The unassuming blue binding of the Piscatorial Atlas (1883) didn’t begin to hint at the engaging contents. Perhaps North Sea fishery data from the latter part of the 19th century sounds dull, but O.T. (Ole Theodor) Olsen managed to make his Atlas not only informative and beautiful, but groundbreaking, too.

O.T. Olsen (1838 – 1925) was born in Norway. He went to sea as a boy, and worked on English trading ships, developing an interest and expertise in navigation. He later worked as an assistant to Matthew Maury (later known as the father of modern oceanography), collecting oceanographic data from around the British Isles.

After his career at sea ended, Olsen settled in Grimsby, on the east coast of England. Here he continued to collect navigational data on deep-sea soundings and the composition of sea beds from local fishery captains. He also developed an interest in the fishery industry and the fishes themselves – their numbers, habits and habitats.

In the early 1870s, Olsen created a simple form which he distributed to fishermen in Grimsby and Hull. In it, he requested information such as location, tides, tack, and weather; quantity and description of fish; and description of refuse (bycatch).

After gathering this data for almost a decade, in 1883 Olsen published the Piscatorial Atlas of the North Sea, English and George’s Channels. Illustrating the fishing ports, boats, gear, species of fish (how, where and when caught) and other information concerning fish and fisheries.)

The Atlas contains fifty beautiful coloured maps of the North Sea fisheries. The first four illustrate the set of tides, soundings, the composition of the sea bed and the names of the fisheries. The rest are dedicated to the species important to the fishery industry. Each map shows the distribution and abundance of each species with an illustration and description of the species, including its habits, when in season and its ‘quality’. (Conger, for example, is described as ‘Wholesome, much used by the poorer class’.) On each plate, an example of a typical vessel and fishing equipment used to catch each species is also pictured.

Olsen’s Atlas is one of the first publications on the North Sea fisheries to be based on comprehensive statistical information collected over many years.

The Piscatorial Atlas is significant not only for its visual appeal, but also for its historical and environmental interest. Since the publication of the Atlas, the composition of the sea bed has changed. The large North Sea oyster bed off Heligoland, noted by Olsen to be underexploited, is gone. Since the introduction of large-scale trawling by factory ships in the mid 20th century, many more species have declined alarmingly due to overfishing.

The Atlas offers a fascinating glimpse into the North Sea fishing industry at a time which now seems picturesque and romantic, but which was, in fact, a laborious and dangerous life for fishing communities.

The Australian Museum Research Library’s copy of the Piscatorial Atlas of the North Sea is in fine condition and is one of only two copies held in Australian libraries.