Tim Flan­nery

Fish­ing: How the Sea Fed Civ­i­liza­tion by Brian Fa­gan The Do­ry­man’s Re­flec­tion: A Fish­er­man’s Life by Paul Molyneaux

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Tim Flan­nery


How the Sea Fed Civ­i­liza­tion by Brian Fa­gan.

Yale Univer­sity Press, 346 pp., $30.00

The Do­ry­man’s Re­flec­tion: A Fish­er­man’s Life by Paul Molyneaux. Seashore, 284 pp., $18.99

The clas­sic story of the rise of hu­man civ­i­liza­tions traces food pro­cure­ment from hunt­ing and gath­er­ing to the do­mes­ti­ca­tion of an­i­mals and plants. In Fish­ing, Brian Fa­gan makes the case that this ac­count misses a cru­cial third el­e­ment—the har­vest­ing of ma­rine and aquatic re­sources. Far from be­ing a pe­riph­eral ac­tiv­ity, Fa­gan ar­gues, the col­lec­tion of ma­rine re­sources has been a cen­tral and en­dur­ing el­e­ment in hu­man nour­ish­ment. It is also the only way of ob­tain­ing food that has per­sisted from the time of our dis­tant an­ces­tors into the present in a largely un­mod­i­fied form. “The net, the spear, the hook and line, and the trap were the fish­ing tools of pre­his­tory; they are still the tools to­day,” he notes.

Fa­gan ad­mits that his ac­com­plish­ments as a fish­er­man are mod­est, but he is a first-rate ar­chae­ol­o­gist and the au­thor of forty-six books, many of which ex­plain as­pects of ar­chae­ol­ogy to a gen­eral au­di­ence. Sixty years ago, when he found fish bones in the re­mains of a thou­sand-year-old Cen­tral African vil­lage, a col­league threw them away. “Use­less,” he said. “We can’t iden­tify them.” But the in­ci­dent stuck with Fa­gan, and when he later found fish bones in an­other African site, a fish­eries ex­pert iden­ti­fied them as the re­mains of cat­fish. Just how the fish were prob­a­bly caught was re­vealed by the crea­tures’ breed­ing habits. Each year as the rivers rise near the site, the cat­fish fol­low the flood­wa­ters and breed in ephemeral pools, where they be­come con­cen­trated in large num­bers as the wa­ters re­cede. It seems likely that all any­one had to do was to stoop down and scoop them up.

Fa­gan thinks it un­likely that our most dis­tant an­ces­tors would have passed up such an easy meal. More­over, spawn­ing cat­fish were a pre­dictable re­source, and their oily meat would have been an ideal food for grow­ing brains. Fa­gan be­lieves them to have been so im­por­tant to our evo­lu­tion that he was tempted to call Part 1 of his book “How Cat­fish Cre­ated Civ­i­liza­tion.” Yet all that re­mains in the ar­chae­o­log­i­cal record to sup­port his con­tention is a tiny scat­ter of cat­fish bones in 1.75-mil­lion-year-old sed­i­ments at Ol­du­vai Gorge, along with a sim­i­lar scat­ter from 1.95-mil­lion-yearold de­posits at Lake Turkana, both in East Africa. Fa­gan’s work re­minds us that some­times even the most so­phis­ti­cated ar­chae­o­log­i­cal stud­ies miss very big things, sim­ply be­cause the ev­i­dence for them does not pre­serve well or is dif­fi­cult to in­ter­pret.

