The History

The importance of fish to human populations around the world is undeniable. Throughout history, different cultures have used fish protein as a food source, with wild-caught fish providing the bulk of fish-derived protein. The oldest known painting of an angler using a rod or staff dates back to 2000 B.C. in Egypt (Anderson, 2004). Fish have also been farmed in large quantities for more than 2000 years in China (Orr, 2004). In addition, fishing has been a source of recreational pleasure for many people.

Photo from Carlo Castoroni

The resources of the sea seemed boundless. As the book Cod explains, people never thought that the resources of the vast amounts of ocean around them could ever be depleted.

Following this, a constant but subtle theme in the development of different cultures is the use and dependence on fish and other aquatic life for sustenance, trade, and livelihood. As a result, the stability of many cultures is dependent on the nearby marine biota.

Fish have played an integral role in the economic development of many economies. For example, the American colonies were able to develop financial independence with the abundance of cod, and the Vikings of Iceland made a fortune from the wealth of fish in the region. Now, centuries later, fish are still key players in the global economy. As developing countries have grown and consumers are becoming richer, the demand for fish is shaping the markets for seafood across the globe. Global consumption of fish has doubled in the past thirty years, with more than 90% of the developing world contributing to that increase. As more countries become dependent on this new staple, more economies have become based around the fisheries as well. In fact, the net exports of fish and fish products from developing countries to developed countries is worth well over $17 billion. Many of developing countries' economies have grown due to the demand of fish. In the last 20 years in Asia, the huge growth of shrimp farming and other aquaculture has helped to fuel the economic growth of Thailand, Bangladesh and Vietnam. In these countries, fish exports dominate those of all other agricultural commodities: in Vietnam in 2001, US$1.8 billion of seafood was exported versus US$600 million of rice (Williams, 2004).

Fish can also lead to destabilizing forces, such as when illegal fishing strains relations between countries. Despite the pervasive nature of fish issues in various regions, they are often not visible on the political agenda until a crisis occurs. For example, a series of confrontations in the 1950s and 1970s was fought between the United Kingdom and Iceland regarding fishing rights near the coast of Iceland. This conflict, also known as the Iceland Cod Wars, is indicative of the importance and influence of fish on different cultures (Kurlansky, 2003). As these "Cod Wars" between Great Britain and Iceland during the 1950's to 1970's displayed, fishing was a significant enough industry for them to challenge each other with naval forces. Iceland provoked the start of all three of these conflicts by extending their EEZ farther from their shores every time. Iceland felt that these measures were necessary because their economy depends so heavily on the fishing industry, due to a lack of agriculture and other natural resources. "Fish and fish products of one form or another...have on average accounted for 89.71 per cent of Iceland's total export in each year during the period 1881-1976" (TED). This dependence caused Iceland to take strong proactive steps to protect their fishery when it was determined that stocks were being over exploited, especially by foreign vessels from Great Britain, West Germany and Belgium. "The tonnage of fish catches had been decreasing since a peak in the 1950's, even though technological improvements allowed greater catches for fishing vessels" (TED), meaning that the overall population was decreasing. The start of the Third Cod War was a result of pushing the EEZ to its current 200 mile range, as outlined in the then newly established Law of the Sea. While no actual battles were fought, sides were chosen by neighboring nations, and ships were damaged in collisions and net cutting missions. International politics were affected by this event, with NATO being forced to mediate the conflict and the creation of Law of the Sea.

Spotlighting Japan's history with fish, we can understand that aquatic organisms play a pivotal role in the culture of island-nations. In Japan, fish is second only to rice as a staple in the Japanese diet. Japan's fishing fleet provides most of the fish consumed domestically, and it is on of the largest in the world with a total fish catch of 5.9 million metric tons in 1999 (Cybriwsky et al., 2004). Coastal fishing of various species in Japan dates back to pre-modern times, but distant-water fishing beyond its present exclusive economic zones (EEZ) only began around the 1920s and increased dramatically during the food shortage of the immediate post-World War II period (Macmillan, 2006). However, Japan's coastal fishing has been suffering since the 1970s from both depletion of resources and the lack of successors. In recent years, the removal of trade barriers on fishery products and the reduction of government subsidies to the fishing industry have also forced coastal fishermen to change careers (Macmillan, 2006). It is unavoidable that the era of fishing as a primary and commodity industry is passing in Japan, as well as in many other nations, due to increasing demand and decreasing catch.

Photo from Carlo Castoroni
Boats in San Pedro Harbour pre-WWII.

Closely linked to the history of the oceans and our use of it is the history of global community and nascent attempts at international unity. Relatively recently, there have been several instances of mandates imposed upon the entire international community, with varying degrees of success. One of the most significant international agreements from the past century is the Geneva Convention, which dictates the rules of war and attempts to bring humanity and order to warfare. This mandate, accepted by virtually all major countries in the world today, bans certain weapons, such as chemical and biological agents, and guarantees basic rights to soldiers in enemy hands. However, despite the wide-spread acceptance of the Geneva Convention, the primary motivating factor appears to be self-preservation; people follow the rules in the hope that should the tides change, that their opponents will treat them humanely. For those with nothing to lose, like terrorists, the Geneva Convention is simply disregarded.

Another high-profile international mandate is the Kyoto Protocol. Dealing with the carbon emissions of developed nations, this agreement is concerned with staving off the projected disastrous effects of global warming. Each country receives a pre-determined limit on the amount of carbon its factories and industries release into the atmosphere, prompting nations to find more environmentally friendly means of conducting business. As with the ocean's fisheries, the atmosphere is an international resource that is threatened by the actions of every person on Earth, with consequences that can disrupt the livelihood of the entire world. Unfortunately, conforming to the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol is extremely costly; though potentially beneficial in the long term, the immediate costs often deter nations from agreeing, let alone complying, to the Kyoto Protocol. Furthermore, the current punitive measures stated in the agreement have proved to be worthless; nations that exceed their carbon limit are supposed to do better the year after, and the economic sanctions are minor to nonexistent. At present, the economic incentives to ignore the Kyoto Protocol have far outweighed the benefits. Saving the earth is the ideal goal, but between the economy and the environment, we have observed that most nations will consider financial stability a top priority. For the oceans, the international community has proposed the Law of the Sea Treaty (see Present page), a step in the direction of preserving what was once thought of as a boundless resource, but a step which has yet to show evidence of large-scale effects.

The oceans are changing; we can no longer view them as an endless resource around which we have built our economies and our societies. But to what extent will this change influence how we react?