Discovery Guides Areas


European Fisheries History:
Pre-industrial Origins of Overfishing

(Released August 2009)

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  by Carolyn Scearce  


Key Citations




Medieval Fishing Methods


Humans developed effective methods for subsistence level fishing from very early times. As a result early cultures found scant need to make improvements and fishing gear changed very little for hundreds or even thousands of years (Steane and Foreman, 1991). Fishing can occur in a variety of habitats such as river and estuary systems, inland lakes and ponds, along coastal zones and in deep waters. The most effective type of fishing gear is often defined by habitat and animal behavior.

fish hook
Stone Age fish hook
Aquatic organisms such as shelled mollusks that fix themselves to bottom environments in shallow water can be hand collected without the aid of fishing tackle. All that is required is some means of carrying theses species such as a basket (Steane & Foreman, 1991). The shell remains of such mollusks as oysters, mussels, and cockles were frequently discarded near their point of collection or consumption. Sometimes large middens accumulated over time, such as the oyster midden found at Poole in England. The oyster remains in this midden range from the 10th through the 14th century and contains between 3,808,000 and 7,616,000 oysters (Horse & Winder, 1991). Middens help provide information both of time and scale of consumption, since shells can be radiocarbon dated and the size and content of middens indicate how important an animal species was to a people's dietary habits.

Other fishing methods require specific tackles. One of the earliest methods was spearing or harpooning, which may date back 300,000 years (Steane & Foreman, 1991). Other means of fishing include nets and line fishing, both believed to have been practiced in Mesolithic times (roughly 11,000 - 5,000 BC in northern Europe). Line fishing makes use of hooks that can vary in size according to the size of fish targeted. The gear associated with hand lining includes the line, a float, a snood, and at least one fish hook. Long lining is believed to have been practiced since ancient times in both the Mediterranean and Northern Europe. The practice uses multiple hooks; in modern times hundreds or thousands may be used on a single line (Steane & Foreman, 1991). Long lining gear includes the main line and branching lines, as well as hooks and floats to keep the hooks and lines clear of the bottom.

There are three forms of net fishing: the seine, the drift net and the trawl (Steane & Foreman, 1991). Seining, fishing with a vertically hanging net, is particularly effective for shallow and surface waters. Drift nets are effective for marine fishing. The drift net forms a barrier. When shoals of fish try to swim through this barrier, their heads get caught in the mesh. Trawling, invented in the late Middle Ages (Roberts, 2007), involves dragging a net behind a boat either at mid water level or along the bottom. Bottom trawling can be very destructive to the benthic environment; most of what we know of the early history of trawling is based on legal complaints by groups such as other fishermen, who wanted to prevent or at least restrict trawling (Roberts, 2007).

medieval net fishing
Fishing with nets, 12th Century

Another common method of catching fish practiced in the Middle Ages was to set up fish weirs in rivers (Salisbury, 1991) and along estuaries (O'Sullivan, 2003). Weirs are set up as barriers along a fish route in rivers or in the sea. The fish are funneled along the barrier into a net or basket. Evidence of a fish weir established before 1000 BC has been excavated in Northern Ireland (Salisbury, 1991). In estuarine systems fish frequently swim along the shore in rising and falling tides. Effective set up of fish weirs requires knowledge of fish movements and landscape. In Britain and Ireland intense use of fish weirs occurred in the 7th and 8th centuries. Fish weirs were often maintained or rebuilt in the same location over the course of generations or even centuries (O'Sullivan, 2003). River weirs could be more ephemeral due to rivers shifting course. When this happened the stretch of river that contained the weir could fill in with gravel and sand during flooding (Salisbury, 1991).

As the middle ages progressed so did the escalation of fishing technology (Steane & Foreman, 1991). The development of a thriving trade in preserved marine products pushed shipbuilders to build higher capacity boats, navigators to explore well beyond the limits of their shores, and fishermen to develop more sophisticated gear. While these changes increased the fishing capacity of medieval fleets, it also increased the costs and attendant risks of economic loss (Tittler, 1977). Ecologists speculate that in coastal and shelf regions of Northern Europe, by the late Middle Ages commercial sea fishing was already depressing populations of commercially important species such as herring and cod (Roberts, 2007).

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