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The History of Marine Animals project (HMAP) measured the number of marine animals taken from the ocean over centuries of fishing and whaling activity.

The History of Marine Animals project (HMAP) measured the number of marine animals taken from the ocean over centuries of fishing and whaling activity. HMAP researchers gleaned historic data from available log books, national archives, taxation records, maps and even cookbooks. Not all catches were documented or declared and historic data about the marine animal populations of several regions is not yet available). Nevertheless, HMAP’s research reveals a pattern of unrelenting, human predation on marine animals that paused only for the world wars (Reid 2023).

Even without fossil-fuel powered technologies, pre-industrial fishers significantly impacted marine life just using wind power, drift nets and lines (Holm et al. 2010, 9). By the middle ages commercial fisheries in Europe were already well established. (Starkey, Smith, and Barnard 2011, 4). Across the northern hemisphere, the extraction of marine animals intensified to feed growing European and North American populations and economies, and to satiate consumer trends.[1] In the northern hemisphere, targeted fish populations in the 1600s were ten times more abundant than in the 1950s and had already significantly declined by the 1800s (Holm et al. 2010, 9)). Here is a selection of other historic catch levels across the northern hemisphere:

Tuna stocks in the Mediterranean declined 60 percent between 1650 to 1950 (Ravier and Fromentin 2004 cited in Lotze and Worm 2009, 256).
Catches of haddock from the Danish Wadden Sea were 1200 metric tonnes from 1562 until mid 1600s then dropped to 500 metric tonnes by the eighteenth century, to non-existent today (Lotze and Worm 2009, 256). Haddock, salmon, shad, and sturgeon were extirpated from the North Sea in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries (Holm 2005 cited in Lotze and Worm 2009, 256).
In the Northeast Atlantic, the combined efforts of British and French fishermen on the Grand Banks off Newfoundland yielded between 204,000 and 275,000 metric tonnes of cod between 1769 to 1774 (Starkey and Haines 2001 cited in Holms 2010, 12), up to 300,000 tonnes by the late nineteenth century (Cadigan and Hutchings 2001 cited in Holms et al. 2010, 12).
Closer to the American mainland, fisheries off the Gulf of Maine and Scotian Shelf consistently removed 200,000 tonnes of live fish per year between 1852 – 1866 (Holm et al. 2010, 12).
The Caribbean was already intensively fished before the arrival of the Europeans, and subsequent extractions during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries were ‘massive’ (Holm et al. 2010, 14-15).


[1] For example, consumption of marine animals increased in part because of the religious practices of eating fish on certain weekdays and during the forty days of Lent, which lasted well into the seventeenth century (Starkey, Smith, and Barnard 2011, 4).


Holm, Paul, Anne Husum Marboe, Bo Poulsen, and Brian R. MacKenzie. 2010. “Marine Animal Populations: A New Look Back in Time.” In Life in the World’s Oceans, 1–24. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

Lotze, Heike K., and Boris Worm. 2009. “Historical Baselines for Large Marine Animals.” Trends in Ecology & Evolution (Amsterdam) 24 (5): 254–62.

Reid, Susan. 2023. “Stirring and Deranging: Oceanic Energy Relations and Extractivism.” Environmental Humanities (Under consideration).