The stories are well-known: European seafarers and explorers encountered a western Atlantic Ocean filled with numerous, large, and robust fish, unlike anything they had seen before. According to W. Jeffrey Bolster, who begins his book on the other side of the Atlantic, these early documentarians did not realize that the abundance they saw in American waters reflected depletion in their own home waters. Instead, they believed the sea to be immortal, impossible for humans to affect.

“So much remained unknown that it was easy for people to imagine the ocean as infinite and overwhelming,” writes Bolster. Denial swam freely in this imagined ocean, where cod fishing, whaling, and seabird hunting “destabilized the ecosystem.”

Not until the nineteenth-century harvest of menhaden (overfished in a mere 30 years), mackerel, halibut (a “flash-in-the-pan” fishery), and lobster, did fishers begin to acknowledge the ocean’s limits. Experienced men lined up by the thousands, decade after decade, to protest fishing activity they believed was harming populations of ocean fish. The voices of concerned, conservation-minded fishermen are a chorus throughout this book—but what at times feels like redundancy is really the author’s careful research at work, as each point is supported by stories and quotes from across the New England region.

Bolster, an associate professor of history at the University of New Hampshire, conducted much of the research for the book as part of the Census of Marine Life’s Gulf of Maine Cod Project. But its resemblance to academic papers or scientific journal articles or even other popular history books on the Atlantic ends there. This is history at its most engaging, and most powerful.

As the nineteenth century wore on, fishermen traveled farther, fished deeper, and brought home less. They targeted “underutilized” species. They expanded their nets and developed purse seines (“a juggernaut of efficiency.”). Hooks and bait multiplied, bycatch increased. “Fishermen regularly adopted technologies that their parents and grandparents had protested because of their ruthless efficiency and because they sensed there were fewer fish in the sea.” More efficient gear increased landings, camouflaging resource depletions and silencing fishermen’s concerns, at least temporarily.

And while some individual fisheries, such as the mackerel fishery, faced catastrophic losses, most fisheries found compensation for ecological depletion through rising prices. As Bolster writes, “the market masked the mess.”

Bolster does not spare the fisheries scientists or government agents, most of whom, “swelled with misplaced confidence,” allied with proponents of industrial fishing and economic gains, and failed to take action to protect fish stocks. For example, “beneath an avalanche of cheap fish” brought by otter trawls, Congress ignored advice to limit their use in the early twentieth century, and the otter trawl quickly became the norm.

Does any of this sound familiar?

Again and again comes fishermen’s refrain for caution, as Bolster attempts to show how “the warning signals have been there every step of the way.” Bolster is trying to tell contemporary minds to heed the protests of today, to realize that even the genuine successes of the last twenty years are small in the scale of time. Only a historical perspective, he writes, “conveys the magnitude of what has been lost and what might be restored.”

In the end, Bolster blames not fishermen or scientists or managers, but a system “insufficiently nimble to stop the desecration of commonly held resources on which the long-term good of everyone depended (and depends)” and argues for a precautionary approach: when in doubt, do no harm. What he doesn’t say is what that might look like in the context of current fisheries management or the seafood industry. Somewhere, somehow, everyone involved in sustaining Northwest Atlantic fisheries must find a way forward—part of the solution is recognizing that the issues faced today are hardly new.