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European Fisheries History:
Pre-industrial Origins of Overfishing

(Released August 2009)

  by Carolyn Scearce  


Key Citations




Resources News Articles
Historical Newspapers

News Articles

  1. Ecological hypotheses for a historical reconstruction of upper trophic level biomass in the Baltic Sea and Skagerrak

    MacKenzie, Brian R; Alheit, Jurgen; Conley, Daniel J; Holm, Poul; Kinze, Carl Christian
    Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences

    Abstract: Fish and marine mammal populations in the Baltic Sea and Skagerrak have undergone major fluctuations over the past five centuries. We summarize how these fluctuations may have depended on various forms of predation (e.g., cannibalism, fishing, hunting) and environmental processes. The best-documented long-term fisheries in this region are the herring (Clupea harengus) fisheries near Bohuslan, western Sweden, and in the Oresund. These fisheries have been important since at least the 1200s and appear to be partly climatically driven. However, in the rest of the Baltic, information about fisheries for herring and other fish species is rare until after 1900. During the 20th century, while the Baltic underwent eutrophication, the biomass and landings of three fish species (cod (Gadus morhua), herring, and sprat (Sprattus sprattus)) all increased, whereas the biomass of marine mammals (grey seals (Halichoerus grypus), ringed seals (Phoca hispida), harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena)) decreased. The relative roles of exploitation, marine mammal predation, and environmental variability (e.g., eutrophication, major inflows of saline water, climate change) on the long-term dynamics of key fish species is not clear and requires increased collaboration among historians, fisheries and marine mammal ecologists, oceanographers, and climatologists.


    Understanding the causes of variations in abundance of upper trophic level animals is key to their long-term sustainability and that of the ecosystems in which they live (Steele and Schumacher 2000). However, in many cases, it is difficult to determine why abundances vary. Are the variations mainly due to anthropogenic factors (e.g., fishing mortality and hunting), or do climatic and other environmental factors (e.g., unusual sea temperatures) have a role? Attempts to distinguish these two major causes of variations in animal abundance, and how they interact, are limited by the relatively short time series (typically 20-30 years) of reliable fishery and environmental datasets available. As a result, statistical tests have little ability to resolve differences, and inferences based on such tests may not be applicable to other time periods because of long-term environmental variations (Frank 1991).

    This dilemma can often be circumvented by considering how fish and marine mammal populations have varied during historical periods when exploitation rates were lower and (or) abundances were higher than at present (Francis and Hare 1994; Hutchings and Myers 1995). Methods for investigating variations in abundance during the pre-industrial period (ca. pre-World War II) include (i) reconstructing catch and effort data from historical sources (e.g., records of taxes and tithes, sales of fish, lists of food provisions, reports of privileged fisheries such as shellfish; Kinze 1995; Hutchings and Myers 1995; Holm 1996) and (ii) examining historical sediment records in anoxic regions of the sea for the presence of fish scales of different species (Francis and Hare 1994; IGBP 1999). Both of these methods have proven to be effective in constructing reliable long-term (multidecadal) time series of fish and marine mammal abundances, and both methods have demonstrated that fish populations do undergo moderate to large fluctuations in abundance. Moreover, similar methods can also be used to develop long-term time series of important climatic variables (Euroglobec 1998; IGBP 1999).

    For full-text documents see ProQuest's eLibrary

  2. Overfishing has ancient origins; History shows depletion started 1,000 years ago

    Alister Doyle; Vancouver Sun; Reuters

    PARIS --
    Europeans started over-exploiting freshwater fish at least 1,000 years ago, according to historical studies that could help manage depleted modern fish stocks worldwide.

    Whales teemed in waters off New Zealand in the 19th century and a now almost non-existent cod stock in the Gulf of Maine totalled a huge 70,000 tonnes a year in the mid-19th century, according to historical records.

    Records reconstructed from everything from Russian monastery purchases to U.S. schooner logs indicate that overfishing has been happening in many parts of the world for centuries and that fish used to be more abundant, and bigger, than now.

