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. Watch a TEDed explanation of “The Tragedy of the Common’s.” Explain the key pieces of this theory in three sentences or less.
  2. In the 1970’s and 1980’s US and Canadian Governments encouraged unrestricted access to Cod Fisheries of the Grand Banks area. That means anyone with a boat and trawl nets could go fish it. They also gave government guaranteed loans to help you build a boat. This fishery collapsed in the 1990’s. Do you think this is a good example of tragedy of the commons? If you are not sure, what else would you want to know?
  3. Go to, after reading, describe what has happened to the Earth’s largest fisheries and the Earth’s largest fish.
  4. Use the Google slideshow in lesson 03 to explain how set-netting, drift-netting, and purse-seining are used to catch Alaska Salmon. Need help At any point you can check out this summary of different fishing methods.
  5. Use the Google slideshow in lesson 03 to explain how long-lining works. Also, explain what by-catch means, and how by-catch is a drawback of long-line fishing.
  6. Explain the term IFQ, and how it is used to regulate bottom fish commercial fisheries in Alaska.
  7. Use the Google slideshow in lesson 03 or the attached link to explain how trawling works to catch fish. In your explanation describe how bottom trawling can lead to bottom habitat destruction.
  8. Use the Google slideshow in lesson 03 or the attached link to explain how pot fishing works and what kinds of species it is used for in Alaska.
  9. Check out the 2019 summary of Alaska Commercial Fishing. How was the year? Which species represented the largest number of pounds or the greatest value $$?
  10. What kinds of things is Alaska doing to make their fisheries more sustainable into the future? What kinds of things could you do?