Sharing the Ocean: Stories of Science, Politics and Ownership from America’s Oldest Industry

By Michael Crocker

Tilbury House, 2008

Softcover, 160 pages, $20


“An Enormous, Immensely Complicated Intervention”

Groundfish, the New England Fishery Management Council, and the World Fisheries Crisis

By Spencer Apollonio and Jacob J. Dykstra

E Book Time LLC, Montgomery, Alabama, 2008

Softcover, 256 pages


It’s very difficult to write about New England’s rolling fishery disaster in an interesting way. The story is too sad and too complex. It’s too hard to tease out the real villains because there are so many of them, on all sides of the debate. Only a handful of writers have managed to tell the story of this tragedy in a compelling way.

Michael Crocker, a knowledgeable observer who has written articles on aspects of the fishery crisis for Working Waterfront over the years, has made a valiant attempt. So have Spencer Apollonio and Jacob Dykstra, both veterans of the federal government’s and New England’s 30-year effort to manage their fisheries. But in each case, the storytelling falls short. The authors’ wealth of knowledge and experience is buried under what seem like tons of verbiage in their respective efforts to explain what has happened to fisheries that were once the envy of the world.

Sharing the Ocean is a beautifully produced book with handsome photographs and an elegant layout. “An Enormous, Immensely Complicated Intervention” is less ambitious in a graphic sense. Both are unlikely to be widely read, however: in the telling, the stories miss the mark.

Sharing the Ocean is an important book that will reward a diligent reader. Its message is powerful: relying on market forces to protect a natural resource like the historic New England groundfishery can’t work because greed, ingenuity, markets, government inertia, scientific misunderstanding and sheer unwillingness to see what’s really happening always get in the way. And the tragedy here, of course, is far more than the destruction of a resource like a fishery: it’s the death of whole communities that have depended on that resource for four centuries or more. Crocker makes the case for area management, the approach that has succeeded over decades in Maine’s lobster industry but which was rejected by the regional groundfish management council two years ago.

Sharing the Ocean would be better if it were organized and edited differently. The reader who plows through its pages is rewarded at the end by a sparkling set of self-descriptions by individuals connected with the fishery: fishermen and their families, scientists, pier owners, longtime New Englanders, participants in the generally unsuccessful effort to manage fish stocks. Some of them, apparently, were recorded at meetings-although this isn’t clear. Accompanied as they are by handsome photographs, these profiles could have vastly improved the book by being interspersed among the dry chapters covering Amendment 5, the regional council and the other matters that are so difficult to comprehend. The footnote-heavy text, in addition, fights with the book’s elegant design: if the goal is to reach the informed lay reader with a good-looking book, why fill it with notes that make it feel like an academic paper?

Mike Crocker has tackled a topic of critical importance to this region. His story is best told through the words of fishermen and others who have lived it, and when he lets that happen, the light shines through.

Apollonio and Dykstra came to fisheries management by different routes, but both labored in the early management process established in 1977 by the Magnusson Act. Don’t be misled by their insider credentials: their book is not a defense of the law or the regional councils it established. Instead, they have dissected what went wrong, and why-30 long years later-the fisheries of the Northeast are still in crisis.

Both of these books look at the failings of a top-down federal process and make the case that a locally driven alternative might work better; both point to the inadequacies of fisheries science and the difficulty (dare I say impossibility?) of managing a resource that’s so diverse, hard to see and complex; both lament the rise of litigation as a driving force in fisheries management today.

These are important books that should be widely read. I only wish their authors had paid as much attention to their storytelling as they have to their histories of this dismally-failed effort to conserve a vital natural resource.

David D. Platt is former editor of Working Waterfront.