Advancing an Ecosystem Approach in the Gulf of Maine

Usable Pasts of Harvested Waters: The Working Role of American Fisheries History

Michael J. Chiarappa


Abstract .—The advent of modern fisheries research during the second half of the 19th century was striking in its historical and ethnographic orientation, a precedent set by such pioneering work as George Perkins Marsh’s Man and Nature and the collective labor of the U.S. Fish Commission and certain state fish commissions that followed its lead. This approach served to provide more than limited context or introductory remarks for scientific studies but, with compelling clarity, took seriously the historical and cultural experiences of fishing communities in an effort to structure wide public discourse on the pressing concerns confronting the use of fisheries resources. Hoping to employ knowledge of fisheries history and occupational culture in the service of publicly engaged, progressive policy and management, these investigations reached audiences not just through government reports, but also through popular periodicals and fisheries exhibitions. Today, the work of environmental and cultural history—in conjunction with their vital interdisciplinary links to oral history, anthropology, geography, field documentation, and museology—is revitalizing this tradition and establishing important patterns in how fisheries issues are communicated and deliberated in society. Similar to earlier periods, the implications of these contemporary initiatives are important for those stakeholders wishing to participate in the public culture that frames current fisheries life.