19th Annual Roger Revelle Commemorative Lecture

Flyer for 2018 lecture

“Distress Signals:
Historical Waypoints in Northwest Atlantic Fisheries since 1850”

by W. Jeffrey Bolster

5:30 PM, April 25
The Fred Kavli Auditorium in the National Academy of Sciences Building
2101 Constitution Ave. NW
Free and open to the public
For more information, contact Pamela Lewis, plewis@nas.edu

How many fish should there be in the sea? Many fish stocks have been reduced to a fraction of their former abundance, the result of overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, and other human impacts.  However, fisheries managers often set baselines for rebuilding to a time when fish stocks may already have been depleted. With the perspective of an historian, Jeffrey Bolster uncovers the deep roots of the depletion of our coastal ecosystems. Reconstructing the catch histories of commercial fisheries in the northwest Atlantic in the 19th century, Bolster concludes that  we may be profoundly underestimating the capacity of the ocean to produce fish.  How might such historical data influence contemporary marine science and fisheries management?

We are living through the greatest sea change in human history, the demise of the living ocean.

Just a few decades ago, that transformation caught many marine scientists and fisheries managers unaware. Today most ask: Are the oceans really dying? A thought once incomprehensible now seems plausible. Many fish stocks are a tiny fraction of their former abundance, the result of overfishing, habitat destruction, and biological invasions. Yet until rather recently, much tradition, literature, and science insisted that the sea remained impervious to anthropogenic impacts — despite centuries of evidence to the contrary. As a historian I wanted to know how this story unfolded the way it did. And, as a practitioner of the new subfield of marine environmental history, I wanted to investigate how data from the past might influence contemporary marine science and fisheries policy.

Marine environmental history illuminates what ecologist Daniel Pauly called “the shifting baseline syndrome.” With few exceptions, each generation of scientists and fishers imagined that what it first saw was normal, and that subsequent declines were aberrant. No generation imagined how profound the changes had been prior to their own careers. It is up to us to reconstruct those lost waypoints. Despite problems with data incompatibilities, we need better methods to integrate historical evidence into scientific datasets. Meanwhile we must recognize that all knowledge is not necessarily quantifiable. Compelling stories based on verifiable evidence communicate their own truths.

Focusing on commercial fisheries in the northwest Atlantic from 1850 to the present, this lecture reconstructs the deep roots of the depletion of our coastal ecosystems. Laced with irony, and cross-cut by quantifiable data rigorously obtained, it reveals how Americans have been arguing for more than 168 years about whether there would be fish for the future. The take away message? Without genuinely historical perspectives on changes in the sea, we can have no idea of the magnitude of the restoration challenges we face.

— W. Jeffrey Bolster, historian


In 1999, the Ocean Studies Board (OSB) launched the Roger Revelle Commemorative Lecture to highlight the important links between ocean science and public policy. The series was named in honor of the late Roger Revelle, a leader in the field of oceanography for over 50 years who spearheaded efforts to investigate the mechanisms and consequences of climate change. In recognition of the critical importance of education in linking science and public policy, the OSB has partnered with the Smithsonian Science Education Center and the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History to bring the Revelle Lecture to a broader audience. The lecture is held annually in conjunction with the OSB meeting in Washington, DC.


  • National Science Foundation (NSF)
  • The Office of Naval Research (ONR)
  • The U.S. Geological Survey (USGS)
  • The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA)
  • The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
  • The Smithsonian Science Education Center
  • The National Museum of Natural History
  • The Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation


For more information, please contact:

Kenza Sidi-Ali-Cherif
Program Assistant
Ocean Studies Board
(202) 334-3361