The war on ocean life

Intensive Fishing and the Birth of Capitalism

Beginning a series on the role of fishing in the birth and spread of capitalism, and the role of capitalism in today’s mass extinction of ocean life.

by Ian Angus

Fishing is as old as humanity itself. Indeed, it is older — paleontologists have found evidence that our ancestors Homo habilis and Homo erectus caught lake and river fish in east Africa a million years ago. Large shell deposits show that our Neanderthal cousins in what is now Portugal were eating shellfish over one hundred thousand years ago, as were Homo sapiens in South Africa. Island people have been fishing in the southwestern Pacific for at least thirty-five millennia.[1]

For most of our species’ existence, fish were caught to be eaten by the fishers themselves. “They may have traded dried or smoked fish to neighbors, but this trade was not commerce in any modern sense. People donated food to those who needed it, in the certain knowledge that the donors would someday need the same charity.”[2]

Fishing for sale rather than consumption developed along with the emergence of class-divided urban societies, about 5,000 years ago. Getting fish to towns and cities where people couldn’t catch it themselves required organized systems for catching, cleaning, preserving, transporting and marketing. This was particularly true in the Roman Empire, where serving fresh fish at meals was a status symbol for the rich, and fish preserved by salting was an essential source of protein for soldiers and the urban poor. In addition to boats, an extensive shore-based infrastructure was needed to provide fish for millions of citizens and slaves: “elaborate concrete vats and other remains of ancient fish-processing plants have been found all along the coasts of Sicily, North Africa, Spain, and even Brittany on the North Atlantic.”[3]

The first surviving account of fish depletion caused by overfishing was written in Rome, about 100 CE. The poet Juvenal described a feast at which the high-quality fish served to the wealthy host and important guests had to be imported from Corsica or Sicily, because

“… our waters are already
Quite fished-out, totally exhausted by raging gluttony;
The market-makers so continually raking the shallows
With their nets, that the fry are never allowed to mature.
So the provinces stock our kitchens.”

Fish populations in rivers and coastal areas were also depleted by urban and agricultural pollution. At the same meal, Juvenal says that less-favored guests were served “a fish from the Tiber, covered with grey-green blotches … fed from the flowing sewer.”[4]

When the Roman Empire collapsed in Europe after 500 CE, commercial fishing contracted sharply: it was no longer safe or profitable to transport food large distances for sale. Fish was still on the menu everywhere, but for several centuries, “inland and coastal (shoreline) fisheries were common but local everywhere in medieval Europe.”[5]

The first mass-produced food commodity

Beginning in the 11th century, increased political stability and renewed economic growth made possible what some historians call the “fish event horizon” — a rapid expansion of commercial fishing in the North and Baltic Seas. Fishers in Norway and Iceland had two great advantages: proximity to waters that were home to more fish than all European rivers combined, and climates that were ideal for air drying cod. Hanging gutted fish on open racks in cold winds for several months removed most of the water, leaving all the nutrients of fresh fish in hard sticks that could be eaten directly or soaked and cooked. The dried fish could be stored for years without spoiling.

“Stockfish, as wind-dried cod and ling were called in medieval times, was the first mass-produced food commodity: a stable, light, and eminently transportable source of protein. From about 1100, Norway exported commercial quantities of stockfish to the European continent. By 1350, stockfish had become Iceland’s staple export commodity. English merchants, among others, brought grain, salt, and wine to trade for stockfish, but Icelandic fishermen could not keep up with European demand. Thus, after 1400, the English developed their own migratory fishery at Iceland, carried on at seasonal fishing stations.”[6]

When Europe-wide trade reemerged, merchants found that air-dried cod from Norway and (later) salted herring from Holland commanded premium prices. Archaeological evidence from across western Europe shows “a dramatic shift from local freshwater fish to air-dried cod from Norway from the 11th century onwards.”[7] For centuries to come, preserved fish from northern waters “fed the European need for a relatively cheap, long-lasting and transportable fish food.”[8]

The market for ocean fish in the late middle ages was driven, at least in part, by declining stocks of freshwater fish, caused by expanded agriculture and the growth of towns and cities. Deforestation, erosion caused by intensive plowing, and a doubling or tripling of the urban population combined to dump masses of silt and pollutants into rivers across Europe, while thousands of new watermills, built to grind grain and cut lumber, blocked rivers and streams where migratory species spawned.[9] As a result, “even in wealthy Parisian households and prosperous Flemish monasteries, consumption of once-favored sturgeon, salmon, trout, and whitefish shrank to nothing by around 1500.”[10]

In The Ecological Rift, Foster, Clark and York show how capital’s irresistible drive to expand “sets off a series of rifts and shifts, whereby metabolic rifts are continually created and addressed — typically only after reaching crisis proportions — by shifting the type of rift generated…. [and subsequently] new crises spring up where old ones are supposedly cut down.”[11] This happened with fish in the late Middle Ages, when capitalist industries first formed, in Henry Heller’s apt phrase, “within the pores of feudalism.”[12] When intensive fishing and pollution undermined the natural processes and environments that had maintained freshwater fish populations for millennia, the fishing industry shifted geographically, moving to exploit different kinds of fish in different locations. As we will see in a future article, in modern times the fishing industry has employed a variety of metabolic shifts, with devastating impacts on ocean’s ecosystems.

