Fishing – what’s changed?

Fishing – what’s changed? Detail from a fishing scene, Tomb of Qenamun Image: Metropolitan Museum of Art

When Europe was inhabited by tribes of intelligent savages, fishing was one of the main sources of food. The associated seamanship and boat-building enabled the development of marine navigation and other sea trades.

One of the oldest fishing centres called Sidon, which according to scholars of Semitic languages means ‘The Fishery,’ was populated by Phoenicians, who with their genius for navigation and commerce, specialised in trade in dried and salted fish and in collection of certain mollusks, of which they prepared the Tyrian purple that for the richness variety and stability of its hues, was prized higher than any other ancient dye.

Tyre became the commercial emporium of the ancient world, "enriching the kings of the earth with the multitude of other riches, and of her merchandise;" such as purple fabrics and bronze. The increasing trade in both raw materials and fabricated products, gave birth to the best fleets and the boldest sailors of their times.

Phoenician factories and fishing stations extended over the islands of the Aegean into the Black Sea, stretched along both shores of the Mediterranean and reached the Atlantic seaboard in Spain and in Morocco. These energetic sea-folk–fishermen, traders, or pirates, wherever they touched, carried the arts which they had invented or learned from Egypt or Babylonia, and stirred the slumbering powers of the intelligent savages of Europe.

It is a fair supposition that due to the inconvenience of Egyptian ideographic writing, the Phoenicians have been driven to invent their own alphabet for book-keeping and for the conduct of their commercial correspondence.

These few remarks must suffice to indicate the wide field of interesting research which fisheries offer to the philosophical historian, as well as to thinkers busy with practical interests. The supply of food is, in the long run, the chief of these interests. Every nation has its anxiety on this score, but the question presses most heavily on those who, like ourselves, are constantly and rapidly adding to the population of a limited area, and who require more food than that area can possibly supply. Unlike these circumstances, it is satisfactory to reflect that the sea which shuts us in, at the same time opens up its supplies of food of almost unlimited extent.

In those days the most frequented fishing grounds had been much more prolific of food than the same extent of the richest land. Once in a year, an acre of good land carefully tilled produced a ton of corn, or two or three hundredweight of meat or cheese. The same area at the bottom of the sea in the best fishing grounds yielded a greater weight of food to the persevering fisherman every week in the year. Five vessels belonging to the same source in a single night's fishing brought in 17 tons weight of fish – an amount of wholesome food equal in weight to that of 50 cattle or 500 sheep. The ground which these vessels covered during the night's fishing could not have exceeded an area of 50 acres.

Researchers in commercial fisheries have been asking what yield may be expected, not from the best natural fishing grounds, but from aquaculture. At Comacchio, close to the mouth of the Po flowing into the Adriatic, aquaculture has been practiced in a very ingenious manner for many centuries in a large shallow lagoon, which covers some 70,000 acres. The fish cultivated are eels, grey mullet, atherines, and soles. According to the figures obtained from a reliable source, the average yield for the sixteen years from 1798 to 1813 amounted to 5 cwt. per acre, that is to say, double the weight of cheese or meat which could have been obtained from the same area of fair pasture land in the same time. Thus the importance of the seas around us consists not only in food they naturally yield, but also by artificial development of their resources. For example, a visitor to the market may see fresh trout from New Zealand lying side by side with fresh salmon, some of which came from Scandinavia and some from the lakes and rivers of North America. Motorised fleets and refrigeration combined have made it possible for us to draw upon the whole world for our supplies of fresh fish. Some years ago, Newcastle was the furthest source of the salmon cried about the streets of London, and that was generally pickled. In the near future, choice of fish, may be offered between a fresh salmon from Ontario and another from Tasmania.

The fishing industry being thus important and thus ancient, it is singular that it can hardly be said to have kept pace with the rapid improvement of almost every other branch of industrial occupation in modern times. If we contrast the progress of fishery with that of agriculture, for example, the comparison is not favourable to fishery.

While attempting to regulate fishing rationally in questions relating to the habits, the food, and the mode of propagation of fishes we are often met with vague and even absurd guesses in the place of positive knowledge. The Royal Commission was appointed in 1864 chiefly on account of the allegation by the line fishermen that the trawlers destroyed the spawn of the white fish-cod, haddock, whiting, and the like. But, in point of fact, the 'spawn', produced in support of this allegation, consisted of all sorts of soft marine organisms, except fish. And if the men of practice had then known what the men of science have since discovered, that the eggs of cod, haddock, and plaice float at the top of the sea, they would have spared themselves and their fellow-fishermen, the trawlers, a great deal of unnecessary trouble and irritation.

The reader of this column may ask: what's new in the above?

Well, nothing. In fact all the above represents an (MB-Y abstracted) inaugural address read at the opening of the 1883 London Fisheries Exhibition. That’s right, 135 years ago. Would you have guessed?

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