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Fishing - History

Fishing has been around since the Stone Age, beginning when man first caught fish and shellfish in rivers and coastal waters. Pencil-shaped bone gorges were used as hooks and lengths of vine as lines. This was practiced by ancient Persian, Egyptians and Chinese. Archaeological material found in prehistoric Korea and China suggests fishing tools used there include bone fish-spears and shuttles and mussel-shell arrowheads. Fishing tool manufacture became more advanced in the Middle Ages and included tools made from stone as well as bone.

The development of fishing for sport and recreation is a comparatively recent activity and dates back to the late 15th century. Books on the art and philosophy of angling have been published since the early 16th century.

Commercial fishing has been practiced in many parts of the world throughout history but only recently on a scale which is unsustainable. Rich fisheries are found in the North Sea off the west coast of Great Britain, the continental shelf of Iceland, the Grand Banks off Eastern Canada, the Georges Banks off New England, off the south-western United States and Peru, in the Bering Sea, in the Gulf of Alaska, and off the coast of Japan. Disputes between these fisheries in modern times have generally been settled by arbitration or by treaties.


  • 1783 Treaty of Paris – fishing rights on entire Atlantic coast, restriction to dry fish on Newfoundland coast and parts of Labrador and Nova Scotia coasts
  • 1818 new treaty – further restrictions
  • 1854 reciprocity treaty – abolished all restrictions except shellfish
  • 1882 North Sea Fisheries Convention – Great Britain, Germany, France, Denmark and Belgium signed treaty powers for mutual rights to visit, search and arrest
  • 1901 signed treaty by Great Britain and Denmark to regulate fishing banks off Iceland and the Faeroe Islands
  • 1923 and 1930 - Canada and U.S. signed agreement regulating halibut fisheries of North Pacific
  • 1974 United Nations (UN) Conference of the Law of the Sea – stabilise international rules governing national rights and protect fisheries
  • 1983 The Law of the Sea Treaty – established a 200 mile (321.86 kilometre) limit zone inside which countries had exclusive right to regulate fishing
  • 1986 International Whaling Commission – outlawing most whaling
  • 1996 U.S. Federal Government – imposed strict limits on fishing in Gulf of Maine and Georges Banks to protect declining New England fishing industry
  • 1997 U.S. – 200 mile territorial zone to protect its fisheries
  • 1999 UN – nonbinding agreement among seafaring nations to address problem of worldwide overfishing by reducing size of their fishing fleets
  • 1999 restriction imposed along Atlantic and Gulf coasts to conserve depleted stocks of shark, tuna and marlin

Overfishing was first recognised as an international problem as far back as the early 1900's. This problem was only confined to relatively few regions such as North Atlantic, North Pacific and the Mediterranean Sea.

After nearly half a century, many major fish stocks are depleted or in decline putting increased pressure on the fishing industry. The United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) reports that 60% of the world’s important fish stocks are in “urgent need of management” to “rehabilitate them” or “keep them from being overfished.”

Over the past 30 years there have been steep increases in the exploitation of world fisheries with more species being marketed and new fishing areas opened. Records from 1950 to 1994 show 35% of the most important commercial fish stocks demonstrated a pattern of declining yields. Another 25% of the steady yields are being fished at their biological limit and are vulnerable to depletion if fishing levels increase.

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