Short Features

Trolling for History and Science
Old log books and maps are yielding surprising conclusions about fishing in the 1800s

Bill Leavenworth '90G, '99G, Matthew McKenzie '98G, '03G, Dean Andrew Rosenberg and Karen Alexander '92G, left to right, look over a copy of a 19th-century Maine vessel's fishing log in the Portsmouth Athenaeum.

Fishing is a kind of directed randomness. You never know what you might catch, but you usually have some idea of what you're trying to land.

It is with that same directed randomness that a team of UNH researchers has spent the last year trolling for information about the fishing industry itself. While they didn't know exactly what sources were available when they cast their nets, they had some idea of what they wanted: documents from the 18th and 19th centuries that would give them a look at the affect of humans on the ecology of underwater species.

What the researchers in the History of Marine Animal Populations (HMAP) project have found has actually crossed over the line of historical research into the intersection of history and the science of marine evolution.

Their primary source documents, a previously unexplored treasure trove of captain's logs and customs documents regulating the codfish industry, have enabled the group to illustrate the connections between fishing methods and the depletion of fish populations in the Gulf of Maine. This information will expand scientists' understanding of the effects of fishing on marine populations far beyond the 20th century, the era of most existing research.

"We hope our work is going to be able to establish baselines for certain fishing grounds in the 1850s, at a time when most people had considered the commercial fisheries not technologically sophisticated enough or not aggressive enough to really affect fishing populations," says Karen Alexander '92G, a graduate student who coordinates the project. "One of the things we're finding is that these guys fished really hard and they were affecting fishing populations at the time."

That sort of determination is the key to the success of the HMAP project, which is headed by Andrew Rosenberg, dean of the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture. Rosenberg is a former administrator with the National Marine Fisheries Service and a veteran of courtroom battles over modern-day catch limits. The information HMAP provides about what cod and other marine animal populations looked like 200 years ago will assist industry representatives, politicians and others who are discussing what the population should look like now, he says.

The ongoing—and at times contentious—debates over catch limits won't be settled just by finding out how fish populations have changed from the 1850s, Rosenberg says. But fishermen who need to pull their bounty from the water to survive and those who have argued for catch limits as a way to allow the marine populations to recharge themselves might be able to use the information to reframe what has become a litigious impasse.

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