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Sea captains' logbooks reveal secrets of New England's fishing culture

Researcher Bill Leavenworth collects logs from the mid-1800s, which offer clues about yesterday's – and today's – cod stocks.

By Colin WoodardCorrespondent of The Christian Science Monitor / February 1, 2008

Courtesy of National Archives, Waltham, Massachusetts

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Durham, N.H.

In the hamlets and modest seaports that dot the coastal counties of New England, Bill Leavenworth trolls for the lost bounty of the Gulf of Maine. His prey: the bound, handwritten logs kept by the captains of virtually every fishing boat that plied those rich waters between 1852 and 1866.

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The logs were once held in the region's customs houses, but over time were scattered to the four winds. Some landed in basements and attics, some were donated to local libraries and museums, and others returned to fishermen. On Nantucket Island, a number were stuffed between the walls of a public building as insulation against the winter cold, and were only recently found during a renovation. Others were undoubtledly used to start the fires of fish-house stoves or simply thrown away.

In the yellowing pages of these surviving logbooks lie the secrets of the ocean fisheries' past – and perhaps lessons for its troubled present. The books contain daily entries on the vessels' movements, the weather, unusual occurrences, and careful tallies of the number of fish caught by each man aboard. The numbers and words have yielded some bracing revelations about just how many cod there once were in New England and the Canadian Maritimes.

And so, Mr. Leavenworth, a University of New Hampshire (UNH) researcher often finds himself standing behind a lectern at churches, high schools, or libraries, describing his team's work to commercial fishermen, gentleman farmers, retirees, and small-business owners who populate the coast. "My last car had 232,000 miles on it," says Leavenworth, whose own ancestor fished off New Hampshire in the 1660s.

Every trip will end, he hopes, with the winning of one more piece – one more logbook – in a historical puzzle.

***

Three years ago, Leavenworth was giving a talk to members of the Old Berwick Historical Society in southern Maine, just up the Salmon Falls River from Portsmouth, the once-bustling seaport where New Hampshire got its start.

The presentation ended and an audience member – the Historical Society's president – came forward. "Hey, I think we've got some of those [logbooks] in our collections," she told him.

Two weeks later, Leavenworth was back in Berwick, carefully photographing the logs of the schooner William Penn and eight other vessels that once plied the Gulf of Maine from nearby Kennebunkport, their successes and failures scratched out in ink on stout linen paper.

At other talks, fishermen have come back to Leavenworth with their third great-great-great-grandfather's logs, occasionally bearing water stains from a Civil War era storm. Volunteer staff at historical societies in tiny Maine ports have helped him hook others hidden in storage rooms.

The Gulf of Maine Cod Project – which Leavenworth's work contributes to – is one of many efforts around the world that bring maritime historians and fishery scientists together to reconstruct the past and to answer the question: What was marine life like before the 20th century?

Danish researchers have been looking at monastery records, which tabulated tithes from fishing activities, while a British team is trying to reconstruct medieval cod and herring fisheries through discarded fish bones.

New Englanders' logbooks are believed to be especially accurate, because fishermen had no incentive to over- or underreport their catches. Individual fishermen were paid according to the number of fish they caught, while at the dock, the captain was paid by the weight of the catch. Combined with log entries showing where the boats fished, this data allowed researchers to calculate the distribution of fish stocks and the average size of the fish caught.

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