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European Fisheries History:
Pre-industrial Origins of Overfishing

(Released August 2009)

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  by Carolyn Scearce  

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New Lands, New Fishing Grounds

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In the history of European expansion into Atlantic regions, an intimate connection exists between exploration and exploitation of aquatic resources. The pursuit of whales, cod, and other marine fish drove the development of increasingly seaworthy ships by Norse, Basque, British, and other Western European countries. It led to the creation of more sophisticated navigation techniques and more effective fishing gear. In turn, the discovery of richer fishing grounds to the north and west of mainland Europe generated wealth and political clout for the countries that harvested them. Fishing rights spurred contentious local and regional wrangling over these valuable resources. Ultimately, the establishment of new fishing grounds helped make the exploration of new territories possible and helped the new colonies established in these regions become economically viable.

map of Viking journies
The Viking Voyages

It is the Vikings who lead our story of exploration. In the 9th to 11th centuries, the Norse expanded their territories into the North Atlantic (McGovern, 1990). During this period they settled the islands of Greenland, Iceland, and even reached the Eastern Arctic coast of Canada. They did not stay long in North America. After the 11th century their regions of travel and settlement began to contract, and they finally gave up their colony in Greenland after 450 years. But in their travels, they learned of and began exploiting the rich fishery resources of the North Atlantic. Basque whalers and fishermen soon followed the Norse. There is no conclusive archeological or historical evidence to indicate how far west the Basque traveled in pursuit of fishery products. However, it is possible that Basque fisherman were already fishing North America waters before Columbus' voyage of 1492. Basque sailors and fishermen possessed the reputation of superior knowledge and were included on many of the earliest voyages of exploration (Kurlansky, 1999). Early explorers to North America noted the presence of Basque ships and fishing stations that must have been established very soon after the discovery of the New World if not before.

With the "discovery" of America, French and Portuguese fishermen were quick to join the Basque in harvesting the waters along the coast of Newfoundland. By 1517 around 50 ships a year were bringing back preserved cod from Western Canada. England had joined in fishing along the Newfoundland coast by 1600, by which time fishermen were bringing back 150 shiploads of cod per year (Roberts, 2007). Along with whales and walruses, many seabirds were a casualty of this increasingly intensive fishing. Among these was the Great Auk, which were frequently caught, quartered, and used as cod fish bait. This practice, along with egg harvesting, drove the species to extinction by the 19th century.

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