Mark Kurlansky worked on commercial fishing boats before becoming a journalist, so it's probably no surprise that his writing often focuses on the sea. In his 1997 best-seller, Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, he traced pursuit of the fish back to the Vikings and chronicled its recent near-demise in the North Atlantic. These days, Kurlansky is researching the plight of fishermen in Gloucester, Mass. He talked with Boston correspondent Aaron Pressman.
You read everywhere now about the crisis facing New England's fishing industry. Has this happened before?
It's the nature of fishing to have crises. Gloucester, New Bedford, Point Judith [R.I.] -- this is not their first crisis. [These fishing towns] are periodically in crisis from all kinds of things including, as now, bad catches. We don't know if the [current crisis] is because of overfishing or something else. If you look at what has happened to cod in New England over the past 10 years, there hasn't been overfishing. And yet it's still in trouble. People are beginning think there are other reasons. I wouldn't be surprised if global warming and pollution played a part.
Will commercial fishing disappear from New England?
It's pretty broadly felt that fishing will survive in some form. When you look at the records of New England fishing vessels...there have always been these periods. It's a classic thing. Midwater fish hang around for a while and then disappear. In the Middle Ages when the herring left, they used to say it was because the town engaged in adultery. That could be the case with Gloucester.
Fish farming is booming overseas, but not in the U.S. Could that be part of the answer here, taking pressure off wild species?
To me, fish farming is irrelevant. The issue has always been to preserve the culture of fishing towns. That's what I'm writing about here: Can Gloucester preserve its identity? There are people who want to turn the harbor into condos and a yacht basin.
Should regulations, such as using individual quotas, be overhauled to make fishing more profitable?
Why don't they just ban dragging or seriously restrict the size of engines and vessels? That would be more effective than all this days-at-sea and quotas stuff. I think we should go back to skiffs.