    "We see similar patterns of human impacts on the oceans pretty much everywhere, and in many cases real depletion," said Andy Rosenberg of the University of New Hampshire, a leader of a project called the History of Marine Animal Population (HMAP).

    The findings, part of a 10-year Census of Marine Life due for completion in 2010, have widened from a few local anecdotes about fish abundance in past centuries, he told Reuters. He will chair a three-day HMAP "Oceans Past" conference that opens in Vancouver on Tuesday.

    In Europe, a shift to eating marine fish species from locally caught freshwater fish happened about 1,000 years ago. "The size of freshwater fish caught by Europeans started shrinking in medieval times ... likely caused by increased exploitation and pollution," an HMAP statement said, based on freshwater fish remains dumped in northwest Europe and England.

    For full-text documents see ProQuest's eLibrary


    Bolster, W Jeffrey, Environmental History, 07-01-2006

    The ocean may be the next frontier for environmental historians. People have depended on the ocean for centuries and quietly reshaped it. Recently the tragic impact of overfishing, habitat destruction, and biological invasions has become apparent. Yet the history of human interactions with marine environments remains largely uninvestigated, in part because of the enduring assumption that the ocean exists (or existed) outside of history. Historians should take seriously the challenge to historicize the ocean. That will include investigating its changing nature and peoples' historically specific assumptions about using and regulating it. Arguing that marine environmental history can complement on-going research in historical marine ecology, this essay invokes recent scientific work while staking out distinct terrain for historians.

    FOR MILLENNIA THE bountiful sea provided a larder, a living, and the possibility of riches for intrepid fishermen. Its scale in time and space, however, even for experienced mariners, appeared all out of proportion to that of familiar worlds ashore; and seafarers and landlubbers alike could not help but regard the sea as inscrutable, threatening, and eternal. Suddenly, in the blink of a twentieth-century eye, the tables were turned: The sea appeared fragile and vulnerable in the face of human arrogance. Overfishing, destruction of marine habitats, and shipborne biological invasions cast the time-honored phrase "men against the sea" in a new light. Following publication in the journal Nature of an essay estimating that large predatory fish had declined worldwide by 90 percent, Newsweek's cover story on July 14, 2003, asked, "Are the oceans dying?"1 That question, unimaginable not long ago, seemed all the more ominous for its lack of historical precedent.

    The recent crisis in the ocean has been regarded rightfully as an ecological and political problem, but rarely understood in light of history-as if nature and science were somehow realms separate from the study of the past. During the 1990s the Black Sea ecosystem collapsed, literally starved to death by a bloom of invasive jellyfish that indiscriminately devoured zoo-plankton, phytoplankton, and larval fish, leaving virtually nothing for the rest of the food chain. For creatures in and people around the nearly landlocked Black Sea, the horror unleashed by the ctenophore Mnemiopsis leidyi was immediate and vivid; but ships have been carrying invasive marine hitchhikers from one sea to another for centuries, quietly reshaping the oceans of the world. The Black Sea catastrophe was different because of its scale and the presence of cameras.2

    For full-text documents see ProQuest's eLibrary

Historical Newspapers

  1. THE ANTIQUITY OF ANGLING; PRACTICED AS A FINE ART FROM TIME IMMEMORIAL. Its Modern Growth -- Instruction in Its Methods -- Fishing Gear and How to Use It -- Books Which Should Be Read -- Fish- ing in Fresh Water and Fishing in Salt Water -- Casting the Artificial Fly -- Sal- mon of Various Kinds -- The Gamey Black Bass and How to Catch Him.
    William C. Harris. New York Times. New York, N.Y.: Jun 4, 1893. pg. 17, 1 pgs

    Abstract (Summary)
    Angling, or fishing for sport, is the art of capturing fish with either an artificial or natural bait placed on a hook. It is of great antiquity. We read of it in the Old Testament. In the records of ancient Egypt and Assyria, and in the polished literature of old Greece and Rome. The Greek post, Oppian, in his "Halientics," written in the second century, gave to the world the first systematic treatise on fishing.

