Fish commoditization and the historical origins of catching fish for profit

Fish commoditization and the historical origins of catching fish for profit

By Tony J Pitcher and Mimi E Lam

Maritime Studies, Vol.14:2 (2015)

A Brixham trawler by William Adolphus Knell,

Abstract: Humanity’s relationship with fish dates back to prehistory, when ancestral hominins evolved the capacity to exploit aquatic resources. The impacts of early fishing on aquatic ecosystems were likely minimal, as primitive technology was used to harvest fish primarily for food. As fishing technology became more sophisticated and human populations dispersed and expanded, local economies transitioned from hunter-gatherer subsistence to barter and complex trade. This set up a positive feedback ratcheting fishing technology, mercantilization, and the commoditization of fish. A historical narrative based on archaeology and documentary evidence follows the principal changes in fisheries through evolutionary, ancient, classical and medieval eras to modern times. Some local depletions are recorded from early fishing, but from the 1950s, massive impacts of serial depletions by size, species, area and depth are driven by commoditized fishery products. North Sea herring fisheries are described in detail. Today’s severely depleted wild fish populations reflect social institutions built on global markets that value fish predominantly as a consumptive commodity, risking future ecological integrity and human food security. To sustain global fisheries, decommoditization strategies that sustain human and ecosystem relationships with fish beyond their commodity value are needed.

Excerpt: With the shift of the Roman capital to Constantinople in 324 AD and the collapse of the Western Roman Empire (476 AD), advanced economies moved east with the Eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine Empire, 476 – 1453 AD) and the Caliphates of the Early Middle Ages (Islamic Empires, 632 – 1171 AD): from this period, little is written of fisheries in the Roman texts, while Arabic texts still need to be combed for references to fish and fishing gears. Meanwhile, in northern Europe in the Middle Ages (5th – 15th Century), fish was a staple food of the expanding Christian monasteries and abbeys (5th – 10th Century), fuelled by the religious requirement to avoid meat on Fridays and during Lent: commercial documents show a flourishing herring trade on the coasts and where navigable rivers reached population centers inland. Barrett et al. discuss how fish bones from monastery middens reveal a growing market economy in Europe from the late 10th Century, as trade in staple commodities (such as fish for food) replaced medieval trade characterized by luxury gifts. A dramatic shift from local freshwater fish to herring and air-dried cod from Norway from the 11th Century onwards has been interpreted as a response to overfishing of local freshwater fish. Nevertheless, evidence shows dried Scandinavian cod joined herring as an important traded commodity from this period, with no reports of cod shortages. Stable isotope analysis of fish bones in the southern North Sea shows that cod were initially obtained locally from the 9th to 11th Century, but during the 13th and 14th Centuries, this shifted to long distance transport, as expanding cities like London were unable to obtain fish supplies locally.

Figure 2 illustrates the major events in the environmental history of the North Sea herring fishery over the last 900 years. The herring fishery (and a transition to greater harvesting of marine fish, Barrett et al. dates back at least to the Saxon invasion of England, and possibly to Roman times (see above). Worries about the consequences of heavy fishing encouraged Edward III in 1357 to pass a law regulating the expanding East Anglian herring fishery in England. Herring trade expanded in the late 1300s with the introduction in Holland of an improved curing process that allowed the salting of fresh herring in barrels at sea. During this period, in the 14th and 15th Centuries, herring fisheries in the North Sea, off southern Norway, and in the Baltic Sea became the fountainhead of the enormous wealth of the Hanseatic League of trading cities (founded in Lübeck in 1241), which included Bergen, Amsterdam and Hamburg. In the 16th Century, the hugely important Scanian herring fishery in the strait between Sweden and Denmark collapsed, due partly perhaps to a climate shift, but certainly to overfishing. Caught with traditional drift nets and ring seines (early purse seines), herring as a commodity continued to be vital for the economies of Holland, Scotland, eastern Britain and Scandinavia until as late as the 18th Century (de Caux [1881]). Despite this commoditization, amazingly, for almost three centuries, analyzed catch rate records suggest that the Dutch North Sea herring fishery was stable and sustainable. Extensive trade and commoditization are therefore not necessarily linked to serial destruction of a resource: during this period of relatively stable fishing technology, profitable and productive herring fisheries continued to be a part of Dutch culture. For example, Sir Walter Rayleigh wrote in 1603 that 450,000 people in Holland owed their livelihoods to the thriving herring fishery.

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