Hu­mans seem to have fished wher­ever they had the op­por­tu­nity. Ne­an­derthals copied bears and birds to take ad­van­tage of Euro­pean salmon runs, while early hu­mans liv­ing in south­ern Africa har­vested a wide va­ri­ety of coastal ma­rine crea­tures. It seems likely that the first hu­mans to leave Africa and travel into South­east Asia and Aus­tralia were ac­com­plished fish­ers. Their de­scen­dants liv­ing on the is­land of East Ti­mor 40,000 years ago were ex­pert at catch­ing skip­jack tuna—fast, vo­ra­cious fish that mi­grate in huge shoals. And by the time the Lapita peo­ple be­gan their col­o­niza­tion of the Pa­cific Is­lands over three thou­sand years ago, fish­ing had be­come es­sen­tial to their way of life. Equally im­por­tant for keep­ing peo­ple fed was the col­lec­tion of shell­fish, which, Fa­gan as­serts, was “vi­tal to al­most ev­ery an­cient fish­ing so­ci­ety.” Yet this prac­tice has not in­spired much re­search. “To knock a limpet from the rock does not re­quire even cun­ning, that low­est power of the mind,” opined Charles Dar­win—a view that per­haps ex­plains why the sub­ject has been so sadly ne­glected. Among the thou­sands of an­thro­po­log­i­cal stud­ies un­der­taken over the years, just one doc­u­ments shell­fish gath­er­ing in any de­tail. The study was the work of the heroic Betty Mee­han, an Aus­tralian an­thro­pol­o­gist who lived among the An­barra peo­ple of Aus­tralia’s Arn­hem Land in the 1970s. Ac­com­pa­ny­ing women and chil­dren into tidal mud­flats and crocodile­in­fested man­grove swamps when­ever the tide was low, with only their dogs to scare away sharks and other predators, Mee­han doc­u­mented the col­lec­tion of twenty-nine species of shell­fish. The weight of the catch over less than a year was 6,700 kilo­grams, which yielded 1,500 kilo­grams of meat—quite a lot for the small clan.

When­ever con­di­tions per­mit­ted, spe­cial­ized fish­ing-based so­ci­eties have de­vel­oped. One was lo­cated at the Danube’s “Iron Gates,” where Europe’s great­est river flows for 143 miles be­tween the Carpathian and Balkan Moun­tains. As much as 11,500 years ago, a pro­lific fish­ery har­vested that king of fish, the stur­geon. Stur­geon are still taken there to­day, but in far smaller num­bers. And the fish them­selves are shrink­ing. A cen­tury ago they could ex­ceed a ton in weight and live for over a hun­dred years, but to­day a fish weigh­ing a few tens of pounds is con­sid­ered ma­ture enough to be fair prey. Be­tween over­fish­ing and pollution, Fa­gan says, “the recipe for ex­tinc­tion is in place” for the Danube’s stur­geon. About 15,000 years ago, in what is now Ja­pan, fish­ing was cen­tral to the Jomon cul­ture. Fa­mous for their very early use of pot­tery (from at least 14,700 years ago), the Jomon were a cul­tur­ally com­plex and un­usu­ally seden­tary peo­ple for the era be­fore agri­cul­ture. Fa­gan thinks that fish­ing and the early de­vel­op­ment of Jomon pot­tery are linked. The ear­li­est Jomon pots are shaped so that they could sit in a fire and may have held bub­bling fish stews that would warm and for­tify fish­er­folk who had spent the day in chilly wa­ters. In 1947 the ar­chae­ol­o­gist Su­gao Ya­manouchi pro­posed a “salmon the­ory” of Jomon sub­sis­tence. He ac­knowl­edged that acorns, wal­nuts, and chest­nuts were col­lected in the au­tumn and care­fully stored by the Jomon, but he also be­lieved that au­tumn salmon runs were at least as im­por­tant as the nut and seed har­vest, the fish be­ing dried or smoked and stored for later use. There was only one prob­lem with the idea: ar­chae­ol­o­gists had not found a sin­gle salmon bone in any Jomon site.

For over fifty years the “salmon the­ory” was dis­par­aged. But when ar­chae­ol­o­gists started us­ing sieves with finer mesh and wet-siev­ing the sed­i­ments they ex­ca­vated, they found abun­dant frag­ments of salmon bones at some sites, sug­gest­ing that the fish had been fil­leted and pre­served in large num­bers. In­deed, one 11,000-year-old Jomon build­ing, whose re­mains were un­earthed in what is now Tokyo, ap­pears to have been used solely for salmon prepa­ra­tion.

