In September of 2008 the Canadian Coast Guard seized an American fishing vessel on the Grand Banks after aircraft on patrol spotted it fishing within the 200 mile limit of Canadian territorial seas. The rich history of international confrontation on these fishing grounds, among the most nutrient-rich and commercially productive tracts of marine real estate known to human history, and the lengthy process of articulating territorial limits between nations for the purposes of stewarding the resource and regulating its extraction would have made this episode interesting enough. However, this case would prove even more compelling because the vessel seized was the F/V Sea Hawk and the captain was best-selling author Linda Greenlaw, who was, at the time, also starring in the first season of the Discovery Channel’s reality series, Swords: Life on the Line. Despite her literary successes Greenlaw is probably most famous for having been depicted in the film version of Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio.
Rather than seize (so to speak) a golden opportunity to present the “reality” of the modern international fishery, both the Discovery Channel and Greenlaw, who authored a book about the same voyage, opted instead to regale their audiences with familiar, even somewhat tired, stories of man battling the elements, facing down the specter of bankruptcy, and overcoming personal demons like self-doubt, age, and inexperience. In fact, Original Productions, which also produced the successful series The Deadliest Catch, edited out the entire episode of Greenlaw’s seizure, arrest, and arraignment and any mention of it that may have come later. Greenlaw told interviewers that the incident could not be shown for legal reasons, but that she would deal with it in her book. Granted, it’s more of a book about her than about fishing, but her treatment of the seizure incident, in Seaworthy, is primarily restricted to her effort to reconcile her transgression of international law with her “goody goody” self image. There is no discussion of why such laws exist or the politics of enforcing them. Oddly, Greenlaw doesn’t mention anywhere in the chronicle of her voyage that there was even a camera crew on board. So the cameras won’t show us the seizure and Greenlaw won’t show us the cameras!
While no one seems interested in contextualizing it, Greenlaw’s seizure is only the latest in a nearly two century long tug-of-war over resource management in the North Atlantic fisheries. My research looks at the efforts on the part of the fishermen, scientists, politicians, and diplomats to manage fisheries in the U.S. and Canada in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The vessel seizure, it turns out, has been a brilliant lens through which to do so. As Karl Jacoby finds in the Adirondacks, law making and law breaking can tell us a great deal about the relationships between humans and nature because such episodes create collisions between the “inarticulate” classes of resource users and the hyper-literate classes of lawyers, judges, politicians, and diplomats. Fishermen’s transgressions were occasioned by depositions and testimony in which they describe the nature of the fishery and their place in it to those who would arbitrate questions of law. And within management regimes, wardens, officers, and overseers communicated their movements and activities to their superiors along with their observations and opinions on the efficacy of the existing structure of institutions and practices. Correspondence between regulatory bureaucracies in adjacent jurisdictions illuminate the struggles of regulating access to species that migrate freely across jurisdictional boundaries—particularly complicated when such jurisdictions are also divided by international borders. While the modern press labeled Greenlaw everything from a poacher to an environmental terrorist to a swordfish serial killer, you can but imagine the rhetoric of the notably vitriolic press of the late nineteenth century on the occasion of similar incidents.
Environmental history is just beginning its movement offshore. Just as the stories our popular culture feeds us about the fishery tend toward the simplistic and sensational, much of the early work on the oceans has come out of the same tradition of quantification that has guided our management approaches in recent decades. While valuable, this inevitable, and somewhat predictable, tale of depletion and decline from unimaginable abundance to dire scarcity reinforces a fallacy that resource management is, at best, a twentieth century creation. The story I tell not only places earlier management regimes under the microscope, exposing them to the kind of scrutiny that will enable us to refine and perfect them, it provides some context for the statistical portrayals. Catch statistics are as much social as they are biological. They are created, compiled, reported, archived, and referenced by people with varying sets of motivations and objectives. Catch is not a reflection of how many fish existed in a given place at a given time. Even in the nineteenth century complex webs of laws were debated, passed, enforced, and broken that dictated where fishermen could be, when they could be there, what they could take, and what they could use to take it. The tales of decline are not wrong. But to tell them with the context edited out is irresponsible. My work looks to bring us closer to understanding the reality of past marine ecosystems and their users.
Robert Gee is a PhD candidate at the University of Maine. He is also a 2011-2012 Fulbright Scholar at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia.