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European Fisheries History:
Pre-industrial Origins of Overfishing

(Released August 2009)

  by Carolyn Scearce  


Key Citations




Key Citations Short Format Full Format
  1. "Esteeme a little of fish" fish, fishponds, and farming in eighteenth-century New England and the Mid-Atlantic

    S. E. Roberts.

    Agricultural History, Vol. 82, No. 2, Spring 2008, pp. 143-163.

  2. Bowhead Whales, and Not Right Whales, Were the Primary Target of 16th- to 17th-century Basque Whalers in the Western North Atlantic

    B. A. Mcleod, M. W. Brown, M. J. Moore, et al.

    Arctic, Vol. 61, No. 1, Mar 2008, pp. 61-75.

    During the 16th and 17th centuries, Basque whalers travelled annually to the Strait of Belle Isle and Gulf of St. Lawrence to hunt whales. The hunting that occurred during this period is of primary significance for the North Atlantic right whale, Eubalaena glacialis (Mueller, 1776), because it has been interpreted as the largest human-induced reduction of the western North Atlantic population, with similar to 12250-21000 whales killed. It has been frequently reported that the Basques targeted two species in this region: the North Atlantic right whale and the bowhead whale, Balaena mysticetus L., 1758. To evaluate this hypothesis and the relative impact of this period of whaling on both species, we collected samples from 364 whale bones during a comprehensive search of Basque whaling ports from the 16th to the 17th century in the Strait of Belle Isle and Gulf of St. Lawrence. Bones were found and sampled at 10 of the 20 sites investigated. DNA was extracted from a subset (n = 218) of these samples. Analysis of the mitochondrial cytochrome b region identified five whale species. The identification of only a single right whale bone and 203 bowhead whale bones from at least 72 individuals indicates that the bowhead whale was likely the principal target of the hunt. These results imply that this whaling had a much greater impact (in terms of numbers of whales removed) on the bowhead whale population than on the western North Atlantic right whale population.

  3. "Mapping historic fishing grounds in the Gulf of Maine and Northwest Atlantic Ocean"

    Oceans past: management insights from the history of marine animal populations

    Stefan Claesson.

    Earthscan, London & Sterling, 91-108


  4. Basque maritime fishing between decline and resetting

    S. Laborde, J. Chaussade, Nantes Univ. (France) and Institut de Geographie et d'amenagement regional (IGARUN) (France).

    Nantes (France): Universite de Nantes, 2007, 324

    Both the reputation of distant fishing developed in the North Atlantic between the XVIth and the XVIIIth centuries and that of small-scale fishing in the Gulf of Gascogne have built the maritime identity of Basque harbours. On either side of the franco-spanish border, similar fishing tackle and techniques have been used by Basque fishermen. As a consequence, the rise of fish processing industries followed the rise of fishing fleets. In the XXth century, fishing was differentiated and it was only in the Spanish Basque country that an industrial fleet was developed. The cultural geography following from halieutic activities suffered when the fishing resources and fleets were on the decrease. Fishing practise and organization were thrown into confusion owing to the changes in rules, laws and trading that occurred in the past three decades of the XXth century. Furthermore, such changes aroused business conflicts both on seas and lands. Due to the European Union background, the different functions of the border have evolved and now, the Basque fishing fleets have been reset, renewing their fishing methods and the places where fishing produce is traded.Original Abstract: L'identite maritime des ports basques a ete forgee par la notoriete des peches lointaines developpees dans l'Atlantique Nord entre XVIe et XVIIIe siecle et par celle des peches artisanales pratiquees dans le golfe de Gascogne. De part et d'autre de la frontiere franco-espagnole, les marins des ports basques ont longtemps utilise des engins de peche et des techniques semblables. L'essor de ces flottilles a suscite et approvisionne une activite de transformation du poisson. Ces peches se sont differenciees au XXe siecle mais seul le Pays basque d'Espagne a developpe une flotte industrielle. La geographie culturelle issue de l'activite halieutique a ete malmenee par le declin de la ressource et des flottilles. Les changements reglementaires, juridiques et commerciaux intervenus au cours des trois dernieres decennies du XXe siecle ont bouleverse l'organisation, la pratique de la peche et ont engendre des conflits de metiers, en mer comme a terre. Dans le contexte de l'Union Europeenne, les differentes fonctions de la frontiere ont evolue pour aboutir a une veritable recomposition des flottilles basques qui ont renouvele les methodes et les lieux de commercialisation des produits de la peche.

