Sharing the Ocean

FISHERMEN ONCE HELD a prominent place in the economy and culture of coastal communities throughout New England. But their centuries-old industry crumbled within decades of the passage of the Fisheries Conservation and Management Act — a law meant to conserve fishery resources and rebuild stocks of cod, haddock, flounder, and other groundfish. The act expelled foreign fishing fleets from waters between three and two hundred miles off the U.S. coast, and subsidized U.S. fishing fleets. Fishing became big business, and the ensuing years introduced a shift from single-owner boats to outside investors and a move toward privatization of what has long been considered a public resource. With increased landings, the groundfish stocks collapsed again. Repeated attempts to amend the law have had some success in rebuilding offshore fisheries, but inshore stocks have been slower to recover, particularly in eastern Maine.

Today, small-scale fishing communities are struggling to maintain some hold on their past and re-create a sustainable future. Many of these coastal communities now offer a pretty scene with boats tied in the harbor — relics of our fishing past — rather than the bustling fishing ports that once supported the local economy. Like inland communities, they must rely on a few large fishing fleets from far away to provide what was once a locally caught staple.

Sharing the Ocean provides insight into how fisheries management policies have repeatedly contributed to the collapse of this biologically diverse system and diminished the ability of fishing communities to maintain a heritage that is central to the New England coast. Michael Crocker writes from the perspective of a science journalist, but he also possesses an insider’s view of the crisis as a result of working for the Northwest Atlantic Marine Alliance for five years. His book offers a frank assessment of the complex relationships that exist between the New England Management Council, inshore and offshore groundfish fleets, and environmental groups that are trying to restore the ecological integrity of the Gulf of Maine. Smallboat interests — which often are family-owned businesses passed down for generations — are underrepresented in these stakeholders’ policymaking discussions.

While awkwardly pieced together at times, the book is a strong attempt to define the precarious situation faced by fishing communities from Maine to Rhode Island. The twenty-nine portraits and narratives in the final chapter offer the personal perspectives of some of the fishermen, scientists, environmentalists, and others embroiled in the fisheries management crisis, and highlight the emotional and economic cost of management strategies that end up harming the very people the policymaking process is meant to support.