Discovery Guides Areas


European Fisheries History:
Pre-industrial Origins of Overfishing

(Released August 2009)

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  by Carolyn Scearce  


Key Citations




Colonial Fisheries


When Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts in 1620, they were ill-equipped for survival in the new world. They arrived just as winter was setting in. Even though they intended to set up a fishing colony, they failed to bring much fishing tackle and knew very little about fishing. They were also not very good at farming. After a number of false starts, acquiring advice and equipment from England, developing trading alliances with the Spanish Basques and with the West Indies, they managed to start a successful fishing business. By 1640 the Massachusetts Bay colony traded 300,000 cod that year (Kurlansky, 1997).

Native Americans in canoe
How the Indians Catch their Fish, from "A Brief and True Report of the New Found Land of Virginia" by Thomas Hariot (1560-1621) engraved by Theodore de Bry (1528-1598) 1590
Copyright 2004 Bridgeman

Cod played an important role in developing the economy of colonial New England. In The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith wrote about New England cod fishing as an example of the successful practice of free enterprise (Kurlansky, 1997). In the 1650's and 1660's shore whaling was common in Cape Cod. Instead of going to the sea in search of whales, fisherman would wait to capture whales when they came near the shore or beached themselves. Near-shore whale populations were soon depleted and whalers had to go to sea by the 1700's, but whaling still accounted for 15% of New England's exports before the American Revolution (Bolster, 2008).

men fighting whale
Whale-Fishing. Facsimile of a Woodcut in the "Cosmographie Universelle" of Thevet, in folio: Paris, 1574.

To early settlers of North America the New World seemed like the Garden of Eden, compared to European urban squalor and depleted natural resources (Roberts, 2007). The American landscape was as yet unaltered by deforestation and the development of agriculture. The streams were clear, not dammed, and teeming with fish. The oceans held unbelievable abundance. The colonists beheld the beauty and abundance and set to the work of recreating their European environment in the new world. They cleared land for agriculture and new settlements, built dams and mills, and fished and hunted for food and profit. One of the first fish to capture the attention of the colonists was sturgeon. In Europe sturgeon had been fished to virtual extinction centuries before. Early New England colonists enthusiastically fished and trapped sturgeon in their river migrations. According to contemporary accounts, within 50 years the fishery was already in decline. Moves were made to restrict the fishing of sturgeon to help preserve the fishery, but it was still severely depleted by the end of the 18th century (Bolster, 2008).

In the West Indies, the Caribbean region, local marine resources and salt cod from New England also played an important part in the developing economy. By the 1700's tens of thousands of Europeans and African slaves inhabited the Caribbean islands (Roberts, 2007). Plantations had been set up in the Caribbean and most agriculture was devoted to the production of cash crops such as sugar and tobacco. For local sources of food, inhabitants of the West Indies hunted marine animals such as manatees, turtles, and monk seals as well as fishing in coral reefs. Additionally they traded sugar, molasses, cotton, and salt for large quantities of cheaply produced salt cod (Kurlansky, 1997).

While cod played a part in the enslavement of the Caribbean, it also played a role in the liberation of the United States from its dependence on Britain. Besides whaling, colonial New England was largely built by the trade of cod and the production of rum from Caribbean molasses. By the 18th century New England's growing economic autonomy was troubling the English government (Kurlansky, 1997). When England attempted to exert more control over colonial trade, it did much to incite the resentment that eventually led to the American Revolution. Ironically, by the time the colonies had converted themselves into a nation, cod and other aquatic resources were already exploited to the extent that North American ecosystems more nearly resembled those of Europe than their own pre-colonial abundance (Bolster, 2008).

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