bolster.

Bolster blames market pressure for much of the historical mismanagement in the ecosystem. In his lecture he also warned of the tendencies to close an area of the fisheries for a brief time and then as soon as there is the slightest increase in the population, open them back up again. While he cautioned against saying that what has happened off Novia Scotia could happen here, Bolster nevertheless implied the situation has local implications.

"Locally we have a unique connection to the ocean because New Englanders are almost all descendants of fishermen, therefore the subject of legislation can be a tricky one," said Bolster. As part of the slide show that accompanied the lecture, Bolster had cut out recent headlines regarding the debate over fishing policies. One such headline from the Boston Globe read, "Scientists, Fishermen in Standoff." This seemed to put the audience at ease, realizing that Bolster was not narrow-minded when it came to fishing legislation.

"The tendency in the past has been to vilify fishermen," said Bolster. "Instead we need to have a respect for people who know nature through their work." As the audience filed out of the room at the conclusion of the talk, many were nodding their heads in agreement.

"I have a strong ecological interest because this area has been my home for so long. I also believe firmly in historical and ecological integration, so I enjoyed the lecture immensely," said Marty Young, a resident of Mystic. Others in the audience felt similarly, but were more concerned with the legislative questions that Bolster brought out.

"The most important decision that we are going to make in regards to legislation is figuring out how to let the fishermen fish, but still somehow control the resource of the ocean," said Matt Burnside, a senior in the Maritime Studies Program at Avery Point and also a resident of Mystic.

Up next for the Coastal Perspectives lecture series on March 29 is a talk titled "Fitting Together the Pieces of the 1999 Lobster Mortality Puzzle," given by Nancy Balcom of the Connecticut Sea Grant Program.

"This should be an interesting subject because all of our area towns, especially Stonington, have been adversely affected by the disappearance of the lobster population," said Anderson.

For more information on the Coastal Perspectives lecture series call (860) 405-9026 or e-mail


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