Fishing – from historical to sustainable

Students: Antonella Grizotti Pfluck, Jessica Bennett-Michael and Rose Eva Ellen Hoekstra

Grilled swordfish. Spaghetti alle vongole. Shrimp scampi. Lobster tails dripping with butter. The world loves to eat fish. Globally, according to the FAO (2020), the average person consumed 20.3 kg of fish and other seafood products in 2017. But compared to other sectors of our food chain, how fish arrives on our plates remains largely a mystery. Most of it is invisible to the consumer’s eyes.
The FAO defines fishery as any activity leading to the harvesting of fish for consumption. This includes both capture fisheries (the capture of wild fish) and aquaculture (the raising of fish in farms). More importantly, where capture fisheries have levelled off in the last decades, aquaculture is expected to continue growing to supply the increasing demand of fish and seafood (Ahmed et al., 2019).

A brief history of fishing

In early societies, fishing was a rudimentary activity that involved simple instruments such as birds’ beaks for hooks and plant stalks for line (Martin, 1990). With the development of societies and the increasing complexity of human trade fishing gained in economic importance. A rise in demand implied a need to catch more and bigger fish species, resulting in a steady development of fishing gear and the creation of more efficient fishing methods.
The Industrial Revolution was an important turning point for the fishing industry. With new technology, fishing fleets became larger and more powerful thereby increasing fishing capacity enormously, not only by increasing efficiency but also by enabling the exploration of new parts of the ocean.
The next major changes came with WWII, as the post-war period is characterised by major developments in the fishing industry. Technological advancements, whose initial purpose was warfare, became available for commercial fishing, further contributing to the increase in efficiency of fishing vessels. This meant boats could now sail even faster and further into the ocean (Holm, 2022). Additionally, the lack of food alternatives in the post-WWII era increased the demand for seafood.

Globalisation and the fishing of today 

The advances in technology, products of the Industrial Revolution and the World Wars, have shaped fisheries as we know them today. At the same time, our food chain has become increasingly globalised, and this includes fisheries (Cole, 2003). Both phenomena have enabled an incredible increase in global per capita consumption of fish: from 9.0 kg in 1961 to 20.3 kg in 2017 (FAO, 2020). The global increasing trends in consumption are expected to increase further in the coming decades, mainly due to a global rise in per capita income, which is linked to the increased consumption of proteins. 

Although these developments have served to meet the demand of fish, it is impossible to overlook some of the (environmental) problems faced by the fishing industry: for instance, the high levels of bycatch, the accumulation of discarded fishing nets in the oceans, and the overexploitation of marine resources. In short, humans cannot continue fishing the way we are today if we wish to prevent the depletion of ocean stocks. This would not only impact our food chain, but also the health of marine and aquatic ecosystems, which support planetary health. 


In this context, it becomes clear sustainable fishing is crucial. Sustainability in the context of fishing, comes down to humans removing less fish that are currently in the ocean and reproducing (Wiber et al., 2019). The concept of sustainable fishing is receiving more attention in recent years: the 2021 Netflix documentary Seaspiracy is but one example. However, it remains difficult to find the most sustainable path forward, as it is a complex problem. The field of aquaculture is seen by many as the more sustainable future to fishing, as it would provide fish to the population while limiting the damage to the natural environment. Aquaculture is the cultivation of marine species either in a land-based or ocean-based farms. There are many types of aquacultures, and a wide variety of species can be cultivated, ranging from salmon to clams, and varying levels of sustainability. Also in Italy, there is a particularly strong aquaculture sector. In Padova, La Pescheria Sotto il Salone owner, Egidio Voltolina, says farm-raised Italian fish are some of the bestselling, as his customers know it is both high-quality and low-cost.

Sustainable fishing remains a complex problem and involves more than environmental sustainability alone. Socio-economic aspects need to be considered as well, such as the role of fish as a source of protein and nutrients for many people across the world, especially populations vulnerable to food insecurity, or the role of fishing as a source of employment and its ties with cultures and traditions. The concept of sustainability within the fisheries system will be explored further at a later stage.

Perspectives for fisheries of the future 

Awareness is the number one way we can effectively change the fishing industry on a personal level. Being aware of the issues and taking both overfishing and types of fish and how they are caught into consideration when we eat fish will play a key role in changing consumer demand, which, in turn, will change the habits of fishermen and commercial producers. Limiting fish consumption and thinking about what fish you are eating and where it comes from is a step that everyone can take. Focusing on items like oysters, mussels and clams that are very low impact and sustainable is another step that can be taken. On a larger scale, the EU is taking steps to regulate fishing and prevent overfishing, while also trying to prevent job loss. Other nations need to follow the example of the EU. There needs to be more regulations and more regulatory bodies that can enforce these restrictions. Because this is an international issue as well as an environmental issue, countries will need to work together across international borders to protect the future of the oceans. 


Fishing has been a source of food throughout human evolution, and it continues to evolve with us. From simple fishing rods to motorboats to massive fishing fleets, the evolution of the fishing industry has mirrored the growth and globalisation of our societies, as well as the damage done to the natural world that surrounds us. Today, sustainability in fishing is crucial. We have seen how overfishing has impacted local fishermen as well as fishing communities all over the world. Calling for better laws, greater enforcement and taking personal responsibility for our decisions about food are the obvious choices as we move into a future where what is on our plates and in our oceans is all at risk.


Ahmed, N., Thompson, S., & Glaser, M. (2019). “Global aquaculture productivity, environmental sustainability, and climate change adaptability”. Environmental management, 63(2), 159-172. (2022).

Cole, H. (2003). “Contemporary challenges: globalisation, global interconnectedness and that ‘there are not plenty more fish in the sea’: Fisheries, Governance and globalisation: is there a relationship?”. Ocean & coastal management, 46(1-2), 77-102. (2022). Martina Igini., 2022.  

FAO (2014).  Fisheries and Aquaculture Department, FAO, 2014.

FAO (2020). The State of World Fisheries and Aquaculture 2020. Sustainability in action. Rome. 

Greenberg, Paul (2010). Four Fish: The Future of The Last Wild Food. Publisher Penguin Books.

Holm, Poul (2012). “World War II and the ‘Great Acceleration’ of North Atlantic Fisheries.” Global Environment 10: 66–91. Republished by the Environment & Society Portal, Multimedia Library. 

Smith, Bren (2019). Eat Like a Fish: My Adventures as a Fisherman Turned Restorative Ocean Farmer. Publisher Alfred A. Knopf

R.E, Martin (1995). “A History of the seafood industry”. Springer