Washington, D.C.: Island Press

This volume traces fisheries policy of the United States over roughly the last century. This remarkable period of fisheries history saw greater gains in landings than any other time, along with devastating declines for many species. For the most part, it is a story of disappointingly poor foresight, the results of which have touched just about all who make their living from the sea, care for the sea, or simply like seafood. It exposes the sometimes agonizingly slow but still essentially dramatic motions of large bureaucratic agencies, reacting to the harvesting problems that they themselves had a hand in producing.

Here in Maine, the results of these policies are present in the papers almost every week, as conservationists and fishermen pull opposite arms of the regulators in the fight to determine policy for the groundfish catch. Maine has seen this keystone industry reduced year after year, and now it remains uncertain if it will survive as a viable part of the economy at all. What is not uncertain, after reading this real-life drama of resource economics, is how and why we ended up in this situation.

Michael Weber uses monkfish as one of his primary examples, as he charts a little-known history from the beginning of the fishery in the late 1970s to overexploitation in the mid-1990s. However, he also caries the story further, into the recently growing collaborations between monkfishermen and federal fisheries scientists, which filled the gaps in knowledge, and efforts by fishing groups to work with regulators to develop regulations that would allow for the survival of both fishermen and fish. However, as a parable of cooperation, this example falls short, as the fishery resisted restrictions, and monkfish remains on the overfished list. Still, he makes the point that the fishermen and the regulators involved in the fishery for the first time had to recognize the limited nature of the resource, and in doing so were in fact taking a revolutionary approach.

This change in attitude towards marine resources, recognizing their essential biologic controls, is the primary phenomenon charted by this book.

The author also makes the point that the next significant step will be the controlled reduction of the nation’s and the world’s fishing capacity. This step, if it is to be done in an economically sound, humane and effective manner, will be an even greater challenge than the changing of attitudes. Maine’s congressional delegation, facing questions related to groundfish fleet displacement, would do well to read this book and understand the forces behind the current situation, and to frame possible answers. The good news in the book is that fishermen and fishery scientists and regulators can come together and develop new paradigms for management that can insure the future of both the fish and the industry. The bad news: it looks like remarkably hard work.