Pulpit Harbor, as the “Cruising Guide to the New England Coast” puts it, “is the goal of many a cruising man,” for when he has furled his mainsail and “contemplates the granite shores, the skyline spiked with spruce, the sunset behind Pulpit Rock and the Camden Hills, he can say truly he has arrived.”
In the late 19th century, about half a century before that book was published, Pulpit was not a place for the cruising man. As W. Jeffrey Bolster puts it in “The Mortal Sea,” it was one of the harbors along the Maine coast taken over by the mackerel fisheries — until they collapsed after just a few years.
The culprit was overfishing, writes Bolster, a University of New Hampshire historian, in his well-documented and fascinating chronicle of New England’s interdependence with the sea from the 16th century to the World War I era. In “The Mortal Sea,’’ Bolster skillfully weaves material from historical documents and newspaper and scientific reports with tales of fishermen to demonstrate how the activities of individuals have affected the northwest Atlantic, for better and worse.
The sea, he writes, is “a variable environment that does not provide endlessly or produce eternally.”
Long before the arrival of various agents of 19th- and 20th-century overfishing, the gray whale was extinct from New England waters by 1675, and the sturgeon rarely found in the Merrimack River — which had been known as “Sturgeon River” — by the late 1700s.
Then there were the menhaden, a lowly baitfish, whose fate provides Bolster with a bracing good yarn.
About 1850, he writes, Mrs. John Bartlett, an “elderly lady” from Blue Hill, Maine, traveled to Boston with a sample of oil she had skimmed from the kettle in which she boiled the menhaden, also known as pogies, to feed her hens. Fish oil was a valuable commodity and a merchant agreed to buy all she could produce. Her husband and son began gill-netting in earnest and the following summer produced some 100 barrels. “By the standards of Blue Hill Bay,” Bolster writes, “earnings were substantial,” and Mrs. Bartlett’s neighbors joined in.
As Mrs. Bartlett’s cottage industry became a commercial enterprise, other fishermen became alarmed that the harvesting of menhaden threatened stocks of cod, haddock, and mackerel that fed on them. Sure enough, by 1879, menhaden landings from the Gulf of Maine dropped from more than a million pounds in one year to barely 20,000 pounds the next. The fish had moved offshore and as Bolster notes, “a coastal fishery’s move offshore is often the first indication of a stock depletion and overfishing. “
That story, without the human touch of Mrs. Bartlett and her neighbors, would be repeated and enlarged upon as new techniques for overfishing arrived. Among them, tub trawls, so called because long lines threaded with hundreds of hooks were carried in tubs and deployed from dories. Factory ships first appeared, from France, in 1858, and are still working the coast. Revolutionary “otter trawls” that allowed nets to be efficiently spread wide appeared by 1905, scooping up fish too small for market, resulting in waste of some 55 percent.
The collapse of the mackerel fishery in the 1880s, however, prompted the first effort at regulation, a federal law that prohibited taking mackerel during the spring spawning season.
More comprehensive regulation came in the 1970s after fleets of factory ships from the Soviet Union and other nations began appearing off New England. The United States and Canada responded with establishment of a 200-mile foreign exclusion zone. Despite continuing attempts to weaken the oversight of fisheries, Bolster argues that strict regulation remains the only hope for redemption of what has become “a mortal sea.”
Michael Kenney, a former Globe reporter, is a Cambridge-based freelance writer who has written extensively about Massachusetts history. He can be reached at email@example.com.