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January 6, 2010

The Last Fish Tale

Mark Kurlansky - ISBN - 978-1594483745

Another good book by this writer, though not as good as Salt, or 1968. Attracted to Gloucester, MA when researching his treatise Cod, he now returns to investigate the culture of one of the oldest and most important fishing villages in America. He explores an occupation--fishing--which is vanishing, and a culture trying to adapt. He revisits the old Chinese proverb, and changes it: "If you give a man a fish, you feed him. If you teach a man to fish, he will starve." Sadly this is true, and he exposes the entire drama and course which has resulted in the demise of ocean fish, and fishing as a career choice. Ironically . . . or not . . . he insists that the fishermen have seen this coming but were unable to approach it because governments and politicians have been too busy trying to make it a political problem rather than an environmental one. Surprised? He drolly observes that fishery regulation is a growth industry while fishing is not.

He initiates the discussion by explaining how and why fishing in the New World arose, and how Gloucester was selected early as a port, with its proximity to three of the richest fishing grounds in the world. He explains the "banks" (Grand, George's, Stellwagen, etc.) As well he explores why fishermen prefer their way of life, why they take pride in it, and how very dangerous it is; far less so than in the era of sail, but still dangerous. Recall The Perfect Storm--the Clooney movie--and you will understand.

A dissertation on fishing methods and improvements follows, and terminates in the development of factory fishing which in large measure devastated commercial fishing. There follows a review of Birdseye, fishing gear and other interesting facets of development over the nearly 400 year history of Gloucester, and he delves into the crazy quota system, by-catches, and other "political solutions" to difficult problems.

There are loving descriptions of the landscape, the waters, the people and their culture, including the art colonies, along with the fishermen and their support industries.

In my opinion Kurlansky moves far into radical Liberal mode as he insists there is "a massive shifting in the natural order of the planet" with biological and social changes. Species are disappearing, land mammals are vanishing, etc. It has always been thus. To be sure the Indian tiger was hunted out of existence, along with a variety of other species, and man's invasion of living space has resulted in habitat change, but it seems indiscriminate to me to avoid all reason in protecting owls, tiny fish and creepy-crawleys simply because it's "nice." But he often segues into these arguments. Usually, I'd add, with no solutions suggested, just the observation/complaint/threat.

Replacement of some fishing harbors by recreational yachts and vacation colonies is just the way it is. The locals may be displaced, and they don't like it, but the world is becoming more crowded and more affluent, and it is not possible to fully alter its course. As it is in my dotage, "you can't go back."

He does have a point, however, when he discusses the appeal of seal colonies, which are attractive to tourists, while the seals eat a lot of fish, and their parasitic worms are hazardous to others. As well, they attract sharks, the predator responsible for control of the seal population, to the bathing beaches, making them unsafe.

But he closes with a warning that the destruction of ocean life is "terrifying," and as life disappears it becomes "increasingly difficult for the planet to sustain any life." On this score I believe he is vastly overstating reality, as I fear that he and his ilk actually believe it.

Posted by Curmudgeon at January 6, 2010 1:21 PM