    Original Article (PDF)

  2. STELLER'S SEA-COW; Strangest of Recently Extinct Mammals
    C M Yonge.
    The Manchester Guardian. Manchester (UK): Apr 12, 1952. p. 4 (1 page)

    Original Article (PDF)

  3. Dover yields fishy history
    Maev Kennedy Heritage Correspondent. The Guardian (1959-2003). London (UK): Jul 12, 1996. pg. 10, 1 pgs

    Original Article (PDF)

Taken from ProQuest's Historical Newspapers.


  1. Artificial fishponds in Roman Italy during the late Republic and early Empire

    by Higginbotham, James Arnold, III, Ph.D., University of Michigan, 1991 , 386 pages

    Abstract (Summary)
    The cultivation of fish had a long tradition among the Romans. But during the later Roman Republic and the early Empire, the practice of raising fish, pisciculture, reached a level of complexity previously unknown. This interest led to the construction of a range of buildings, or fishponds, designed to facilitate the exploitation and enjoyment of fish. The artificial fishpond was carefully crafted to provide a suitable environment for fish which were being kept for market, bred for future consumption, or confined for the sensory enjoyment of the owner. The surviving remains of Roman fishponds (piscinae) in Italy have never been examined in a single study. This dissertation examines the archaeological remains of these fishponds against the background provided by the literary account.

    The ancient literary record provides an important but incomplete source for the study of Roman pisciculture as it was practiced in Italy during the late Republic and early Empire. Three writers; M. Terentius Varro, L. Iunius Columella, and the Elder Pliny are the primary sources. Varro and Columella provide very general technical information and give the impression of a prescribed formula for building and operating fishponds. In reality, as the physical remains indicate, fishponds neither echo the descriptions in the ancient texts nor follow the prescriptions set forth by Varro and Columella. For example, none of the ancient literary accounts mention important features revealed through the examination of the ruins, such as viewing platforms, dining rooms, fish traps, fishing towers, ceramic eel pots, the popularity of inland ponds supplied by fresh water and the use of fresh water in sea-fed ponds.

    Toward a more complete understanding of Roman pisciculture, the first chapter of this dissertation comprises a detailed description of each extant Roman fishpond in Italy. Chapter 2 discusses the technical aspects of fishpond design, construction and operation. Chapter 3 examines the species of fish most closely associated with the Roman practice of raising fish. The comparative treatment of both literary and archaeological sources offered in this study provides a foundation for understanding the role fishponds played in the social and economic fabric of ancient Rome

    For full-text documents see ProQuest's Dissertations & Theses Database

  2. Historic levels of genetic diversity in the North Atlantic right (Eubalaena glacialis) and bowhead whale (Balaena mysticetus)

    by McLeod, Brenna Annie,by McLeod, Brenna Annie, Ph.D., Trent University (Canada), 2008 , 185 pages

    Abstract (Summary)
    North Atlantic right and bowhead whales were largely reduced in abundance by whaling. Sixteenth--seventeenth-century Basque whaling has been deemed responsible for the most detrimental population reduction of the right whale. However, molecular analyses identified the bowhead whale as the primary target of the hunt, with only one right whale among >200 whale bones. The specimen was profiled at 27 microsatellite loci used in the extant population and no new, or rare alleles were identified and the probability of identify value (4.8 x 10-24) was similar to those of extant individuals, suggesting historical genetic characteristics were not markedly different than today. A smaller historical population size and lower levels of diversity in the right whale might pre-date human exploitation. When 16 th -century bowhead specimens were profiled (2 mitochondrial and 8 microsatellite loci), high levels of haplotype diversity ( h = 0.917), nucleotide diversity (? = 0.0149), heterozygosity (Hobs= 0.755), and allelic diversity (9.25) were identified and heterozygosity was significantly higher (5.3%; t = 2.248, p < 0.05) than today. A Pleistocene expansion event (Fs = -10.549; p < 0.001) was identified. Mitochondrial sequence analysis of 106 Holocene dated bowhead specimens from the central Canadian Arctic (CCA) identified no significant temporal changes in diversity. Little differentiation was found between CCA and Holocene dated specimens from Eastern Greenland/Spitsbergen (FST= 0.00335, p = 0.10068; FST= -0.00417, p = 0.81427), suggesting a high degree of historical population connectivity.

