Vinalhaven Island sits like a plug between the Gulf of Maine’s offshore gyre and the estuaries, marshes and shallows of upper Penobscot Bay. After the melting of the continental ice sheet 13,000 years ago, these waters became some of the richest fishing grounds on earth.

“When the Island Had Fish” tells the story of fish and fishing around Vinalhaven, focusing on the industry’s impact on the people of this singular place. It’s presented as history, garnished with some science and statistics, but at heart, this is an ethnography of a Maine fishing community. Janna Malamud Smith is the participant-observer, and her friends and acquaintances on Vinalhaven, where she summered for 30 years, are her informants.

It starts with the fish. In her introduction, Smith cites archaeologist Bruce Bourque’s description in “The Swordfish Hunters” of fish bones from the Turner Farm site on North Haven. Four thousand years ago, the people living there were eating 5- to 6-foot cod and swordfish over 10 feet long. Fish as big as the largest of their species ever recorded were being routinely pulled from the waters around Vinalhaven.

When the first Europeans arrived, they were astonished by the ocean’s plenitude. James Rosier, on the Archangel’s voyage in 1605, described catching in an hour “fish enough for our whole Company for three days.”

From Vinalhaven’s earliest settlement, fish were integral to island life. And during the 18th and 19th centuries, “fish” meant cod. Most island men fished, and as the inshore schools were depleted, the fishermen went farther out. Mackerel and herring were targeted in the decades around the Civil War, and lobstering started then as well. A table in Smith’s book shows that Vinalhaven’s population peaked at 2,855 in 1880 – more than double what it is today – and around then, she reports, stocks of all types of fish began to noticeably decline. By the end of the 20th century, Penobscot Bay was fished out.

Smith uses letters, journals and similar historical records to document the earlier stages of this process. But for the 20th century, she shifts to oral histories and interviews with fishermen and their families. Their voices make the later section of her book particularly powerful.


In the years after World War II, Vinalhaven’s fishing economy was based on seeking different species over the seasonal round, targeting something else if a favored fish wasn’t to be had. But better equipment and fish-finding technology allowed overharvesting to happen faster than regulations could change to prevent it. Bigger boats “from away” caused a lot of the damage, but Vinalhaven fishermen were taking too much as well.

This is a perfect example of what ecologist Garrett Hardin called “the tragedy of the commons.” When nobody owns a resource, no one has any incentive to manage it carefully and everyone takes whatever they can. My only criticism of Smith’s excellent book is that it never discusses this issue.

The list of species decimated during the last half century is grim. Cod, mackerel, herring, redfish and shrimp are – for commercial purposes – gone. Pollock, pogies, haddock and halibut are severely depleted. Warming water in the Gulf of Maine is responsible for some of the damage, but the overriding problem for most fin fish has been overfishing.

Yet lobstering has never been better. The crustacean’s predators, primarily cod, are gone, and the bait that lobstermen put into their traps is like an undersea buffet for lobsters. Of Vinalhaven’s 1,200 year-round residents, Smith reports, about 200 have lobster licenses and the island regularly ranks second in the state, after Stonington, for total pounds of lobster landed.

As practiced in Maine, lobstering works for two reasons. First, lobsters are harvested one at a time, without harming smaller lobsters. Second, lobster fishermen generally accept that regulations about legal sizes, trap limits and protecting reproductive females are worth respecting. Fishermen always want to catch all they can, but right now, lobster fishing is managed as a sustainable commons, and on Vinalhaven, it sustains the community.

Despite the book’s bleak account of everything that’s gone, “When the Island Had Fish” gives a sensitive and nuanced portrait of an island community and its evolving relationship with the sea around it. Vinalhaven is a small place, but Smith’s account shows how much that place matters, both in itself and in the world at large.

John Alden, a retired anthropological archaeologist, spent four decades summering on the Maine coast before moving to Portland five years ago. 

Comments are no longer available on this story