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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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The history of European fisheries has shown that pre-industrial fishing operations were often highly organized. Even fairly simple fishing techniques can be highly effective at exploiting fairly accessible aquatic organisms. Over the past millennium, European fisheries began a process of expansion and an escalation of fishing technology that would have an increasingly negative impact on overfishing and overexploitation of aquatic resources around the world. A poignant example of this impact occurred toward the end of the pre-industrial era in the case of the Bering expedition and the Steller sea cow.

In 1741 the crew of a Russian expedition lead by Captain Vitus Bering found itself stranded on a North Pacific island that was later to be known as Bering Island. On this island the crew found an abundant sea otter population and another extremely large and hitherto unknown marine mammal that was named the Steller sea cow after the expeditions' naturalist, Georg Steller. At first the expedition focused its attention on the island's easier prey; they hunted the sea otters both for food and their valuable pelts. Greed for the pelts, which they hoped to sell once they escaped the island, led the still stranded explorers to hunt the sea otter at a rate that far exceeded their need for immediate sustenance. By the next year they needed to hike many miles just to find more otters. At this point they turned to the sea cow, a mammoth manatee-like creature that could measure as much as 30 feet in length. The men constructed harpoons and used knives and bayonets and hunted in groups. In the summer of 1742 Bering's crew finally managed to escape from the island. They brought back with them sea otter pelts and tales of the sea cows. Other expeditions returned to the island and by 1768 the sea cow had been hunted to extinction for food, skin, and blubber (Roberts, 2007).

drawing of sea cow
Drawing of Steller's sea cow, by Georg Steller
Stories like this and that of the great auk indicate that it doesn't take advanced technology or even a great deal of time to hunt a large, slow reproducing, geographically isolated population to extinction. Life history traits such as those exhibited by the sturgeon may also make animals vulnerable to harvesting. Many sturgeon are anadromous species, and migrate from river to the sea when they are young, returning to rivers as they reach sexual maturity. During inland migration such populations are extremely vulnerable not only to fishing but to the erection of barriers such as dams and mills. If they are blocked or harvested before reproducing, not only the current generation but subsequent ones are lost. Fish that form large spawning aggregations are extremely vulnerable to harvesting while they mate.

Sturgeons are just one example of how pre-industrial peoples impacted aquatic resources, though it was not always due to overfishing. Habitat alteration such as that seen during the development of medieval urban culture also had adverse impacts on inland fisheries. Bottom trawling not only damages large amounts of non-target species, but it also decimates complex habitats that attract rich species diversity. Though it may be an extremely effective fishing method, it also has the capacity to inflict great harm on complex bottom environments. Habitat alteration and overexploitation of aquatic resources are by no means a new phenomenon, although they are now being done systematically at a global level. Learning more about the history of fishing provides a salient window into understanding the complexities of human interaction with nature.

© 2009, ProQuest LLC. All rights reserved.

List of Visuals

References

  1. Barrett, James, Alison Locker and Callum Roberts. 2004. The Origins of Intensive Marine Fishing in Medieval Europe: the English Evidence. Proceedings: Biological Sciences, Vol. 271, No. 1556, 2417-2421.

  2. Bekker-Nielsen. 2005. The Technology and Productivity of Ancient Sea Fishing. Ancient Fishing and Fish Processing in the Black Sea Region, Aarhus University Press, Gylling, 83-95.

  3. Bolster, Jeffery. 2008. Putting the Ocean in Atlantic History: Maritime Communities and Marine Ecology in the Northwest Atlantic, 1500-1800. American Historical Review, Vol. 113, No. 1, 19-47.

  4. Curtis, Robert. 2005. Sources for Production and Trade of Greek and Roman Processed Fish. Ancient Fishing and Fish Processing in the Black Sea Region, Aarhus University Press, Gylling, 31-46.

  5. Ejstrud, Bo. 2005. Size Matters: Estimating Trade of Wine, Oil and Fish-sauce from Amphorae in the First Century AD. Ancient Fishing and Fish Processing in the Black Sea Region, Aarhus University Press, Gylling, 171-181.

  6. Hoffmann, Richard. 1996. Economic Development and Aquatic Ecosystems in Medieval Europe. The American Historical Review, Vol. 101, No. 3, 631-669.

  7. Hojte, Jakob Munk. 2005. The Archaeological Evidence for Fish Processing in the Black Sea Region. Ancient Fishing and Fish Processing in the Black Sea Region, Aarhus University Press, Gylling, 133-160.

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  9. Jacobsen, Anne Lif Lund Jacobsen. 2005. The Reliability of Fishing Statistics as a Source for Catches and Fish Stocks in Antiquity. Ancient Fishing and Fish Processing in the Black Sea Region, Aarhus University Press, Gylling, 97-104.

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  18. Perdikaris, Sophia. 1999. From Chiefly Provisioning to Commercial Fishery: Long-Term Economic Change in Arctic Norway. World Archaeology, Vol. 30, No. 3, 388-402.

  19. Roberts, Callum. 2007. The Unnatural History of the Sea. Ocean Island Press / Shearwater Books, Washington DC, 436 pp.

  20. Salisbury, C.R. 1991. Primitive British fishweirs. Waterfront archaeology: Proceedings of the third international conference on waterfront archaeology held at BRISTOL 23-26 September 1988, Alden Press Ltd, Oxford, 76-87.

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  23. Tittler, Robert. 1977. The English Fishing Industry in the Sixteenth Century: The Case of Great Yarmouth. Albion: A Quarterly Journal Concerned with British Studies, Vol. 9, No. 1, 40-60.