The in­tro­duc­tion of rice agri­cul­ture from Korea re­duced the im­por­tance of fish to the Jomon. But it is as­ton­ish­ing how en­dur­ing some as­pects of the cul­ture have proved to be. Even to­day, among the Ainu peo­ple of north­ern Ja­pan and among Ja­panese more gen­er­ally, fish are cen­tral to both cul­ture and tra­di­tion. The now con­tro­ver­sial and on­go­ing con­sump­tion of dol­phin meat by some Ja­panese is, in­ci­den­tally, also a tra­di­tion with a long his­tory. The same ex­ca­va­tion that re­vealed the salmon prepa­ra­tion house in Tokyo un­earthed many dol­phin bones, in­di­cat­ing that the ma­rine mam­mals have been cap­tured and butchered for at least 11,000 years. The first Amer­i­cans would have passed well to the north of the Jomon as they tra­versed Beringia (a for­mer land area spread­ing from eastern Rus­sia to Alaska) into North Amer­ica. While we do not know whether the Jomon in­flu­enced those trav­el­ers, it is clear they were equipped to ex­ploit salmon runs. Within a few thou­sand years of the open­ing of an ice-free cor­ri­dor al­low­ing peo­ple to spread south from Alaska 13,000 years ago, ways of life broadly sim­i­lar to that of the Jomon were be­com­ing es­tab­lished across the Pa­cific North­west and down into California. Un­for­tu­nately, the rapidly ris­ing seas that ac­com­pa­nied the melt­ing ice oblit­er­ated most early ev­i­dence of these cul­tures.

California’s Chan­nel Is­lands were home to one par­tic­u­larly in­trigu­ing fish­ing-cen­tered cul­ture, the Chu­mash, who used sewn plank ca­noes made from drift­wood to hunt sword­fish. A burial dat­ing from 600 AD re­veals just how im­por­tant these spec­tac­u­lar fish had be­come to the is­land peo­ple. A man who ap­par­ently en­joyed lo­cal dis­tinc­tion had been laid to rest in a cloak of red abalone shells, his skull en­cased in the split head of a sword­fish so that its bill pointed di­rectly up­ward. Ar­chae­ol­o­gists iden­ti­fied him as a “Sword­fish Dancer,” Fa­gan says, “who would have glit­tered with bril­liant iri­des­cence as he twirled and danced in the sun­light.” The Chu­mash, like many of the fish­based cul­tures Fa­gan dis­cusses, were vul­ner­a­ble to chang­ing cli­matic con­di­tions such as El Niño, the re­cur­rent Pa­cific warm-water cy­cle, which could dev­as­tate ma­rine re­sources. One way of cop­ing with this was to de­velop wide trade net­works and to re­dis­tribute food and other goods in large cer­e­monies in the hope that dis­tant neigh­bors would send food back in times of need. Along with an ex­tremely so­phis­ti­cated un­der­stand­ing of cli­matic pat­terns, such adap­ta­tions al­lowed some seafood-based so­ci­eties to sur­vive into his­toric times. Fa­gan ar­gues that, while it re­mains largely in­vis­i­ble, fish­ing was a vi­tal part of an­cient civ­i­liza­tions. Fish be­came a com­mod­ity for the first time, for ex­am­ple, in an­cient Egypt, where the seine net was in­vented and fish fed armies of work­men. In 1991, at Giza, Egyp­tol­o­gist Mark Lehner dis­cov­ered an enor­mous mud-brick build­ing con­tain­ing many troughs and benches whose floor was cov­ered in fine ash in which were found count­less fish bones. This build­ing, Lehner thinks, was where the fish that fed the pyra­mid builders were pre­pared. Fish—from the tuna that were har­vested dur­ing their an­nual mi­gra­tion into the Mediter­ranean to the tiny fish and fish scraps that be­came that most fa­mous of clas­si­cal sauces, garum— were also cen­tral for the an­cient Ro­mans. As in China to­day, some fish were pres­tige menu items. Wealthy villa own­ers around the Bay of Naples sunk for­tunes into coastal en­gi­neer­ing works to sup­port their fish-rais­ing ponds. Among the most cov­eted of all fish were large red mul­let—a species dif­fi­cult to raise in ponds. The poet Mar­tial re­lated that Cal­liodorus sold a slave for four thou­sand ses­ter­ces and used the money to buy a four-pound farmed red mul­let, while Ju­ve­nal com­plained that such a tro­phy fish could

cost more than a cow, a race­horse, or even an es­tate.