  5. Modelling the extinction of Steller's sea cow

    S. T. Turvey and C. L. Risley.

    Biology letters, Vol. 2, No. 1, Mar 22 2006, pp. 94-97.

    Steller's sea cow, a giant sirenian discovered in 1741 and extinct by 1768, is one of the few megafaunal mammal species to have died out during the historical period. The species is traditionally considered to have been exterminated by 'blitzkrieg'-style direct overharvesting for food, but it has also been proposed that its extinction resulted from a sea urchin population explosion triggered by extirpation of local sea otter populations that eliminated the shallow-water kelps on which sea cows fed. Hunting records from eighteenth century Russian expeditions to the Commander Islands, in conjunction with life-history data extrapolated from dugongs, permit modelling of sea cow extinction dynamics. Sea cows were massively and wastefully overexploited, being hunted at over seven times the sustainable limit, and suggesting that the initial Bering Island sea cow population must have been higher than suggested by previous researchers to allow the species to survive even until 1768. Environmental changes caused by sea otter declines are unlikely to have contributed to this extinction event. This indicates that megafaunal extinctions can be effected by small bands of hunters using pre-industrial technologies, and highlights the catastrophic impact of wastefulness when overexploiting resources mistakenly perceived as 'infinite'.

  6. Reconstructing Ancient Fishing Techniques: Paleohydrology and the Understanding of the Netsinker Fishing Technique

    Kathryn M. Whalen, Douglas J. Perrelli and Jorg Maletz.

  7. Genetic Analysis of 16th-Century Whale Bones Prompts a Revision of the Impact of Basque Whaling on Right and Bowhead Whales in the Western North Atlantic

    Toolika Rastogi, Moira W. Brown, Brenna A. McLeod, et al.

    Canadian journal of zoology, Vol. 82, No. 10, Oct 2004, pp. 1647.

    The endangered North Atlantic right whale suffered a precipitous population decline in the early 16th and 17th centuries, when it was the target of Basque whalers in the western North Atlantic. An osteological analysis of historic bones indicated that the Basque harvest consisted of 50% right whales and 50% bowhead whales, a ratio which has been extrapolated to explain historic population proportions, and to form the basis of conservation goals for the right whale. A genetic analysis of 21 bones, however, indicates that only one bone was a right whale, while 20 were bowhead whale bones. This new data raises questions about original population sizes and the true impact of Basque whaling on this species.

  8. Place, memory and identity among estuarine fishing communities: Interpreting the archeology of early medieval fish weirs

    A. O'Sullivan.

    World Archaeology, Vol. 35, No. 3, December 2003, pp. 449-468.

    Recent coastal archaeological surveys in Britain and Ireland have produced an array of evidence for the construction and use of wooden and stone fish weirs throughout the Middle Ages. These fish weirs, with their wooden fences, basket traps and other features, vary in location, size, date and complexity. Regional and local traditions are discussed and it is suggested that fish weirs provide interesting insights into the labour and practices of medieval fishing communities, particularly in terms of cultural continuity and social identity. 2003 Taylor and Francis Ltd.

  9. Fishermen, fish and fish bones: where archaeology meets ichthyology

    D. Mylona and Panellenic Ichthyological Association, Athens (Greece).

    : 10th Panellenic Congress of Ichthyologists, Chania, Greece, Oct. 18-20, 2001. Proceedings. 10o Panellinio Synedrio Ichthyologon, Chania, 18-20 Oct., 2001, 313-316

    Fish bones are fairly common finds in archaeological excavations around the Aegean Sea in Greece. Tile analysis of the archaeological fish bones permits the investigation of certain aspects of ancient economies, which are related to fishing. Furthermore, the ancient fish remains form a tool, which facilitates the investigation of past marine, lacustrine and fluvial ecosystems. This paper briefly describes some of the methodological and conceptual issues involved in the investigation of ancient fishing as well as some of the problems encountered by the archaeologists. The above issues are illustrated by examples drawn from various case studies around the Aegean. The main objective of this presentation is the initiation of a dialogue between archaeologists and ichthyologists on issues of mutual interest.

  10. Sea Ice, Climate, and Icelandic Fisheries in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries

    A. E. J. Ogilvie and I. Jonsdottir.

    Arctic, Vol. 53, No. 4, Dec 2000, pp. 383.

