Discovery Guides Areas


European Fisheries History:
Pre-industrial Origins of Overfishing

(Released August 2009)

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  by Carolyn Scearce  


Key Citations




Development of Fishing in Western Europe


In ancient times, the Greco/Roman world served as a powerful organizing force for colonization and trade in the European continent. As the Roman Empire declined, though it still exerted a substantial cultural influence on Europe, the social and political stability it provided for its colonies could not be maintained. Archaeological evidence shows a substantial trade of preserved fishery products during the peak of the Roman Empire, but as the Empire began to falter, presumably decreasing levels of trade lead to decreasing production of preserved fishery products in the early Middle Ages (Trakadas, 2005; Curtis, 2005).

Both subsistence and indirect subsistence fishing were practiced in Europe even during the very early Middle Ages (Hoffmann, 1996). The spread of Christianity throughout Europe increased the importance of fish to the European diet. Catholic dietary laws practiced during the Middle Ages restricted the use of red meat during fast days that accounted for almost half the calendar year (Kurlansky, 1997; Roberts, 2007). During these fast days Catholics were allowed to eat fish, whale meat, beaver tail and meat from other aquatic mammals such as seals.

manuscript with fisher
Man fishing, Medieval manuscript

As early as the 7th century the Basque people were catching whales along the northern Atlantic coast of Spain (Kurlansky, 1999). Whale tongue was considered a particular delicacy in medieval Europe. Medieval Basque people were able to hunt whale in the Bay of Bisque between October and March. To enhance the fishery, the Basque built spotting towers and would row out to the whale with spears and harpoons. By the 9th century, the Basque encountered Vikings who had settled nearby. The Vikings were the leading navigators and ship builders during the early Middle Ages. The Basque emulated Viking ship building. By around 1000 AD, the Basque were venturing north to such destinations as Iceland, Norway and the Faeroe Islands (Kurlansky, 1999). Along with whaling, the Basque took up cod fishing and improved on the Viking method of preservation by salting the cod. When these fish are preserved they can be kept up to two years. Cod served as an important food source during the long voyages and also became a lucrative trade item in Europe.

A number of similarities exist between the Basque and Viking cultures. Both peoples lived in coastal regions with poor agricultural potential. So perhaps it is inevitable that both were precocious in recognizing the value of marine resources and were quick to exploit them. Consequently both cultures developed strong traditions of ship building and navigation and were very influential regarding exploration in the Northern Atlantic region during the Middle Ages and into the Age of Exploration.

A study of farm mounds dating back as far as the 1st century AD in northern Norway indicates that Iron Age Norse communities exploited marine resources to help supplement a marginal agriculture (Perdikaris, 1999). Norwegian cod fishing and the production of stockfish--freeze dried cod--dates back to the Iron Age. During the Viking Age, the early Middle Ages, chiefs would trade surplus stockfish for barley, to ensure production of sufficient quantities of beer for the winter feasting season. By the 12th century a more extensive stockfish trade developed and provided an important source of income to the Norwegian economy for centuries.

In England by the early Middle Ages coastal regions such as Yarmouth were already actively fishing and trading marine species such as herring (Tittler, 1977). Based on Norse influence, England was heavily involved in the cod trade by the 12th century. Analysis of fish bones at archeological sites in England shows a shift from predominately freshwater species to marine species occurring around the 11th century (Barrett et al., 2004). This coincides with a change in demography in Western Europe. By around the 11th century populations were increasing and Europeans were shifting to a more settled agrarian and urban life style. Over the following centuries, forests were cleared for farm land, rivers were dammed and mills were built, training in trades and crafts increased, towns were established, and trade became a much more important aspect of medieval culture (Hoffmann, 1996). As populations increased, growing urban centers required greater food resources from agriculture, animal husbandry, and fishing. The trade of preserved marine species such as cod provided a relatively inexpensive durable food to the European market. Countries in continental Europe continued to rely more heavily on freshwater than marine species during the high to late Middle Ages.

The development of a more settled culture in Europe meant that people increasingly began manipulating their landscape. Larger local populations concentrated food demand. Environmental change such as deforestation, increased erosion, and damming of rivers had negative impacts on the production of freshwater and anadromous species at a time when demands for food were increasing. One variety of fish particularly hard hit by fishing and habitat alteration was the sturgeon, which was largely wiped out in Europe by the late Middle Ages (Hoffmann, 1996). Land owners such as feudal lords and monasteries responded to the increasing demand and decreasing supply of fish in a number of ways, including regulating the time, methods, and access to fish populations, privatizing fishing rights, and artificially increasing fish populations by creating fish ponds. In medieval times local declines in fish populations were frequently blamed on dams and mills and overfishing. Though these factors played a role, more complex environmental interactions were also likely to blame, including eutrophication, pollution, erosion and other forms of habitat alteration. In the 11th to 13th centuries many fishponds were built. Medieval aquaculture helped fill gaps in supply that existed not only due to reduced fish populations, but addressed natural local and seasonal variations in fish supply (Hoffmann, 1996).

Lake Sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens), found primarily in the Great Lakes area of North America
Copyright LifeStory Publications, 1998

In England marine fisheries proved a very profitable endeavor through the mid to late Middle Ages. Along the English coast fishermen caught herring in the summer to fall and could fish for cod and ling in the North Sea near Iceland during the spring and early summer (Tittler, 1977). By the early Renaissance, however, the English enterprise of fishing had been somewhat curtailed by economic and political conditions. Factors such as the increasing Protestant population (who were not restricted by Catholic dietary laws), the increasing cost of larger ships and more sophisticated fishing gear, and competition from the Dutch fishing fleet (which was subsidized by its government) drove the decline (Tittler, 1977). However, centuries of a strong maritime tradition in England helped place that country in a fortuitous position to capitalize on the opportunities that were to soon arise in the period of colonial expansion.

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