FISHING. Fishing is the art and science of catching animals that live in water. This pursuit can be for fun or profit. Recreational angling is often practiced as an art, with little to no expectation of actually catching and keeping a fish for personal use. In commercial fishing, there is an expectation of catching and keeping fish or invertebrates and an expectation of selling those animals for profit. This article will focus on commercial fishing.
Hunting and gathering animals that live in water is an ancient form of food gathering. Today, aquatic animals caught from wild populations are one of, if not the last, major food category we still predominantly hunt and gather. Virtually all of the other foods we consume are grown in agricultural operations. However, we are in the early phases of a major transition from hunting and gathering fish and shellfish to agricultural production (aquaculture) of aquatic animals.
We live on a wet planet. Water comprises greater than 70 percent of Earth, and that habitat is home to far more vertebrates than the dry portion of the planet. Given the size and scope of aquatic habitats and the diversity of species present, it is not surprising that it took until 1989 to reach maximum sustainable yield from the world's oceans. Maximum sustainable yield is the tonnage of aquatic animals that can be harvested annually while maintaining healthy populations. It is important to note that there are two distinct groupings when discussing fish: individual species and the sum of all species. Further subdivisions are possible, but the important point is that individual populations or species can be in poor condition (for example, low numbers) while overall, fishes in that body of water are generally healthy.
Since 1989, global commercial harvest has been close to 90 million metric tons, and that figure is not expected to increase. The largest commercial harvest industries are for species used for making fish meal (anchovy, herring, and menhaden) and those used for food (pollack, mackerel, and capelin). The largest species-oriented industries are listed in Table 1.
There are over 22,000 species of fish, and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization monitors commercial harvest of slightly over 1,100 species. Further, a thorough understanding of fish taxonomy (the science of fish identification) is not commonplace among many commercial fishermen. Thus, many species simply are grouped into a nonspecific category such as marine fishes. From the data above, it seems clear that the commercial fishing fleets from the western coast of South America (Chile and Peru) and Southeast Asia (China, Thailand, Vietnam, Myanmar, and Japan) harvest more fish than other parts of the planet. Not shown in Table 1 are the most productive fishing grounds, which are the
|Commercial harvest of fish and shellfish in 1999 and the country of landing|
|Species||Harvest (million metric tons)|
|Marine fishes, China*||3,853,814|
|Pollack, Russian Federation||1,500,450|
|Marine mollusks, China*||1,445,303|
|Freshwater fishes, China*||1,394,610|
|Largehead hairtail, China||1,222,454|
|Jack mackerel, Chile||1,219,689|
|Marine crustaceans, China*||1,131,643|
|Pollack, United States||1,055,016|
|Araucanian herring, Chile||782,142|
|Marine fishes, Vietnam*||770,000|
|Marine fishes, Thailand*||750,000|
|Marine fishes, Myanmar*||695,904|
|Gulf menhaden, United States||694,242|
|*Many species are listed under a general heading.|
|SOURCE: United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization|
Pacific Northwest, Pacific Southeast, and the northeastern portion of the Atlantic Ocean.
There are several reasons postulated for the plateauing of commercial harvests. Pollution and other environmental stressors on fish populations are common speculations, as well as overharvest by commercial fishing fleets. From the industrial revolution to current times, pollutant levels in the oceans increased and certainly had some negative impact on populations of animals in aquatic habitats. Over the same time period, commercial harvesting equipment improved significantly and also contributed to declines in populations and leveling of harvest volumes. Regardless of the cause, wild populations of many fish and shellfish declined in the latter half of the twentieth century. However, it is important to grasp the scope of the situation before assigning blame to any particular cause.
The average depth of oceans is over 13,000 feet (4,000 meters). Over 84 percent of the oceans are deeper than 6,500 feet (2,000 meters). The Marianas Trench in the western Pacific Ocean is the deepest place at 36,000 feet (11,000 meters), deeper by a mile than the altitude of Mount Everest (29,000 feet, or 8,845 meters high). As stated earlier, the vast majority of our planet is under water. Many species of fish either travel long distances in their normal habits or the populations inhabit large areas. Given these facts, establishing accurate population estimates is virtually impossible. Fishing gears and efficiency of commercial harvest have increased significantly and also contribute to attaining maximum sustainable yield.
