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Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)
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For New England, and much of the Northeast, native species of anadromous fish belong to past generations. Anadromous fish migrate between rivers and the sea and up until the mid-nineteenth century they swarmed nearly every river in New England in such numbers as to astound those lucky enough to witness a seasonal fish-run. They furnished agricultural communities with an important source of nutrition and a valued article of exchange within the rural economy. They also commanded significant attention from communities that relied on this resource as a fundamental component of household subsistence.
New England’s farmers benefited from an abundance of natural resources, supplementing agricultural pursuits with hunting, fishing, and foraging. However, during the course of devising a plan to restore Vermont’s inland fisheries, mid-nineteenth century conservationist George Perkins Marsh argued that fish especially stood out from the rest as providing an inexpensive source of protein that could be stored for leaner times. For this reason, New England’s farmer-fishermen sought to chart a course that would ensure the sustainability of healthy river fisheries. They advocated for regulations designed to restrain commercial fishing operations, compelled local millers to open their dams during seasonal fish-runs, and defeated corporate proposals to erect industrial dams. Amid demographic and economic pressures, many New Englanders remained convinced that river fisheries were worth saving. The question then arises: why did these people work so hard to preserve this resource? Countless petitions, bearing hundreds of signatures each, attest to the great benefit locals derived from the annual harvest of river fish. Despite this evidence, historians have yet to fully appreciate the significance of this resource.
Recent dam removal projects on the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers have shown that native anadromous species are incredibly resilient and poised to reclaim their place within the ecosystem. River restoration projects are connecting to powerful memories of environments engrained in regional culture and give hope that the conditions that once supported healthy rivers are once again within reach. In light of all the attention currently placed on the restoration of river habitats and anadromous fish runs, a deeper understanding of the historical forces that have shaped interactions with the region’s inland waters could provide some insight into why these projects are worthwhile.
Reardon, Erik, "Managing the River Commons: Fishing and New England's Rural Economy, 1783-1848" (2016). Electronic Theses and Dissertations. 2709.