Tutorial: A Brief History of Fishing—With A Splash of Hope

December 20th, 2011 | 2 Comments
Fish, Fishing & Fishermen, Okeanos Tutorials

Fishing trawler attracts hundreds of albatrosses off Argentina

Part I: Fishing Down

In 1631 England’s King Charles I may have been the first person to ban a new fishing gear, writing:
“The former abundance of fish is turned into such scarcitie and deareness, that… our citie of London, and even our owne Court, are many times unprovided for their necessary dyet…therefore…the nets heretofore called traules…which is notoriously known to destroy the said frie & spawne…is… forbidden by the law.”

And what’s changed in the centuries since is: fish are scarcer and dearer, from court to kingdom and indeed worldwide. Throw a rock into the ocean, and the chances of hitting a fish have never been worse. When I was a kid in Catholic school in Brooklyn in the early ‘60s, I first learned that our human population was ballooning but that—no problem—the sea surely contained endless food. The plan: as baby boom mushroomed to population bomb, we would venture deeper. Deeper seas, we were told, held so many fish; we had barely nicked the open ocean, where, doubtless, fish swam in numbers beyond numeration, awaiting their turn to serve humanity. It wasn’t the only thing they taught us that hasn’t seemed true.

But at the time, I swallowed it hook, line and sinker  Further time revealed that, first, we were depleting the coastal seas and the great wild populations of fishes would largely collapse. The larger surprise was that the deep and open sea is a relative desert, containing far sparser schools. Simply multiplying the density of coastal fish by the area of the open ocean was a mistake.

In the 20th Century, fishing power leapt in two broad strokes: The combustion engine gave boats the power to tow immense nets that rake the seafloor, polishing it clean of fish. After World War II, military electronics facilitated a veritable war on fish. Sonar showed fish schools in deep water. Radar allowed continuous operations even in deep fog; it could even show distant flocks of seabirds that had found fish. Loran allowed boats to return to small pinnacles, rock-piles, and wrecks that hold fish, though its range was less than pin-point and coast-bound. GPS made Loran obsolete.

By the 1960s, industrialized fleets were scouring the shelves and targeting the great tunas of the open ocean. Nations still claimed waters out to only 12 miles from shore. Almost the entire ocean, including the most productive continental shelves, formed a vast planetary commons for human hunters armed with medieval notions and space-age weapons. And subsidies. Billions of dollars of government monies backed nationalist competition. Vast floating factories capable not only of fishing on a scale never-before seen, but also of processing, packaging and freezing, could fish non-stop, thousands of miles from home, for months on end.

Fisheries management was really a fishing development and promotion exercise, often fostering false impressions of abundance and almost always trailing reality, geared almost entirely toward finding more and, failing that, catching more anyway. The great schools began to falter, then collapse.

Mostly too late, countries began declaring “exclusive economic zones” out to 200 nautical miles from shore. (Many declared such zones in the 1970s. Latin American nations had begun declaring exclusive rights to their continental shelves as early as the 1940s. The U.S. declared its in 1976.)

Had they declared exclusive conservation zones, the world might have better poised itself for what it needed. But few—if any—fishermen, and few managers, saw it that way. In the U.S. most fisheries people had been so shocked by the scale of communist-bloc fishing that their thinking was, ‘Kick out the foreigners and let’s do what they were doing.’

Thus, during the 1980s, when there likely remained enough fish for relatively rapid recoveries of fish populations, countries like the U.S. and Canada subsidized a rapid build-out of their own fishing fleets. Then they finished the job of depleting their own waters.

In the 1990s, fishermen suddenly enraged by what they had been encouraged to do—partly because they had insisted upon it—were told by shell-shocked managers that places like the Grand Banks and Georges Bank, which for 500 years had produced the richest catches on Earth, would be largely closed. In less than one working lifetime since the end of the Second World War, the unthinkable had happened. After five centuries, North Atlantic’s fishing grounds went from the world’s richest to most depleted in a span of 20 years. Some of the greatest wildlife populations on the planet—the great wildlife of the coastal seas and open ocean—had been run to exhaustion.

Communities that had for centuries prospered, began to fracture. Unemployment, dislocation, and government bailouts shamed people whose work had been their self-identity and pride. European and Russian fishing fleets shrank. Their remnants turned south, under-paying their way into the fishing zones of countries too desperate to refuse.

On the high seas, fishing intensified. Long-lines up to 80 kilometers long (50 miles), each with thousands of baited hooks, spread like spiderwebs through the sea. Other boats began fishing with drift-nets up to 40 miles in length until about 1,000 mostly-Asian put 40,000 miles of netting into the Pacific each night. Then they moved into the Atlantic, until, in the early 1990s, the United Nations banned such nets. Many of those boats then switched to long-lines, until their annual deployments topped 2 billion hooks worldwide. In sub-Antarctic waters, many unlicensed, illegal ships increased their targeting of toothfishes (which are marketed as “Chilean seabass”), killing thousands of albatrosses in the process.

2 Responses to “Tutorial: A Brief History of Fishing—With A Splash of Hope”

  1. Betsy Walker Hasegawa in Kyoto says:

    From the sea, sounds like no response,
    no appeal, no protest. Thank you, Carl, your relentless
    voicings, in the language we are supposed to understand, human,
    our own.

  2. King Charles I may have banned the first trawl, but the first petition to outlaw trawling was presented to King Edward III in 1376. Let’s hope it doesn’t take another 255 years to change fisheries policy.

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