History of Commercial
Fishing and Whaling
NMFS Northeast Fisheries Science Center
N E W SWoods Hole, Mass. -- Dr. Tim D. Smith, a fishery scientist with NOAA Fisheries, Northeast Fisheries Science Center, will lead a new international effort to recover the history of commercial fishing and whaling.
The project, titled the "History of Marine Animal Populations" (HMAP) has just been funded through a two year $1.2 million grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, a New York-based private, philanthropic organization.
HMAP consists of seven case studies, and includes the establishment of HMAP Research Centers at three universities. It is intended to improve knowledge about the stock sizes and distribution of marine fish and whale populations before the industrial era by locating and analyzing historical records that might provide such a picture. To do this, an interdisciplinary team has been assembled, including historians, ecologists, and scientists specializing in understanding marine fish population dynamics. The work is also part of a larger global research program, the Census of Marine Life.
"Enhancing stock assessments with reliable historical data would allow better management advice, especially in areas like the Gulf of Maine where major changes in fisheries species composition have occurred historically," notes Smith. Six of the seven case studies will look at exploited fish populations in places with well-established commercial fisheries, including those of the Northwest Atlantic.
Dr. Andrew Rosenberg at the University of New Hampshire, Durham NH, will lead a project focused on the Gulf of Maine. Rosenberg, the Dean of Life Sciences and Agriculture at UNH, noted "there have been major ecological and fishery shifts in this region. HMAP is an exciting opportunity for us to bring our strengths in maritime history and marine ecology to understanding these important changes and their implications for New England and to other regions of the world."
"For example, in the Gulf of Maine region," Smith noted, "a major fishery for the now infrequently-caught Atlantic halibut collapsed in the late 19th Century. By not including such historical information, stock assessments frequently suffer from the shifting baseline syndrome, in which, as ecologist Jeremy Jackson noted, ‘everyone, scientists included, believed that the way things were when they first saw them is natural.' "
"The history of whaling also has strong local as well as international interest," Smith noted. "However, whales will be looked at a little differently, since these populations use the entire ocean basin, have a very different natural history from fishes. Although we will initially concentrate on the catches of gray, humpback and right whales before the 20th Century, we intend to eventually expand our coverage to include all whaling. We will also work with the International Whaling Commission (Cambridge, England) to obtain records for 20th century whaling operations."
The Sloan grant for this historical study was awarded to the international consortium of academic and government institutions that initiated it. The principal investigators based at the University of New Hampshire, NOAA Fisheries (a federal agency), the University of Washington, Southern Denmark University, and the University of Hull in England will coordinate the seven case studies that comprise the initiative. These case studies will eventually involve 31 institutions in 18 countries.
The idea of reconstructing the history of marine populations was developed by Dr. Poul Holm, Southern Denmark University, and Smith, and was fostered through a workshop in February 2000 in Esbjerg, Denmark. There, an international gathering of environmental historians, fisheries biologists, and marine ecologists discussed their mutual interests. After determining where the best data existed in which to base the project, the study proposal was initiated.
The seven case studies that will be pursued include:
Northwest Atlantic (Gulf of Maine, Newfoundland-Grand Banks, Greenland cod fisheries)
Southwest Pacific (Southeast Australian Shelf and Slope fisheries, New Zealand Shelf fisheries)
White and Barents Seas (Russian and Norwegian herring, salmon and cod fisheries)
Norwegian, North and Baltic Seas (Multinational cod, herring and plaice fisheries)
Southwest African Shelf (Clupeid fisheries in a continental boundary current system)
World Wide Whaling (Historical and 20th Century whaling in all oceans)
California Current (Clupeid fisheries in a continental boundary current system)