Fishing gears are largely unchanged from ancient times. Nets of various types are the most commonly used commercial fishing gear. The basic concept of a net, regardless of the configuration, is the same today as it was when ancient man first wove fibers together to make nets. Impaling devices such as spears and harpoons are also unchanged from ancient times. There are numerous types of traps in use, mainly for trapping crustaceans (lobsters, crabs, crayfish), and those have ancient origins. Fishing gears have become more efficient, but in subtle ways. Prior to about 1980, trawls (nets pulled behind a boat) could attain only a limited depth and were nonspecific in their catch. Significant research efforts resulted in trawls that could be fished deeper (up to 8,200 feet, or 2,500 meters) and had devices that would tend to exclude mammals or turtles. Harpoons are not routinely used in the twenty-first century, and spears have evolved to spear guns for individual fishermen. Trap materials have changed with the advent of polymers, but the basic configurations have not changed for hundreds of years. The major change that occurred is not in gears, but in the boats.
Commercial fishing boats are capable of staying at sea for months at a time, giving fishermen the ability to fish anywhere in the world. Technological advances in engines, fuels, and boat designs, coupled with international treaties that allow foreign fishing fleets safe harbor, increased the efficiency of commercial operations. Harvested animals can be cleaned on board and frozen at –76°F (–60°C) for extended storage. Large companies evolved to more efficiently harvest fish, and those companies developed the concept of multiple fishing boats and a mother ship for processing and storing fish. It is not uncommon to find Japanese fishermen in the North Atlantic Ocean harvesting giant bluefin tuna. Fishermen also take advantage of the other forms of commercial transport, taking some of their harvest to nearby ports and consigning them to air freight companies for transport back to home bases. Frozen giant bluefin tuna are flown from New York to Tokyo regularly.
Restrictions on commercial harvest have been common since the early 1980s. As populations declined, state or federal regulatory agencies restricted harvest by establishing quotas (limited number of fishing licenses), restricting harvest volume (limitation on volume, which can be expressed per day, week, or season), or restricting gears (numbers of traps, length of nets, number of nets). There is at least one example on every coast of the United States in which commercial harvest has been significantly curtailed, even to the point of declaring the species rare and endangered. However, as mentioned above, the size and scope of fishing demands that many countries contribute toward management of populations.
International agreements are in place that define who can fish where, seasons for fishing, and gear acceptance. Most countries claim some distance from their shores as available only to local fishermen. The Fisheries Conservation and Management Act (or the Magnuson Act) was adopted in 1976 and declared the first two hundred miles (322 kilometers) from U.S. shores as open only to U.S. fishermen. The International Whaling Commission was established in 1946 to regulate the global harvest of whales, but has only slowly gained momentum and has no real authority to enforce agreements. Native Americans retained many of their rights to traditional fisheries and harvest those populations in the twenty-first century. Many times, these harvests are contrary to recommendations from regulatory agencies and are controversial with other fishermen.
Fishing communities in New England, the Gulf Coast, and the West Coast have been seriously impacted by the decline in commercial fishing. Whole communities are in significant economic crisis. New industries are not readily apparent for a labor force trained in commercial fishing, processing, and distribution of fish and shellfish. Since the 1980s the fisheries have been in sharp decline, and with it a way of life. Some fishermen, with modified gears, are able to switch species. For example, in 1970, the harvest of the Argentine shortfin squid was 1,300 metric tons. However, harvest of anchovy became erratic and new species were sought, including the shortfin squid. Between 1970 and 1999, total harvest of the Peruvian anchovy by all countries varied from 93,000 metric tons to over 13 million metric tons. Over this same time period, harvest of the shortfin squid increased to just over 1 million metric tons. Harvest of the Atlantic cod, the species used in most fish sandwiches in the United States, has declined from over 3 million metric tons to around 1 million metric tons. A replacement has not been identified in the North Atlantic ocean. Creative marketing techniques also opened opportunities for commercial fishermen. A deep-water species around Australia, New Zealand, and Tasmania was once unmarketable. The local name for this fish was the slime head. However, under its new name, orange roughy has found a ready market in the United States.