The shift from freshwater to ocean fish required much greater fishing effort and investment. Catching enough cod and herring for continental markets required ocean fishers to travel further and stay at sea longer, and processing the fish onshore required more time, equipment and labor. By the 1200s, merchants from northern Germany were financing expanded fishing operations in Denmark and Norway, providing advance payments, salt and other necessities.[13] Over time, outside capital investment funded ever-larger fishing operations.

“[In the 1200s] more than five hundred English, Flemish, and French vessels gathered off Great Yarmouth to supply unnumbered English and Flemish needs, while Paris had more than thirty million salt herring annually barged up the Seine and another twelve million plus were shipped to Gascony. At the same time along the southwestern coast of Danish Scania each year for a century and more, five to seven thousand small boats caught more than a hundred million fish and the merchants from northern Germany who ran the industry shipped 10,000 to 25,000 tonnes of product.”[14]

Capitalist fishing in the Low Countries

In the late 1500s, popular rebellions in the Low Countries triggered the world’s first bourgeois revolution, founding what Marx called a “model capitalist nation.”[15] In volume 3 of Capital, he identified fishing as key factor in Holland’s economic development.[16]

The area that now comprises the Netherlands and Belgium had been part of the Spain-based Hapsburg empire, a regime that rivalled Russia’s Tsars in reactionary hostility to any form of economic or political change.[17] The Dutch Revolt, as Marxist historian Pepijn Brandon writes, overthrew Hapsburg rule in the northern provinces and “left the state firmly under the control of the merchant-industrialists … [and] liberated one of Europe’s most developed regions from the constraints of an empire in which trade and industry were always subordinated to royal interest.” The new republic “became Europe’s dominant centre of capital accumulation.”[18]

An important factor in the rise of the Dutch merchant-industrialist class, scarcely mentioned in many accounts, was the absolute dominance of the Dutch fishing industry in the North Sea.

For most of the late middle ages, Dutch fishers had to work close to shore, because their principal catch was herring, a fatty fish that spoils in a few hours unless it is quickly preserved. Catches were limited by the need to return to shore, where the fish could be gutted and preserved by soaking in barrels of brine.

Herring Busses. Click for larger image

In about 1400, Dutch and Flemish fishers invented gibbing, a technique of rapidly gutting and salting herring. In 1415, another invention took full advantage of that technique — a Haringbuys (herring buss), was a large, broad-bottomed ship designed not only for high-volume fishing, but also with sufficient deck space for gibbing a full day’s catch and storage capacity for up to 60 tonnes of salted fish in barrels. A crew of 12 to 14 men could work at sea for months in what was, as environmental historian John Richard writes, “essentially a floating factory.”[19]

Every year, hundreds of herring busses sailed from Dutch ports to the far north of Scotland and then followed the vast shoals of herring that annually migrated southward in the North Sea, east of England, using mile-long driftnets. Often the fleet was supported by smaller boats that regularly replenished their supply of food, barrels and salt, and took full barrels back to port.

The floating factories gave Low Country shipowners a huge advantage over their English and French competitors in the North Sea. They could stay at sea longer, travel farther, catch more fish, and deliver a commodity that needed little on-shore processing. For the next 300 years, the Dutch North Sea fishery was “the single most closely managed and technologically advanced fishery of the world.” In most years, the Dutch fleet captured 20,000 to 50,000 tonnes of fish in the North Sea, more than all other North Sea fishers combined. In one exceptional year, 1602, the Dutch fishers brought in 79,000 tonnes of fish.[20]

As economic historians Jan de Vries and Ad van der Woude point out, the economic impact of what was called the “great fishery” extended beyond the revenues derived directly from selling fish.

“This sector not only employed many workers but possessed strong forward and backward linkages to shipbuilding, ropeworks, net and sail makers, the timber trade and sawing mills, ships provisioning, salt refining, cooperage and packing, smoking houses, and long-distance trade and shipping. It is not altogether surprising that jealous foreigners saw the fisheries as the secret weapon of Dutch merchants and shipowners.”[21]

Building and equipping herring busses required more capital than the small boats used by traditional coastal fishers. De Vries and van der Woude describe the industry’s evolution from early partnerships to truly capitalist organizations.

