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Overview

Overview

When did human beings begin to eat fish? This question is an endless source of speculation. What can be said with confidence is that our very distant ancestors, if they lived near sea, lake, or river, would have picked up the idea quickly enough; watching the activity of diving birds, and finding fish trapped in rockpools or in naturally formed barriers in rivers, would have been sufficient prompts.

In prehistoric times, the availability of fish as food was distinctly limited. Of the marine species, only inshore ones ran any risk of being caught; deep-sea species, save for the occasional stranding on a beach, were not seen, much less caught and eaten. Even the most accessible of inshore species were relatively safe. So many fish, so few humans. And, to judge by archaeological evidence, humans found it easier to prize mollusks off rocks than to chase darting fish; witness the huge deposits of bivalve shells found in coastal Stone Age communities. Some of these deposits, for example those at Skara Brae in Shetland, are well known; but they are found in many parts of the world.

Freshwater fish enjoyed less immunity. Even before the arrival of nets and harpoons and fishing rods, they could be caught in fish traps made from simple, natural materials such as beavers used for making their dams.

Moving forward in time, it is clear that, at the dawn of recorded history, fishing and eating fish were well established practices. William Radcliffe's highly readable and wide-ranging Fishing from the Earliest Times (1926) shows that in most regions of the Old WorldChina, the civilizations of India and the Middle East, classical Greece and Romefish were a significant feature of the diet.

It is also abundantly clear that in early historic times the art of fishing and the scale of consumption developed rapidly. The works of early Chinese writers and of classical Greek authors, although some survive in mere fragments, exhibit a sophisticated range of specific fishing techniques and considerable discrimination among the species. Radcliffe observes that fishing techniques, at least for freshwater fish, have changed less over the centuries than corresponding techniques in, say, hunting (changed by the introduction of the gun); and that the spear, the line and hook, and the net remained preeminent fishing implements.

Special Attributes of Fish as Food

Early humans may have known instinctively that fish constituted a beneficial food. There are many reasons for this. One reason, which no one would have been likely to articulate until recent times, is that fish need a less elaborate skeleton than land animals, since their weight is supported by the water in which they live, providing them more flesh in relation to body weight. They are therefore an excellent source of low-fat protein. (Incidentally, not all species of fish have true, bony skeletons. The category of certain important groups, notably sharks and rays, as "non-bony" indicate they have a skeleton of cartilaginous substance, not bone.)

There are other ways in which fish are unique among the categories of food. First, they constitute by far the largest resource of wild food in the world. Second, the huge number of species of edible fish distinguishes them from other foods. Not even the citizens of Norway or Singapore (the top two countries worldwide in per-capita consumption) could hope to sample them all.

In addition, humanitarian considerations have been applied only rarely and selectively to fish and other marine or freshwater creatures, in contrast to the land animals (especially mammals) and birds. True, it has recently become unseemly for anyone except the Inuit (Eskimos) to eat marine mammals, and concern is sometimes shown over how to kill lobsters and crabs painlessly; but compassion rarely extends to fish. Nonetheless there may be a gradual change of attitude on this matter; indeed the first signs have already emerged of campaigns to include fish in "animal rights."

This last point would fit in with the reverence that in many cultures has been accorded to fish, and with the symbolic importance they have enjoyed. It is common knowledge that a fish was the first symbol of Christianity, that several disciples of Jesus were fishermen, and that some of his best-known miracles involved fish as well as bread and wine.

In other religions and cultures too fish have had a special place. In ancient Egypt and elsewhere, fish were sacrificed for the gods. They could also take on the role of "scapegoats" or sin bearers. Thus in ancient Assyria people gathered on New Year's Day by a lake or stream and, if they found numerous fish, took this as an omen for the expiation of human sins, and cast their clothes into the water for the fish to bear away, and their sins with them.

Fish could also be used, in Babylon and classical Rome, for auguries and oracular responses, based on a study of their movements. However, it was in Christian cultures that the religious role of fish led to practical consequences. In medieval times the demand for fish, stimulated by the Christian Church's insistence on meatless days, combined with realization that abundant stocks of fish such as cod existed in northerly waters, stimulated voyages of exploration and the development of techniques for fishing in distant waters.

