Chapter 10: Fishing


Fishing has been a way of life (and a way to eat) for as long as 40,000 years. There is good anthological evidence for ancient cultures fishing with spears, stone hooks, and simple nets. People have always chosen to live near water in part because of the benefits of seafood. Most of the history of fishing is the story of small scale exploitation. The scale of fishing was limited by the technology available and the distance one could travel with a fresh catch before the fish spoiled. That means until the 1900’s much of the worlds oceans remained un-fished and as such provided nurseries to provide a nearly limitless supply of fish. Most fishing cultures thought that the ocean had an unlimited ability to produce fish resources, the only challenge was figuring out how to better exploit it.

Changes in Fishing Technology

Traditional Fishing Modern Fishing
single stone hooks on plant lines or wood spears thousands of steel hooks on nylon long lines that can be 50 km long or nylon drift nets that are miles long
small wind powered boats, close to shore with fish used locally huge factory ships with onboard freezing, fish shipped anywhere in the world
local fishing based on traditional culture and local need international fishing based on corporate mentalities and profit motive
 fish that is salted or dried flash frozen
 visual navigation sonar, gps, computer guidance
 oral traditions, fishermen experience  data


The history of war and the history of fishing are strangely linked. Each new world conflict has brought with it advances in naval technology. During the period of 800-1000 AD, as the Vikings expanded their empire, they developed techniques to dry and salt the cod they found in abundance in Iceland and North America. The European wars and colonial expansion of the 1500 and 1600’s brought large sailing ships and improvements in navigation. The 1700’s brought the ability to measure longitude and latitude accurately and properly map fishing grounds. In the 1800’s steam power and iron vessels made sea travel faster and safer. World War I brought mass production of the diesel engine. World War II brought nylon which could be used for for nets and long-lines, sonar for fish location, and most importantly ship based refrigeration.

Fish continues to be a major source of the world’s animal protein (particularly for non-developed nations,) but things have changed. There are no longer parts of the ocean that are not fishable. There is no longer any resource that is unlimited. All parts of the ocean are now fished. 75% of the world’s fish stocks are either fully or over exploited.

Fisheries Management

A modern commercial fishing boat, image from Wikipedia

Fisheries management came into being shortly after World War II out of the recognition that fish stocks were beginning to decline. Fisheries management a complex process that integrates science with politics, culture, and economics. There is no way to give a complete description for how each individual fish species is managed in each different body of water and country in such a short space. Nonetheless, there is some important vocabulary that anyone who reads about fisheries should understand.

Questions to Research:

  1. Fishing is big business, but fishing depends upon a limited supply of fish. Catches can not increase forever.  Go to, and describe what fifty years of intensive fishing pressure has done to the ocean’s fish resources in general and large fish in particular.
  2. I have shared with you a spreadsheet of the global fish harvest per person since 1950.  Make a graph of the data and explain what has happened to the total harvest of fish as well as the total harvest per person.
  3. has a highly visual explanation of different types of commercial fishing methods. Read about and watch the animations for each method of commercial fishing. (Not the fish farming, we will save those for later.)  Briefly summarize how bottom trawling and dredging, then list any potential environmental drawback to each style of fishing.
  4. Using the same website briefly summarize gill netting, and purse seining, then list any potential environmental drawback to each style of fishing.
  5. Finally, using the same site briefly summarize, long-lining and trolling, then list any potential environmental drawback to each of these.
  6. Check out a summary of Alaska commercial fishing techniques for ADFG.  Create a table that documents which methods of commercial fishing are used for the following Alaska fish: pink salmon, sockeye salmon, halibut, black cod (also known as sable fish), and for pollock.
  7. Alaska commercial fishing rakes in almost three billion dollars.  Which of Alaska’s fisheries is the biggest and most valuable? Specifically which is the biggest by pounds caught and which is the largest in dollar value (these are not necessarily the same.
  8. The Alaska State Constitution is one of the few, if not the only constitutions in world to make specific statements about the management of fish and wildlife.  Read Article 8,  pay particular attention to two ideas – “sustainable yield” and “limited entry.”  Describe in your own words what maximum sustainable yield and limited entry mean.
  9. What kinds of things is Alaska doing to make their fisheries more sustainable into the future?
  10. In 1988, the Alaska state legislature passed a law legalizing aqua culture for shellfish (oysters, clams, and muscles).  The same law banned farming of fined fish within Alaska’s waters.  Salmon Farms pose a significant risk….  Skim this article and briefly summarize why Alaskan fishermen are concerned about fish farming.  If you need more help with this one, click here for some comparisons of farmed and wild salmon.