Fish­ing sur­vived the fall of Rome and re­mained im­por­tant in the for­ma­tion of other Euro­pean em­pires. Af­ter pil­lag­ing their own fish­eries for mil­len­nia, in 1497 the Euro­peans dis­cov­ered the rich fish stocks on the far side of the At­lantic. The Vene­tian John Cabot, work­ing for Eng­land’s Henry VII, could hardly be­lieve his eyes when he reached New­found­land, where the cod teemed so might­ily that his crew could scoop them up in bas­kets. Ac­cord­ing to Fa­gan, prof­its from the trad­ing of cod ex­ceeded those from all of the gold that was mined in the Americas. The seem­ingly in­ex­haustible re­sources of the New World trig­gered a fish rush that would con­tinue into the twen­ti­eth cen­tury. The story of what hap­pened dur­ing the last mo­ments of that rush is bril­liantly told by Paul Molyneaux in The Do­ry­man’s Re­flec­tion.

“I won­der if some peo­ple are born to call­ings that no longer ex­ist,” Molyneaux asks early in his book. From his youth, Molyneaux had been drawn to the ro­mance of fish­ing, and in 1977 as a teenager he en­tered the fish­ing in­dus­try. Just eight years ear­lier, the US gov­ern­ment had re­leased what be­came known as the Strat­ton Re­port. Named af­ter Julius Strat­ton, for­mer pres­i­dent of MIT and the Ford Foun­da­tion and the chair of the com­mit­tee that pro­duced the re­port, it sought to bring con­tem­po­rary man­age­ment to the time­less busi­ness of fish­ing. As the re­port put it, what was re­quired was a “tech­ni­cally advanced and eco­nom­i­cally ef­fi­cient fish­ing fleet with a min­i­mum num­ber of units.”

Treat­ing a whole way of life as if it could be boiled down to a set of math­e­mat­i­cally de­vised pre­scrip­tions was just one of the prob­lems with the Strat­ton Re­port. It also as­sumed that be­tween 400 and 500 mil­lion tons of fish per year could be sus­tain­ably caught. Fish­eries ex­perts put the num­ber at a quar­ter of that. Even the au­thor of the re­port now pro­fesses to have no idea how the pre­pos­ter­ous fig­ures found their way into print. Base­less as they were, they would de­stroy a cul­ture—and an ocean. At the time the Strat­ton Re­port was re­leased, even the most advanced New Eng­land fish­ing boats did not dif­fer greatly from the ves­sels that had set to sea from Amer­ica’s North­east for as long as any­one could re­mem­ber. But in the year that Molyneaux en­tered the fish­ing in­dus­try, gov­ern­ment grants and in­cen­tives saw to it that one new boat was en­ter­ing the north­east­ern re­gional fish­ery ev­ery four days. These were big boats, with trawl gear that could ir­repara­bly rip up fish habi­tat and swal­low whole schools with one tow. At first Molyneaux was far from the ac­tion— la­bor­ing in a scal­lop-can­ning fac­tory. But by 1978 he had drifted to California, where he got a “site” (a job) on a clas­sic West Coast troller, fish­ing for al­ba­core; the fol­low­ing year he was back in New Eng­land aboard a scal­lop­ing boat. Both voy­ages were hair-rais­ing, in­volv­ing hur­ri­canes, equip­ment fail­ure, and in­ex­pe­ri­enced crews work­ing with heavy, danger­ous gear.