So, at least in Europe, fishing and trade in fish took a new turn as the medieval period began. Northerly peoples such as the Scandinavians emerged from relative obscurity. The powerful Hanseatic League, centered on the Baltic Sea, was based to a considerable extent on its near monopoly of the trade in salted and dried fish; these fish came from the huge stocks of the North Atlantic. Indeed, the subsequent colonization of North America was certainly stimulatedsome would say largely causedby the search for ever more effective ways of exploiting these stocks and by the competition between the maritime powers for them.

The effects of all this activity are still with us. The salted and dried cod of medieval times survives today as an important article of commerce, under Scandinavian names such as klippfisk. In many parts of the world people who now have better means of preserving fish, notably freezing, continue to eat these products because they have acquired a taste for them. The same applies to the famous lutefisk which Swedes, for example, devotedly eat at Christmas despite all the bother involved in preparing it. Indeed it applies to many kinds of cured fish, including the hundred and one forms of cured herring such as kippers and bloaters, red herring and rollmops.

All this activity implies a recognition of fish as a valuable food resource. Indeed in the Orient, the Chinese have a consistent record, stretching back for more than four thousand years, of recognizing the nutritional (and often the medical) value of most seafoods, and of honoring fish. Bernard Read in his invaluable "Chinese Materia Medica" comments that:

Owing to its reproductive powers, in China the fish is a symbol of regeneration. As fish are reputed to swim in pairs, so a pair of fish is emblematic of connubial bliss. As in water fish move easily in any direction they signify freedom from all restraints, so in the Buddha-state the fully emancipated know no restraints or obstructions. Their scaly armour makes them a symbol of martial attributes, bringing strength and courage; and swimming against the current provides an emblem of perseverance. The fish is a symbol of abundance or wealth and prosperity, because they are so plentiful in the seas and rivers.

In the Western world, however, attitudes have been more ambivalent. Although the fish was a symbol of Christianity and prescribed as Lenten fare, opinions were divided on its merits, even on its suitability, as food. In Britain, for example, the evidence of eighteenth-century cookbooks indicates increased consumption of fresh fish from the sea, but the literature of dietetics shows a countervailing current among some medical authorities. As recently as 1835 the respected author of a manual on "modern domestic medicine" declared that fish "affords, upon the whole, but little nourishment, and is, for the most part, of difficult digestion, and this appears to be the general sentiment of intelligent medical men." One author even devoted a lengthy book to arguing that the fundamental cause of leprosy was "the eating of fish in a state of commencing decomposition." These examples remind us that it is only in the present century that seafood has been fully accepted in the West as an admirable source of nourishment. More specifically, it is only in recent decades that the importance of fish oils for health has been fully recognized. The recognition of fish as a valuable article in the diet has led to a flowering of books devoted to fish cookery. The prominence given by authors and by the media generally to fish as food, especially in the English-speaking world, is a new phenomenon which has its effect on demand.

The question arises: what are the future prospects for supplies of fish, and will they be adequate for the growing world population? There are many considerations involved here. Perhaps the most important is the development of aquaculture. Colin E. Nash has shown that there is a wealth of evidence from early sources in Egypt, China, and the Mediterranean region to show how the primitive origins of the industry led long ago to relatively sophisticated practices.

