A brief history of overfishing

Background - May 8, 2009
Evidence shows that humans have been depleting the wealth of the oceans throughout history. Area by area, species by species, man has ruthlessly exploited the seas to the point of depletion, limited only by technological means or the geographical reach at the time.

In the 18th century, whaling and sealing became the first global industries.

From the 11th century onwards, overuse has led to the destruction of local and regional ecosystems, resulting in a considerable reduction of stocks in fish and marine mammals. Once depleting a specific ecosystem, the fisheries moved on to unspoilt areas - from Europe to the Americas; the North Atlantic; the Pacific - leaving devastation in their wake.

There have been plenty of early warning signs, starting in the 14th century, and by the mid 19th century there were already fierce discussions about the destruction caused by bottom trawling. However, as today, economic arguments  outweighed any precautionary approach.

Five ton catch of albacore, Santa Catalina, California 1902. 500 pounds per fisherman.


We have now reached a point in time where business cannot continue going on "as usual". With almost no technological and geographical limits left by the beginning of the 21st century, the fisheries crises has turned into a global threat to the oceans.

Over the past centuries and despite immense destruction - and with some unfortunate exceptions, such as the Steller’s Sea cow, which vanished forever only 25 years after its scientific discovery - most creatures found safe havens in remote places. But in modern times, no place on Earth is now too remote for today’s industrial fishery fleets. Supported by satellites and spotter planes, they know no limits in the hunting of their ever-scarcer prey.

Without the creation of an extensive network of high seas marine reserves to allow stocks to recover, and an immediate halt in the depletion of our seas, the chances are that we might be having the last fish of its kind on our plates in the not-too-distant future.

In his book The Unnatural History of the Sea, world renowned marine biologist Callum Roberts has gathered a number of stories about overfishing and destructive fisheries. We were inspired by three of his examples to illustrate the devastating history of human exploitation of our oceans.