Proceedings of the Third World Fisheries Congress: Feeding the World with Fish in the Next Millenium—The Balance between Production and Environment

Minimizing the Environmental Impacts of Fisheries Production: Is Fishing Technology Friend or Foe?

Steven J. Kennelly


This paper is framed around the question in its title to highlight the changing roles that the field of fishing technology has played throughout history. From its humble beginnings at least 90,000 years ago, the perception of fishing technology changed from a major contributor to the development of civilization to a significant cause of overfishing and environmental damage. Most recently, these attitudes have changed again as technology has provided solutions to some of fishing’s most pressing environmental issues.

I provide a brief account of this history, beginning tens of thousands of years ago; move rapidly to the past 100 years or so, when the most significant changes occurred; and end with a discussion on where future challenges may lie.

In 1998, I learned from Tony Pitcher about the archaeological work of Yellen et al. (1995), who found approximately 90,000-year-old barbed and unbarbed bone fragments along with the remains of large catfish in the Upper Semliki Valley, Zaire (Figure 1). These discoveries suggest that early Homo sapiens sapiens used harpoons to catch fish and mark the first known human use of fishing technology, no doubt regarded as a significant ally in the struggle for survival. The primary goal of fishing technology throughout prehistory (which was sustained for millennia) was to develop better and better techniques that would increase the quantity and diversity of fish landed, with little attention given to the impacts of the techniques on the stocks exploited or on the environment.