    Declining ocean fish stocks have been noted worldwide, and have often been attributed to overfishing. Environmental factors which have also affected fish stocks include currents, sea ice, marine temperatures, and weather events. These variables were examined in the decline of the Icelandic fisheries in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The historic record suggests that fishing was successful up until the 16th century, when it began to decline, In the next two centuries fishing decline and even failed on several occasions, lasting up to a few years. Although contemporary writers blamed these declines on the climate, it is likely that socioeconomic variables were also factors.

  11. Archaeo-ichthyological evidence for long-term socioeconomic trends in northern Scotland: 3500 BC to AD 1500

    James H. {a} Barrett, Rebecca A. Nicholson and Ruby Ceron-Carrasco.

    Journal of Archaeological Science 26(4), April 1999:353-388., Vol. 26, No. 4, 1999, pp. 353-388.

  12. American shad in the Susquehanna River Basin: a three-hundred-year history

    Richard Gerstell.

    The Pennsylvania State University Press, Pennsylvania, 1998, i-x

  13. Pike (Esox lucius) in late medieval culture: from illiterate empiricism to literate traditions

    Richard C. {a} Hoffmann.

    Internet Archaeology 3, Autumn 1997:Unpaginated.[URL:], Vol. 3, 1997, pp. .

  14. The Baltic cod

    Ole Bagge, Fritz Thurow, Erik Steffensen and Jesper Bay.

    Dana 10 (Special issue) 1994:1-28., Vol. 10, No. (Special issue), 1994, pp. 1-28.

  15. Development of property in the fishery

    A. Scott.

    Marine Resource Economics, Vol. 5, No. 4, 1988, pp. 289-311.

    To what extent is the recently invented individual catch quota a form of real property right? This introduces six quantitative characteristics of all personal interests in land and natural resources. It is shown that medieval fishing rights had some of these characteristics, but these rights were not developed in the common law of property. The article then turns to modern regulatory licenses and catch quotas and examines the extent to which they embody property characteristics. In a digression, the obstacles to political acceptance of the individual fishery property concept are surveyed. The paper concludes by suggesting that catch quotas may develop into shares in the fish stock or biomass itself.

  16. Medieval fish, fisheries and fishponds in England

    M. [Ed ]. Aston.

    BAR British Series 182(i) 1988:i-ix, 1-202., Vol. 182, No. i, 1988, pp. i-ix.

  17. Ground-penetrating radar surveys used in archaeological investigations; Special issue; geophysics in archaeology

    C. J. Vaughan.

    Geophysics, Vol. 51, No. 3, Mar 1986, pp. 595-604.

    During 1982 and 1983, two ground-penetrating radar surveys were carried out in conjunction with archaeological investigations in Canada. The first survey was a detailed, high-resolution radar survey at the site of a sixteenth century Basque whaling station on the Labrador coast designed to locate the graves of the Basques. The second was a rapid, low-resolution reconnaissance survey as part of a prehistory impact assessment program at the site of the new National Museum of Man in Hull, Quebec. Both surveys were experimental and were designed to see whether ground-penetrating radar would be useful for identifying and locating anomalies of archeological significance. Radar was successful in detecting archeological anomalies several meters in size at both locations, and the high-resolution survey was moderately successful in identifying Basque graves. Ongoing work involves comparing radar results with the archaeological investigations to increase the understanding of how radar can be applied to archaeology and to improve interpretation of radar responses to artifacts.

  18. A 16th-century Basque whaling station in Labrador

    J. A. Tuck and R. Grenier.

    Scientific American 245(5) 1981:126-136., Vol. 245, No. 5, 1981, pp. 126-136.

  19. The New England fishery and trade at Canso, 1720-1744. Chapter 5

    J. Tulloch.


    The Canso Islands, at the northeastern tip of mainland Nova Scotia, have been an important fishing centre for centuries. Basque and French vessels first came there in the 1500s to fish on the rich offshore banks and to dry their catch on the Islands' rocky beaches. In 1607, Marc Lescarbot encountered a Basque fishing captain at nearby Whitehaven who had made 43 voyages to the region. French fishermen came regularly to Canso during the 17th century. By the 1690s, New Englanders were beginning to sail north to trade with them, but for the next 30 years, conflict between France and Britain made fishing at Canso a risky endeavour and slowed development of the industry. The Treaty of Utrecht transferred mainland Nova Scotia from France and Britain in 1713 and Canso was the economic centre of the Nova Scotia colony. Throughout the first half of the 18th century, the fishery was dominated by New England entrepreneurs who sent fishing schooners and transport ships to Canso. The shoremen who managed their fishing establishments were also New Englanders. This chapter describes the New England fishery and trade at Canso from 1720-1744.