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Fishing changes November 12th, 2017 by

Two million years ago in East Africa, long before humans lived on any other continent, our ancestors followed the receding shorelines of shallow ponds and lakes, during each annual dry season, scooping up the stranded catfish and eels. People have eaten fish ever since, and fishing may have shaped humans more than big game hunting.

From Rome to China, early civilizations would have been impossible without fish, as renowned archaeologist Brian Fagan tells us in a new book, Fishing. Mesopotamians could always rely on fish, even when the flooding Tigris and Euphrates failed to water the crops. When the Nile flooded, it covered the land in fish, as well as water. The pyramids of Egypt were built by laborers fed on rations of beer, bread and dried catfish, caught every year in the shallow, receding flood waters of the Nile.

Ancient sailors in small boats could not carry enough provisions for long voyages. The mariners would never have been able to explore the Indian Ocean and create the trade routes that linked Europe and Asia, without settled communities of fisherfolk, who caught and dried fish to sell or trade.

Fishing would have been impossible without local knowledge. The Tahitians sailed sophisticated, deep-sea canoes to catch large, predatory fish. The big fish and the sea birds both followed dense schools of smaller fish. The Tahitians recognized that the big fish followed the birds to find the small fish. Fishers scanned the horizon for birds, and could tell by the species flying over the water what type of fish to expect there.

Commercial fishing began with herring in the North Sea in the 1300s. Dutch and Flemish crews caught the fish from deep-water wooden ships called busses, which required a large crew and started the season every year on the night of St. John, 24 June. The fish were salted, packed into standard-sized barrels, branded with the seals of the merchants who sold them, and traded all over Europe until 1810. By then the herring were becoming scarce, and salted cod from the Atlantic had captured the market. While there is still fishing in the North Sea, before the 1800s the herring were so abundant they were compared to ants.

As waters were fished out, fishers sailed farther and farther from home. The English were fishing off the shores of Iceland in 1420 and off the banks of Newfoundland in 1600. By about 1880, new technologies such as steam trawlers extended the reach of commercial fishing to deep ocean water. But some modern techniques are devastating, such as the large nets that drag the bottom, destroying the places where the fish spawn.

Many countries have reacted to over-fishing by creating 200-mile exclusion zones and limiting catches. The Canadian government closed the cod fishery in 1992 when stocks hit 1% of their peak. Thanks to the ban, the cod have since partially recovered.

Although subsistence fishing is ancient, it has never destroyed the fishery it depended upon. Salmon and sturgeon once swam up the Danube River to spawn. Communities of fishers had survived for thousands of years at the Iron Gates (on the Danube between Serbia and Romania), until nineteenth century pollution, dam-building and over-fishing destroyed the stocks.

But waters far from home, as in the Antarctic, are uncontrolled and fished recklessly, as though there were no tomorrow. Commercial fishing is now in a slow decline, while artisanal and subsistence fishing are both on the rise. Fish farming is increasing rapidly. By 2012, for the first time in history, more fish were farmed than caught wild.

I saw a glimpse of artisanal, peasant fishing recently in Bangladesh, where many villages have fields interspersed with fish ponds. Farmers throw nets and use various other techniques, bringing home one small bag of fish at a time for the supper pot.

On one especially rainy day, the ponds were over-flowing, and some people were setting up long, gently tapering nets over the drainage ditches, to catch any fish that may have escaped from the ponds. No fish was going to be wasted.

Subsistence fishers are often smallholder farmers. Fishing and farming combine easily. If fishing fed civilization, as Fagan explains, it is the smallholders who will keep fishing alive into the future. The fish ponds in Bangladesh are highly commercial, run by knowledgeable farmers. With the increasing demand for proteins, fish species will continue to feed humanity only with a good balance between open sea fishing that respects quotas (based on science and policy) and fish farming that will require stringent food safety measures, such as guarding against the abuse of antibiotics.

Further reading

Fagan, Brian 2017 Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization. New Have: Yale University Press. 346 pp.

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