“In its early stages, the ownership of the herring busses was in the hands of partnerships, the partenrederij prevalent also in ocean shipping, which usually included as partners the skippers of the vessels. Even the fishermen sometimes invested in the partnership, typically by supplying a portion of the nets, which their wives and children, or they themselves during the off-season, had made. However, already in the fifteenth century, many fishermen worked for wages … and over time wage labor so grew in importance that first the fishermen and later even the skipper disappeared as participants in the partnerships, leaving a partenrederij composed primarily of urban investors. In the mid-sixteenth century, when the herring buss fleet of Holland alone already numbered some 400 vessels and other economic activities were yet of a rather modest scope, these partenrederijen must have formed one of Holland’s most important fields of investment.”[22]

The success of Dutch fishing gave an impetus to a substantial shipbuilding industry. As historian Richard Unger has documented, in the 1400s ships were built one at a time by independent shipwrights and their apprentices, but by 1600 Dutch shipbuilding was concentrated in a few large operations, and “the industry shifted from a medieval handicraft to something along the lines of modern factory organization.” Journeymen were paid daily wages at rates negotiated with local guilds, and were required to work fixed hours. The industry produced between 300 and 400 ships a year, each taking six or more months to complete. Dutch shipbuilders were widely seen as the best in Europe, so a considerable part of the industry’s revenue came from ships that were commissioned by merchants from other countries. The capitalist owners of Dutch shipyards were “among the wealthiest of businessmen in a country of wealthy men.”[23]

In 1578, Adriaen Coenan. a Dutch businessman who had spent his life in the fishing industry. described herring as Holland’s “golden mountain.”[24]

In 1662, Pieter de la Court, a wealthy businessman and strong supporter of the republic, wrote a widely read and translated book — Interest van Holland (Holland’s True Interest) — to explain the Dutch Republic’s economic success. He particularly stressed the importance of fishing, claiming that it generated “ten times more profit” each year than the Dutch East India Company’s state-enforced monopoly. Fishing was economically important not just on its own, but for the impetus it gave to related industries. “More than the one half of our trading would decay, in case the trade of fish were destroyed.”

He identified fisheries, manufacturing, wholesale trading (traffick), and freight-shipping as “the four main pillars by which the welfare of the commonalty is supported, and on which the prosperity of all others depends.”[25]

Writing two centuries later with the benefit of hindsight, Karl Marx’s shortlist of the most important drivers of early Dutch capitalism was different — he identified “the predominant role of the basis laid by fishing, manufactures and agriculture for Holland’s development” — but he too saw the fishing industry as a major factor.[26] Modern research confirms that intensive fishing for profit played a critical role in the birth and growth of Dutch capitalism.

The revolution that the Dutch fishing industry began in the North Sea in the fifteenth century — the conversion of immense quantities of ocean life into commodities for sale across Europe — did not stop there. Part two of this article will examine the even greater impact of a capitalist fishery on the other side of the Atlantic.

This article is part of my continuing project on metabolic rifts. Your constructive comments, and corrections will help me get it right. —IA


[1] Brian Fagan, Fishing: How the Sea Fed Civilization (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2017) provides an excellent account of current knowledge about pre-capitalist fishing.

[2] Fagan, Fishing, 18.

[3] Geoffrey Kron. “Ancient Fishing and Fish Farming,” in Gordon L. Campbell, ed., The Oxford Handbook of Animals in Classical Thought and Life (Oxford University Press, 2014).

[4] Juvenal: The Satires, translated by A. S. Kline, 2011. Juvenal’s social criticism frequently exaggerated for comic effect, so his account may not have been literally true.

[5] Richard Hoffmann, “A Brief History of Aquatic Resource Use in Medieval Europe,” Helgoland Marine Research 59, no. 1 (April 2005), 23; Richard Hoffmann, “Medieval Fishing,” in Working With Water in Medieval Europe, ed. Paolo Squatriti (Boston: Brill, 2000), 331. Fish was on the medieval menu not only for nutrition, but because the Church banned meat (but allowed fish) on over 130 days a year — every Friday, every day Advent and Lent, and on a variety of other holy days.

[6] Peter E. Pope, Fish into Wine: The Newfoundland Plantation in the Seventeenth Century (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 11.

[7] Tony J. Pitcher and Mimi E. Lam, “Fish Commoditization and the Historical Origins of Catching Fish for Profit,” Maritime Studies 14, no. 2

[8] Hoffman, “A Brief History of Aquatic Resource Use in Medieval Europe,” 28.

[9] At the end of the ninth century, there were just 200 watermills in all of England. Two hundred years later, the census known as the Domesday Book recorded 5,624. Richard Hoffmann, “Economic Development and Aquatic Ecosystems in Medieval Europe,” American Historical Review 101, no. 3 (June 1996): 640.

