University Press of New England, 2003

If you live in New England and pay attention to regional news, then you probably are aware of some of the concerns Susan R. Playfair presents in her new book. She is squarely on the side of traditional fishermen, supporting their struggle to keep their work and culture viable while facing challenges on every front. How much longer can they survive the constraints they cope with? If protecting the fish threatens fishermen with extinction, what have we gained and what have we lost? Those Playfair consults agree fishing should be done responsibly. They disagree with the current trend of regulations – how fishing days at sea are calculated, perceived advantages to certain sectors, and the limits applied to catches: how much, how often, how large. She writes, “Conservation of both groundfish and the fisheries is a highly complex issue.”

Much of Playfair’s firsthand research was done on the coast of Massachusetts, where she went out on boats, got to know fishing families and attended meetings and hearings with them where legislation was discussed and debated. All of that adds up to a plethora of detail. In fact, the book may try to share too much. She weaves in history, locale, names of people and boats, and descriptions and quotes of fishermen, buyers and purveyors, officials, committee members, lobbyists, and activists to illustrate her points of concern. Organizing the book’s material differently might have provided a sharper focus. That Playfair is sympathetic to the fishermen is clear. I wanted to make sense of this dilemma for myself, not just be persuaded to agree. The array of details frustratingly bogged me down. I thought of writer John McPhee and how, in his books, he typically develops one strong personality who exemplifies what is important for readers to learn. It’s a literary device called a “synecdoche” – using a piece of experience to represent its totality.

Playfair’s personal passion for the issues seems to have led her to pack the book with as much relevant information as possible. A savvy reader may find this book helpful in broadening the picture. If you want to better understand controversial regulations by looking at the interplay of influences among the National Marine Fisheries Service, Greenpeace and the New England Fishery Management Council and how that interplay affects the fishing community, this could be the book for you. Playfair concludes, “It’s about fairness and respect – respect for other species, respect for a unique way of life, and respect for the integrity of coastal communities. It’s about protecting fragile ecosystems, including the men and women who are part of that balance.”