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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.

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Such reconstructions of past populations can be enormously important today for fisheries managers, which is what led Andrew Rosenberg to help create the UNH project. A former deputy director of the National Marine Fisheries Service and a member of the US Commission on Ocean Policy, Mr. Rosenberg had a front row-seat during the collapse of many of New England's commercial fish populations during the 1980s and 1990s.

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"An awful lot of my work ... was focused on rebuilding fisheries, and we were stuck in this box where rebuilding targets were based on the levels of the 1980s, because there was more then than there is now," recalls Mr. Rosenberg, who is now at UNH. "But we know that overfishing has occurred for a much longer period of time, and that even in the 1980s, the stock was producing nowhere near what it could."

Leavenworth's haul of logbooks shows just how far back you have to go to understand the current fishery crisis – and the true extent of the ecological damage.

In 1855, just 43 schooners out of Beverly, Mass., were catching considerably more cod in the waters south of Nova Scotia in a season than their modern counterparts can catch today. Crews fishing over the side with baited hand lines caught 7,800 metric tons of cod – about three times what fishermen caught in that area in 2006. And they did it within sight of land in coastal waters where today cod are virtually nonexistent.

Likewise, in 1861, fishermen from a handful of Maine fishing hamlets using small sailboats and baited hand lines were able to catch more cod than were caught in the entire Gulf of Maine between 1996 and 1999 by the entire US fleet, with their powerful engines, enormous bottom trawling nets, high-tech fish finders, and satellite navigation systems.

"Ask yourself: what were [the cod] eating?" suggests W. Jeffrey Bolster, the UNH maritime historian who is part of the project. "When you think about the copepods and krill, all the way up to the alewives and mackerel that had to be present in the inshore area to feed them, it's flabbergasting. It was a totally different world out there."


If nature's bounty is not timeless, there may be a small consolation in knowing human nature is.

Part of the problem today, says Rosenberg, is in restraining younger fishermen who are too young to remember what fishing was like in the 1960s or 1970s. One of his colleagues was once accosted by a fishermen in his 20s who was angry that bluefin tuna quotas were going to be lowered.

"He was screaming that there were more tuna out there than he'd ever seen in his life," Rosenberg recalled. "My friend listened for a while and said, 'Well, you're not very old.' "

But even in the 1850s, older fishermen were concerned that their sons and grandsons were unaware of the extent to which the fish populations had declined.

"There were petitions from fishermen – we have zillions of them – lamenting what was happening and demanding regulations," says Mr. Bolster. "We have people from each generation saying, basically, these young guys now don't know what fishing was like when it was good."

And even back then, fishermen's warnings about the destructive power of new technology went unheeded. In the 1850s, Swampscott, Mass., hand-line fishermen begged state legislators to outlaw new long lines that used hundreds of hooks rather than one or two. They warned that otherwise cod and haddock would become as "scarce as salmon."

For researchers like Leavenworth, such stories make the hunt for logbooks more than an academic enterprise. Understanding fish population trends is important, but so is telling the vivid tales found in these aging books.

"You just tell these stories to someone and they immediately get the picture," says historian Karen Alexander, who coordinates the project. "They get in their minds what real abundance looks like and what these ecosystems can really do – and then they want that."