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Expired · 7th January 2010
Ray Grigg
Imagine bucolic rivers wandering through the rolling hills of France or the deep forests of England 1,000 years ago. In this Medieval Age, long before modern industrial fishing was trawling, long-lining, drift-netting and seining, we would expect these rivers to be teeming with bounty.

Not so, say James Barrett and Jen Harland, two researchers from the University of Cambridge, in their report to a recent Oceans Past II conference in Vancouver, BC. As part of the decade-long international Census of Marine Life, Barrett, Harland and other researchers have been "combining population modelling techniques with historical records, such as ships' logs, restaurant menus, paintings, diaries, legal documents and even tax returns" to gain insights into our fishing practices and their ecological impacts (New Scientist, May 30/09). Even 1,000 years ago, much of Europe's freshwater fishery was already stressed and in decline.

When depleted rivers and lakes were unable to supply enough fish for the villages and towns, fishing efforts shifted to the oceans. In 1153, a Moroccan geographer, al-Idris, wrote encouragingly of the opportunities afforded by the Atlantic Ocean's "animals of great size". Southern Europe turned to the Mediterranean for fish, a strategy that worked until about 1500 when, as noted by Maria Lucio De Nicolo of the University of Bologna, the loss of coastal stocks was already forcing boats off shore to deep-sea fishing. By 1600, the English were complaining of the ecological damage done by coastal trawlers ‹ even then – and the loss of fish along their shores and estuaries.

As European stocks declined, attention shifted to the huge fishing opportunities in North America. Settlements were established along its East Coast just to catch, dry and ship cod back to home markets. Large sailing ships literally commuted back and forth across the Atlantic, laden with supplies as they travelled west and with dried cod as they returned to Europe. At Nova Scotia's Louisbourg circa 1750, for example, fishers were catching cod that averaged nearly 50 kilograms each, and the settlement was shipping about 15,000 tonnes per year of dried cod to France.

Back in Europe, however, the depletion of ocean fish stocks continued. "By the early 1800s, the once super abundant European herring fishery had collapsed" and "wind-powered whaling ships had virtually wiped out a population of nearly a million bowhead whales in the eastern Arctic Ocean" (Ibid.). Even before the introduction of factory ships, New Zealand's estimated population of 27,000 right whales had been reduced by 1925 to about 25 reproducing females (Ibid.). Portugal's Algarve fishery collapsed in the early 20th century, leaving the smokestacks of its abandoned processing factories to nesting cranes.

This historical information provides an important insight into our past treatment of fisheries resources. When rivers and lakes had too few fish to serve local needs, people fished the oceans close to shore. When this supply was depleted, they ventured off-shore. As ships gained in power and technology, fishing became a global activity. Now 88% of European seas are considered to be "overexploited" and 69% are approaching "collapse" (Guardian Weekly, July 31/09). According to the United Nations, "up to 75% of the world's fish stocks are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted". With an estimated 90% of large commercial species now gone from the world's oceans, our remaining fishing efforts are concentrated on the last 10%. Illegal Chinese, European and South American fishing fleets are now pirating fish from those African and southern oceans that still have commercially available stocks (Ibid.).

Some solace can be taken from the fact that fish still exist. Despite centuries of abuse, writes Poul Holm, an environmental historian at Trinity College, Dublin, "Few marine species have gone extinct but entire marine ecosystems may have been depleted beyond recovery" (Ibid.). The cod of Newfoundland is just one of the more striking examples. Bluefin tuna will probably be next. And a long queue of other species are awaiting their turn.

Most extraordinary ‹ and most worrying ‹ is our apparent failure to learn from experience. We have had 1,000 years in countless places to recognize the consequences of our abusive fishing practices and to change our behaviour. We have repeatedly learned the same sad lesson over and over again – each time at a larger scale. But we never seem to have connected one isolated lesson to the next, plotted the significance of this trend, or imagined the ultimate result.

As our scale of exploiting fish stocks has expanded from local to global, so too has our perspective. With the clarity offered by history and the advantages available from modern technology, we now know we are exhausting our entire supply of fish as fast as our excuses. Worldwide monitoring of fish stocks and catches are combining with international communication to present us with inescapable conclusions and shrinking options. Indeed, unless we coordinate and limit our catch of global fish stocks by forcing each fishing nation to become a responsible custodian of a resource vital to our living planet, we are embarked on an end game that promises catastrophe for both our oceans and ourselves.