Wednesday, January 26, 2022

The New England river commons

H-Environment recently published Zachary Bennett's review of Erik Reardon's Managing the River Commons: Fishing and New England's Rural Economy (U Mass Press, 2021). From the review:

After more than two centuries of damming and polluting their rivers, Americans are reversing course. Dams are coming down and the migrating fish that astonished early European explorers are returning.... Although rivers are coming to resemble their pre-industrial state now more than ever, few serious studies of early American waterways exist. Erik Reardon shows that these struggles to preserve riverine ecosystems are much older than river restoration advocates may have considered...


The first two chapters establish the importance of river fisheries in indigenous and early colonial communities, arguing that both created sustainable common-use practices to protect fish. Reardon quotes heavily from other secondary sources and his arguments echo the likes of Jeffrey Bolster who have shown that colonists severely depleted fisheries immediately upon their arrival. Reardon effectively demonstrates that colonists both noticed that decline and realized they needed to enact conservation measures at least a full century before industrialization.

Chapter 3 reads as a composite biography of four river fisherman from Maine to Rhode Island who lived at the turn of the nineteenth century.... Their way of life came under considerable threat when commercial fishing practices entered rivers in the nineteenth century that netted the salmon and shad for sale in distant markets and enriched an emerging merchant class. Reardon shows that this class of farmer-fishermen ultimately turned to the state to punish unsustainable fishing practices and preserve rivers as traditional commons space.

Chapter 4 charts the high-water mark of yeoman resistance to commercial fishing and industrialization in the early nineteenth century. Unlike the regulators or liberty men who attempted to violently enact their egalitarian interpretation of the Revolution, “farmer-fishermen worked through established legal channels to protect a river commons defined by open and equal access and fair distribution of fish resources” (p. 74). By examining petitions sent to state legislatures, Reardon identifies a proto-environmentalist movement straining to preserve natural resources central to their economic lives. Unfortunately, the legislation that resulted from these efforts were experimental, inconsistent, and prone to rely on local regulation. Although much time is spent on describing these policies, Reardon fails to show that farmer-fishermen enjoyed popular support or were successful in reversing declining river fishery stocks.

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