Lush marine ecosystems and a vibrant fishery were hallmarks of historic New England. They are probably achievable again, but not in our lifetimes. Depletion took centuries, not the 36 years that those bumper stickers suggest; recovery will not occur overnight.
Today, we face a long, protracted period of rebuilding coastal marine ecosystems. The good news is that rebuilding has been working, slowly but surely: Most insiders agree that fish stocks hit their lowest point in 1992. Despite simmering antagonism between fishermen and scientists, collaborations about gear, policies, and essential fish habitat have become more common than anyone 20 years ago would have imagined.
But beyond the sound bites, a genuinely historical perspective on changes in the sea reveals that it’s impossible to fix blame for the problems on one side, or even to separate the sides clearly at all. Years ago, it was government collaborating with fishermen that kept the fisheries alive, even booming—and that also, over many decades, created the tools to wipe out stocks of commercially valuable fish. What remains to be seen is whether such collaboration can now be equally effective in restoring them.
W. Jeffrey Bolster, a history professor at the University of New Hampshire, is author of “The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail.”