Environmental History of the Gulf of Maine (History of Marine Animal Populations)

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Coastal Ecosystem and Public Health


William B. Leavenworth UNH - Department of History Postdoctoral Student/Researcher
Andrew Rosenberg UNH - Department of Natural Resources & the Environment Co-Principal Investigator
W. Jeffrey Bolster UNH - Department of History Principal Investigator

HMAP (History of Marine Animal Populations) is an international research initiative in marine environmental history and historical ecology. Marine scientists and historians are working together to reconstruct partial histories of various large marine ecosystems and smaller regions. Our team at UNH is asking questions about abundance and distribution of cod in the Gulf of Maine in the middle of the nineteenth century.

Luckily, we have an extraordinarily detailed set of fishing records from 1852 to 1866, including about 2500 fishing logs with daily catch records. The way in which the records were kept included no incentives for cheating or falsification of data, and we think they are very accurate. The logs include data on geographic location, depth, fishing effort, changing nature of technologies used, and sometimes even on the size of fish landed. While the logs are difficult and time-consuming to use, they have sufficient data such that we will be able to calculate a baseline population for cod in the Gulf of Maine and on the Scotian Shelf in the 1850s and 1860s.

A development grant would let us assess some of the inshore Gulf of Maine fisheries with the same level of detail that we have already done for the Scotian Shelf. For instance, we have already determined that the American fishery on the Scotian Shelf during the 1850s--a fishery pursued with sails, oars and hooks--made a significant impact on the cod population. Between 1852 and 1859, catch per vessel declined from 27,326 fish/vessel to only 12,626. A DeLury Analysis of data over a 13-year period indicated that fishing pressure was affecting the cod population in a negative way. This ecological shift, in turn, appears to have changed the nature of the fishery, forcing New England vessels to go elsewhere.

So far we have surveyed 507 logs of small inshore vessels fishing out of Frenchmens Bay and analyzed seasonal fish counts. But we have not yet been able to work on daily catch records or even begin to assess the logs kept by Machias vessels. Ultimately, however, we believe that this data can illuminate questions about cod abundance and distribution, and about the sustainability of the fishery in the middle of the 19th century. And some of the Gulf of Maine data is very specific with reference to place. Banks or locales are mentioned by name. Our data may supplement the data on historic cod spawning grounds assembled by Ted Ames and other researchers.