    For full-text documents see ProQuest's Dissertations & Theses Database

  3. A new perspective: Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) as a case study for time series analysis and historical data

    by Klein, Emily, M.S., University of New Hampshire, 2008 , 177 pages

    Abstract (Summary)
    This thesis endeavors to develop methods for the historical analysis of a specific species and location to begin understanding fishery patterns and change over time. The main goal was to develop statistical methods to address historical data and provide long-term information on fishery trends and potential relationships between the fishery and outside influences. The Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) fishery was investigated for underlying patterns and the possible impact of outside variables and events from 1870 to 2007.

    In the Gulf of Maine, Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus) provide critical forage for many economically valuable species, while supporting a major New England fishery. Extensive research and stock assessments conducted on herring since the 1960s have focused on recent patterns of distribution, abundance, and other fishery characteristics. This work has often neglected longer-term patterns or changes and the long history of anthropogenic influence and exploitation. Further, the current management strategy for herring may be insufficient and herring ecology is not fully understood. Specific questions remain on stock structure and the viability of inshore populations, in addition to the possibly major changes in herring abundance and distribution suggested by historical documents. Due to these questions and their ecological and economic importance, herring are an interesting case study for the investigation of historical data and the application of time series analysis (TSA). Here, TSA was used to explore long-term herring fishery data and the possible influence of anthropogenic events and natural drivers from 1871 to the present (2007).

    Historical information on Atlantic herring and oceanographic features was compiled from many sources across New England and in St. Andrews Bay, Canada. For herring, the information was aggregated into a time series by total pounds per year for Maine and the Canadian Bay of Fundy. In addition, a time series was built for sea surface temperature (SST) and surface salinity at St. Andrews Biological Station (SABS) in Canada. Finally, a timeline constructed from the qualitative historical text summarized potentially influential socioeconomic and industry events by year. An initial visual comparison explored possible correlation between fluctuations in the herring time series and events in the time line. Viable events were found to explain many of the visually identified fluctuations.

    Once time series were constructed, TSA was used to model the underlying patterns of the herring fishery and oceanographic data. More specifically, auto-regressive-integrated-moving-average (ARIMA) models were applied. These models were then used to interpolate the missing years for complete time series, and ARIMA models were run again on these complete data sets. The final model for the Maine herring fishery was an ARIMA(1,1,0), meaning that the pounds in one year was explained, at least in part, by pounds the year before. For Canada, the model was an ARIMA(0,1,1), indicating that the pounds were more explained by the conservation of noise, or error, from the year previously.

    The models developed were then used to begin examining the impact of the events from the qualitative timeline and oceanographic features (SST and salinity) on the fishery time series. Intervention analysis detected outliers, called interventions, representing years of unexpected change in the herring time series. These years were compared to the qualitative time line to determine a possible explanatory event. Such events were speculated for the majority of interventions found. Finally, cross-correlation analysis compared the herring time series with the SABS SST and salinity time series for possible cause-and-effect relationships. The analysis found no significant relationships between the series.

    This study demonstrated the potential of TSA and historical data, including the qualitative literature, to better understand fisheries over the long term. TSA is a useful tool for applying historical data to study ecosystems in their entirety, from historical fisheries to today, rather than isolated in time or context. Results can broaden the temporal and ecosystem perspective in which fishery statistics are examined, and methodologies can be refined and expanded in the future. However, as used here, TSA addresses only catch statistics, not abundance or other population parameters. These methods should be used in conjunction with traditional statistical approaches and to inform stock assessment.

    For full-text documents see ProQuest's Dissertations & Theses Database