The newest of the commercial harvest industries developed in the past forty or fifty years and focused on species inhabiting coral reefs. The pet or hobby aquarium trade increased significantly as technology made it possible to maintain saltwater fish tanks in any temperature-controlled room. Harvest was often by hand, using small dip nets, but more recently other forms of harvest have been used, including poisons (cyanide) and explosives. These collection methods are indiscriminate and have been banned in most countries. The demand for ornamental fishes coupled with the gradual bans on many harvest techniques led to development of aquaculture industries focused on tropical fishes for home aquaria. The same scenario is occurring with fishes destined for food. However, culture of fishes for making fish meal is not occurring and appears unlikely. Fish harvested for fish meal do not command high prices and need large areas. The economics of that form of aquaculture are not favorable.
See also Crustaceans and Shellfish; Fish and Chips; Fish; Mollusks; Fish, Salted; Fish, Smoked.
Moyle, Peter B., and Joseph J. Cech, Jr. Fishes: An Introduction to Ichthyology, 3d ed. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1996.
Von Brandt, Andres. Fish Catching Methods of the World. 3d ed. Surrey, Great Britain: Fishing News Books, 1984.
Paul B. Brown
Unorganized Recreation. Even the earliest commentators recognized that America’s lakes, rivers, and streams were overflowing with fish and shellfish. Since early settlements and all colonial cities were built near water, few people lived far from a fishing spot. Fishing was relatively easy since all one needed was a line, a pole, and some bait. Both blacks and whites also seemed to find small boats or canoes from which to fish. In the early 1730s the indentured servant William Moraley and a friend fished the Delaware River near Philadelphia and in twenty minutes “caught between us 140 Perch and Roach.” They sold some sixty of them for “Rum and Sugar” and used the rest to serve a fish dinner, complete with drink, to four friends. Men and women went fishing together, one of the few recreations that saw the genders mingle. The great marshes of the Carolinas were ecological niches similar to those of many parts of the West African coast, so slaves there were even better suited to exploit these resources than the Europeans. In their free time they fished and collected shellfish for themselves and for sale to their masters or others.
Fishing Companies. Philadelphia’s position between two rivers lent itself to more-organized water sports. Wealthy male Philadelphians created clubs dedicated to the pastime. These included the Colony in Schuylkill, the Fishing Company of Fort St. David’s, and the Mount Regale Fishing Company, all housed along the waterfront. Perhaps the oldest social organization in America, the Colony in Schuylkill was founded in 1732 to serve as a social club where each member in turn served a dinner the first Thursday of the month at “the Castle.” Fort St. David was a summer pavilion decorated with Indian artifacts owned by its attendant fishing company. There the members either fished themselves or feasted on fish they hired others to catch for them. The Mount Regale Fishing Company, composed of Philadelphia’s gentlemen elite, met at Robinson’s Tavern every other week in the summer.
W. A. Newman Dorland, “The Second Troop Philadelphia City Cavalry,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography,46 (1922): 57–77;
Susan E. Klepp and Billy G. Smith, eds., The Infortunate: The Voyage and Adventures of William Moraley, an Indentured Servant (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 1992);
John F. Watson, Annals of Philadelphia and Pennsylvania, in the Olden Time, volume 1 (Philadelphia: Carey & Hart, 1845);
fish·ing / ˈfishing/ • n. the activity of catching fish, either for food or as a sport.PHRASES: fishing expedition a search or investigation undertaken with the hope, though not the stated purpose, of discovering information: they worried about an FBI fishing expedition.
J. A. Cannon