[10] Hoffmann, “Economic Development,” 650.

[11] John Bellamy Foster, Brett Clark, and Richard York, The Ecological Rift: Capitalism’s War on the Earth (New York: Monthly Review Press, 2010), 78.

[12] Henry Heller, The Birth of Capitalism: A 21st Century Perspective (London: Pluto Press, 2011), 104.

[13] Hoffmann, “Medieval Fishing,” 342-3.

[14] Richard Hoffmann, “Frontier Foods for Late Medieval Consumers: Culture, Economy, Ecology,” Environment and History 7, no. 2 (May 2001): 148

[15] Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 1, (London: Penguin Books, 1976), 916. For an overview of the Dutch revolution, see Pepijn Brandon, “The Dutch Revolt: A Social Analysis,” International Socialism, October 2007.

[16] Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 3, (London: Penguin Books, 1981), 450n.

[17] “No other major Absolutist State in Western Europe was to be so finally noble in character, or so inimical to bourgeois development.” Perry Anderson, Lineages of the Absolutist State (London: Verso, 1979), 61.

[18] Pepijn Brandon, “Marxism and the ‘Dutch Miracle’: The Dutch Republic and the Transition-Debate,” Historical Materialism 19, no. 3 (January 2011): 127-128.

[19] John F. Richards, The Unending Frontier: An Environmental History of the Early Modern World (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2005), 51. In the off-season, a herring buss could carry other cargoes, so they were more profitable to operate than other fishing boats.

[20] Poul Holm et al., “The North Atlantic Fish Revolution (ca. AD 1500),” Quaternary Research, 2019, 4. The Dutch North Sea catch was small by modern standards, but far greater than any other European fishery at the time.

[21] Jan de Vries and Ad van der Woude, The First Modern Economy, (Cambridge University Press, 1997), 235.

[22] de Vries and van der Woude, The First Modern Economy, 244.

[23] Richard W. Unger, “Technology and Industrial Organization: Dutch Shipbuilding to 1800,” Business History 17, no. 1 (1975).

[24] Adriaen Coenan, in Visboek (Fishbook), quoted in Louis Sicking and Darlene Abreu-Ferreira, eds., Beyond the Catch: Fisheries of the North Atlantic, the North Sea and the Baltic, 900-1850 (Leiden: Brill, 2009), 209.

[25] Pieter De La Court, The True Interest and Political Maxims, of the Republic of Holland (London: John Campbell, 1746), 160, 31, 94.

[26] Karl Marx, Capital: Volume 3, (London: Penguin Books, 1981), 450n.


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  • Fascinating. I look forward to the next installment. Knowing what we now know about oceans and fisheries, I never fail to wonder why so many people who call themselves environmentalists and climate activists still consume non-plant marine life.

  • Thanks, this is very interesting. I teached Hugo Grotius’ “Mare liberum” a few years ago. Grotius famously elaborate a justification for every people’s right to trade freely and to navigate freely on the Seas (at the outset, of course a precondition for the trade and shipping of millions of Africans to the New World from the 16th century and onwards…). However philosophically interesting the natural right to navigate freely might be, there seems to be a consensus among scholars that Grotius in his book also has a more private and national agenda. From an early age Grotius became involved in big politics, and Mare Liberum was very much an effort (on demand) in a principal justification of the Dutch government’s claim to the legal right to commercial trade in East India, arguing that they may have the right to seize enemy vessels (read: the Spanish Aramda) that tried to prevent the Dutch in establishing trade relations in Asia. I think this is a significant part of the justification of capitalism before its triumph (to rephrase A.O. Hirschman’s famous book-title), and indeed of capitalism on the Seas.It struck me that the story of Grotius would fit nicely in your fine story series about fishery and the spread of capitalism (Grotius also explicilty comments on the free right to fishing).
    A fresh look at the topic could be found in Chris Armstrong’s new book Ocean Justice – the author, though, arguing from the point of view of liberal political philosophy. And: I haven’t read it yet.

    -I’ve just borrowed your book Facing the Anthropocene and found your reference to this website!

    Kind regards,

  • This is an immensely interesting!

    I wonder if there is early notions of sustainability in Europe on fishing, because for China this is definitely so and can be dated back to Zhou dynasty (Before 300 B.C). Upon a little research I found out there are detailed guidelines on when to fish, and that you shouldn’t catch small fish etc. Though the situation could be a bit different as for ancient China it’s not simply fishing, but fishing+aqua-farming. All in all, I just wonder if there is anything similar rules or notions in Europe, and when they have been broken down during capitalistic transition (Wonder the same for China but do not nearly know enough about the history of fishing industry)