In classical Rome, for example, there were numerous vivaria (fish tanks), which served in part as status symbols for the wealthy but were essentially devoted to the production of food. Later, from the early Middle Ages onwards, fishponds became almost ubiquitous in Europe, particularly in association with religious institutions such as monasteries. It does not need a genius to perceive the benefits, and it is not surprising that there is an ancient and strong tradition of constructing and stocking fishponds in Asia also. These, of course, are for freshwater fish, especially carp and (more recently) tilapia. However, even in classical Rome there were vivaria for marine species and progress was already being made in taking advantage of saltwater lagoons and suitable parts of estuaries to create enclosures in which seafish could be raised to maturity. Carol Déry has demonstrated that the Romans had progressed amazingly far in this sort of activity, perhaps further than modern people until the last quarter of the twentieth century. Now, however, the pace is quickening. Techniques for raising salmon in sea lochs or similar environments and for dealing with the attendant risks (pollution, infections, etc) are constantly improved. The number of species involved is growing as trials show that more and more can be successfully brought to marketable size in protected surroundings. Atlantic cod are being raised in Norwegian fjords, catfish are brought up in "farms" in the southern states of the United States, and so on. The future looks promising.

As for the sea fisheries, it is difficult to be equally optimistic, since so many fishing grounds are now being exploited up to and beyond the sustainable limits, and some stocks, for example cod in the northwest Atlantic, have already been overfished to the point of extinction. Politics enter into the matter in a big way. To put it very mildly, not everyone in the fishing industry is willing to sacrifice short-term gains for long-term benefits. The same applies to consumers, and it is significant that at the beginning of the present century a new international organization, the Marine Stewardship Council, set about establishing a broad set of Principles and Criteria for Sustainable Fisheries. A system of "eco-labeling" is advocated, whereby special labels will indicate to people buying fish whether these are from an endangered source or not.

Progress may be slow but it is being made, and there is one comforting thought. Humans are now better equipped than ever before to harvest the waters, and also better informed about the ways in which harvests can safely be maximized.

See also Aquaculture ; Christianity ; Crustaceans and Shell-fish ; Fishing ; Mammals, Sea ; Mollusks.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Déry, Carol A. "Fish as Food and Symbol in Ancient Rome." In Fish: Food from the Waters, edited by Harlan Walker, Proceedings of the Oxford Symposium on Food and Cookery. 1997 Totnes, Devon, U.K.: Prospect Books, 1998.

FAO Fisheries Department. The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2000. Rome: Food and Agriculture Organization, 2000.

Heen, Eirik, and Rudolf Kreuzer, eds. Fish in Nutrition. London: Fishing News, 1962.

Lee, Mercédès. Seafood Lover's Almanac. Islip, N.Y.: National Audubon Society, 2000.

Nash, Colin E. "Aquatic Animals." In The Cambridge World History of Food, edited by Kenneth F. Kiple and Kriemhild Coneè Ornelas, vol. 1. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Radcliffe, William. Fishing from the Earliest Times, 2d ed. London: John Murray, 1926.

Read, Bernard E. "Chinese Materia Medica: Fish Drugs." Peking Natural History Bulletin (1939).

Alan Davidson

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corporation tax

corporation tax, imposts levied by federal, state, or local governments against corporations, their income, or their peculiar attributes, such as charters, capitalization, dividends, and franchises. In the United States such taxes were brought about by the difficulty of taxing corporate bonds and stocks and by the growth of corporations beyond state bounds, with consequent difficulty of assessment and taxation. Such special state corporation taxes now include fees and licenses for incorporation or for an increase in capitalization or for filing the corporation's charter in another state; taxes on gross earnings; taxes on tonnage and financial instruments or transactions; franchise taxes; capital stock taxes; and net income taxes. In 1909 the federal government imposed an excise tax on net incomes of U.S. corporations. That tax was superseded by a corporation income tax after the Sixteenth Amendment (1913). In Great Britain in 1920 a tax was levied on corporations, including foreign companies of limited liability doing business in Great Britain, but exempting the profits of corporations receiving income from other corporations already taxed. In both the United States and Great Britain, excess profits tax has generally been imposed only during wartime.

See S. Réamonn, The Philosophy of the Corporate Tax (1970); H. Nurnburg, Cash Movements Analysis of the Accounting for Corporate Income Taxes (1971).

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overview

o·ver·view / ˈōvərˌvyoō/ • n. a general review or summary of a subject: a critical overview of the scientific issues of our time. • v. [tr.] give a general review or summary of: the report overviews the needs of the community.

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overview

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