McFarlane on Reardon, 'Managing the River Commons: Fishing and New England's Rural Economy'

Author: 
Erik Reardon
Reviewer: 
Scot McFarlane

Erik Reardon. Managing the River Commons: Fishing and New England's Rural Economy. Environmental History of the Northeast Series. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2021. 192 pp. $27.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-62534-584-4; $90.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-62534-585-1

Reviewed by Scot McFarlane (The Oxbow History Company) Published on H-Water (March, 2023) Commissioned by Blake Earle (Texas A&M University of Galveston)

Printable Version: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=58630

In Managing the River Commons: Fishing and New England’s Rural Economy, Erik Reardon presents a long history of river fisheries conservation in New England from the colonial period to the present. The main characters are the region's farmers whom Reardon calls “farmer-fishermen” because of the importance of river fishing to their independence (p. 4). Sea-run fish, especially shad, salmon, alewives, and blueback herring, supported farmers through lean times and contributed to practices of cooperation and interdependence in their communities. To protect this vital resource, farmer-fishermen had to regulate each other, petition their legislatures, and call on legal precedents to counter fish-obstructing mill dams and fish-sucking commercial fishermen employing seines and weirs. Even as fish populations began to diminish, these rural people succeeded in placing limits that at least limited the decline. However, with the arrival of large dams, and a legislative and legal system that consistently sided with industrial interests, by the 1830s both fish and farmer-fishermen began to disappear.

Reardon builds on the classic New England river history books of John T. Cumbler and Theodore Steinberg to place greater emphasis on a period before industrialization when farmer-fishermen had a vision of river conservation and had the power to promote it. By bringing in Richard Judd’s (Reardon’s PhD advisor) story of the New England commons, Reardon proves that white New Englanders considered rivers as much a part of their commons as meadows or woodlots.

The farmer-fishermen existed in a specific moment of time, bringing the culture and laws of river fishing with them from Europe. Reardon shows how widespread these people were while also acknowledging that fishing was one of many secondary sources of subsistence for New England farmers. Though they could find common ground with Indigenous people, the fact that every village contained a mill quickly led to conflict. These smaller mills highlight one of the central tensions of this book: the farmer-fishermen depended on mills for their grain and lumber but also sought to defend their fisheries. Reardon does not state this directly, but even in their heyday before industrialization and the dominance of market relations, the farmer-fishermen existed on a spectrum with different degrees of restraint and advocacy for their river. Unlike the hierarchical southerners, the more egalitarian New Englanders initially succeeded in making democratic claims about their rivers, but they were also quicker to privilege capitalism.

Reardon’s focus allows him to highlight the depth of people’s local ecological knowledge. I was surprised to learn that the relationship between river and coastal fisheries was commonly understood. Not only were river-caught fish like alewives used as bait, but fishermen also knew that the coastal cod’s presence could be attributed to smaller fish coming from the rivers. Given that the relationship between oceanic and river fish populations is the subject of recent and exciting scientific research, rediscovering this long history holds much promise.

In the final chapter, “Rivers Restored,” Reardon draws a connection to today’s river restoration movement. He writes that after the industrial dams defeated the farmer-fishermen, “the feeling that such dramatic tinkering with the natural course of inland waters may cause significant damage never went away” (p. 152). This claim does a disservice to the specific claims made in the book as a whole about who the farmer-fishermen were. As Reardon writes in the preceding chapter, by the middle of the nineteenth century, “many farmer-fishermen remembered well the productive seasonal fish runs that filled their tables and contributed to a vibrant rural economy” (p. 135). Their convictions about rivers gained strength from the importance of the fisheries to their culture and independence. When the fish and the farmer-fishermen disappeared, New England lost not only their memories but also their arguments.

On both the Kennebec and Penobscot Rivers, major dams have been removed thanks to a coalition of partners, with leadership from Indigenous nations in Maine. Though toxic pollution makes the revival of river fish more challenging for the Wabanaki, the ongoing importance of fish to their culture and economy makes river restoration a vital goal. The heirs of New England’s farmer-fishermen are not the sport fishers who started the conservation movement or the environmentalists of the twentieth century but those who depend on these resources for their independence. In Maine, the dramatic restoration of many herring runs and their use as a relatively affordable source of lobster bait points to the possibility of lobstermen and lobsterwomen as a new group that understands their dependence on river fisheries.

Another key point that Reardon makes is that despite their local focus, farmer-fishermen understood the importance of river-wide conservation measures. They knew that a salmon had to pass many obstacles on the way to their nets. But how might an understanding of these interconnections apply to our current era of climate change? Certainly many industrial dam owners argue that the energy they produce works against global warming. The fact that industrialization contributed to climate change and may now present part of a solution would confuse a time-traveling farmer-fisherman—much as it does for many of us living in New England today.

Citation: Scot McFarlane. Review of Reardon, Erik, Managing the River Commons: Fishing and New England's Rural Economy. H-Water, H-Net Reviews. March, 2023. URL: https://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=58630

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