For as long as humans have lived by or been able to reach the ocean, we have taken fish from it. Some of the earliest records of human life itself – stretching back 125,000 years – provide evidence of the simplest forms of fishing, such as gathering shellfish by hand or spear. From depictions of rudimentary nets and traps in ancient art to the economic foundations of modern coastal and island nations, fishing is a deeply rooted part of our shared culture and a vital source of food and income globally.
Today – in the geological blink of an eye – fish have become the last group of wild animals we harvest commercially on a global scale; all the non-marine animals that we used to harvest from the wild have gone the way of the dodo or have been replaced with agricultural products. Fish are the final global frontier of our hunter-gatherer instincts.
In the past six decades, fish consumption has grown more quickly than that of meat from all terrestrial animals combined. Global fish production, standing at 171 million tonnes as of 2016, is now three times larger than that of cattle. Fisheries in high-income countries cover more than half of the world’s ocean. Around 60 million people in the world catch (or farm) marine fish as their major source of income; the vast majority live in Asia, with significant proportions in Africa and Latin America and the Caribbean. Of those catching fish in the wild, over 80% of fishers are ‘small-scale’; they work as individuals, families or small groups, using small, simple boats and either eating what they catch themselves or selling it to local or national markets.
Due to the simple fact of their constant presence on the water, fishers are uniquely placed to observe how our ocean is changing; they may be the first people to witness the decline in a targeted species, the deterioration of a seabed or the disturbance of the ocean’s natural rhythms.
Sometimes, fishers independently limit their own fishing activity for the sake of a healthy, productive ocean. Self-imposed and self-policed restrictions, closures or total avoidance of traditional fishing grounds have been common for generations in regions like Oceania (the periodical harvesting tabu of Fiji), Southeast Asia (the territorially restricted lhoks of Aceh province, Indonesia) and East Africa (the set-aside and wholly closed tengefu of Kenya). With the more recent global race to create increasing numbers of marine protected areas (MPAs), these customary structures have often provided the backbone of such sites, with new designations providing increased legitimacy for management – although they are often difficult to enforce.