Fisheries in History: the Tunny, the Herring and the Cod

From the earliest beginnings, there has always been more to fisheries than the discovery and capture of fish. C.M. Yonge studies how their processes have evolved around the world.

When he surveyed the shores and the shallower seas into which he might penetrate, early man must have been preoccupied with the possibilities of the food they contained.

Vast kitchen middens composed of the shells of oysters and other molluscs, with fish bones and similar remains, bear impressive witness to the extent he relied on fish.

In the words of a mid-Victorian writer, ‘Fish being more distinguished for the size of their heads than for the amount of brains lodged in them and affording consequently an easier capture than either beasts or birds, fell easy victims to the crafts and assaults of their arch-enemy, man.’

Palaeolithic gorges (pointed bone rods) preceded the more sophisticated neolithic hooks of shell, flint or bone in the capture of fish. Traps of stone and probably of wickerwork early appear, and then harpoons with detachable barbed heads made from reindeer antlers or horn.

Nets and baskets of primitive design still in use in the undeveloped world have probably changed little over the centuries. There are Biblical references to fishing methods first depicted in Egyptian paintings around 2000 B.C. where the precise fish, such as the impressive Nile perch or species of Tilapia, African fishes now widely cultivated throughout the tropical world, are easily recognizable.

The first fisheries, confined to rivers or estuaries or along sheltered coasts, could only have been of local importance. But as navigation developed - and we are initially concerned with the Mediterranean - mariners and fishermen were to discover that the sea varies greatly in fertility in different regions, that certain fishes are excessively abundant, and that some of them, particularly those inhabiting surface waters, make extensive migrations, concentrating at particular times of the year in certain regions. Gradually it became clear that such movements were associated with feeding and with spawning.

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