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Lewis Lapham: Fish Haul Collapsed When Profiteers Came

"The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail," by W. Jeffrey Bolster. Source: Belknap Press via Bloomberg

April 27 (Bloomberg) -- In the middle of the 19th century, with the whaling industry in decline, small, bony menhaden leapt into prominence.

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The fish oil could be used to dress leather, mix into paint, light lamps, and soon technological advances, such as purse seines and steam extraction, attracted investors. By 1876, factories in Maine were processing 709,000 barrels of menhaden annually, at 200 fish to the barrel.

Locals protested the destruction of their livelihoods through industrial overfishing by outsiders. The large, well-organized companies countered that there was an inexhaustible supply of menhaden, and exploiting them added to the wealth of the country.

In 1879, the abundant menhaden schools failed to appear in the Gulf of Maine, and only 20,000 pounds were caught, compared to the million pounds of the previous year.

According to W. Jeffrey Bolster, author of “The Mortal Sea: Fishing the Atlantic in the Age of Sail,” we’ve been having the same conversation between ocean harvesters and conservators ever since.

We spoke on the following topics:

1. Bountiful Waters

2. Man’s Early Impact

3. Collapse of Fishing Grounds

4. Small Fish, Big Fish

5. Early Preservation Laws

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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)

To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at lhl@laphamsquarterly.org.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Manuela Hoelterhoff at mhoelterhoff@bloomberg.net.

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