A few years later Molyneaux, now a sea­soned fish­er­man, be­gan work­ing in the Alaskan hal­ibut fish­ery aboard the Lau­rinda Ann, out of Sel­dovia. Gov­ern­ment reg­u­la­tion meant that in some years the fish­ing sea­son for some species could last as lit­tle as two hours be­fore the quota was reached. In that brief time a lucky fish­er­man might make $100,000. On his first voy­age Molyneaux fished for three days straight. “You can have a string sand­wich,” the cap­tain said when Molyneaux wanted to eat. “You know what that is? You hang a sand­wich from a string and take a bite out of it ev­ery time you run by.” With ev­ery­one ex­hausted, a Methuse­lah of a hal­ibut, weigh­ing in ex­cess of four hun­dred pounds, was hauled from the deep to the sur­face of the sea. The cap­tain ap­peared, bleary-eyed, in the door of the wheel­house with a .357 Mag­num in hand. “Get out of my way,” he said, be­fore fir­ing re­peat­edly at the hal­ibut, the bul­lets pass­ing be­tween crew mem­bers un­til the fish’s head was shot to pieces. The barn-door-sized body slid free from the hook and its “broad bar­na­cled back be­gan to sink.” “Shit! There goes four or five hun­dred dol­lars,” some­one ex­claimed be­fore set­ting back to work. Per­haps the cap­tain cal­cu­lated that they could make more money in the time it would take to get the gi­ant aboard. Or per­haps he was just mad with ex­haus­tion.

Years later Molyneaux re­turned to Alaska, to help with a fish­eries ini­tia­tive set up among the Yupik peo­ple. He left when he re­al­ized that the whole project was a sham—a “bone tossed to the Yupiks while the in­dus­trial scale boats took the re­source.” Be­fore he de­parted he came across half a dozen huge hal­ibut rot­ting on the shore. An old Yupik woman “cried and pointed at the fish, speak­ing harshly to Sam [Molyneaux’s com­pan­ion]. ‘She says a curse will come from this,’” Sam trans­lated. “Tell her it al­ready has,” Molyneaux replied.

The fish­er­men Molyneaux worked with were no saints. Some shot seabirds for fun. Oth­ers de­stroyed the young fish that their fu­ture de­pended upon. But the best of them were wise, even as they pur­sued a liveli­hood in ways that they knew were de­stroy­ing the life un­der the sea. It is dev­as­tat­ing to re­al­ize that a dif­fer­ent set of reg­u­la­tions, for­mu­lated to draw from the re­sources of the sea with­out ru­in­ing them, might have saved the fish­er­folk, and the sea. In­stead, they got Strat­ton.

Molyneaux went back to New Eng­land, where a meet­ing with mem­bers of the Raynes fam­ily changed his life. De­scen­dants of French Aca­di­ans who were forced from their lands in the North­east by Bri­tish set­tlers in the mid-eigh­teenth cen­tury, the Ray­ne­ses had been fish­er­folk ever since. Molyneaux took up with Bernard Raynes, who ran a scal­lop boat, among other things, out of Rock­land, Maine, re­tain­ing the ac­cu­mu­lated knowl­edge of cen­turies of fish­ing ex­pe­ri­ence. It was a hard life. Four of Bernard’s un­cles were claimed by the sea, and they were of­ten very poor. But there was some­thing about the fam­ily that drew Molyneaux to re­turn again and again.

Two great acts of em­pa­thy stand out in Molyneaux’s ac­count. In one he de­scribes Bernard Raynes us­ing cen­tu­ry­old tools to build a wooden skiff, fol­low­ing a model made by his fa­ther. As the work pro­gresses, slowly and metic­u­lously, Bernard tells how the fish­ery has changed. His story is drawn from his own rec­ol­lec­tions, as well as the tales and log­books of his an­ces­tors, go­ing back to the late nine­teenth cen­tury. As Bernard crafts the boat, we see how fish­ing has crafted the man. A way of be­ing un­folds: hard, in­de­pen­dent, con­fi­dent, and in many ways im­mensely sat­is­fy­ing. Molyneaux’s sec­ond act of em­pa­thy took my breath away. On a sin­gle, imag­i­na­tive page he car­ries us forty fath­oms deep into the Gulf of Maine. It’s night, and a sin­gle great cod searches in dark­ness for a breed­ing place. Guided by sound, her once-acute hear­ing has been all but de­stroyed by the racket made by sonar, seis­mic sur­veys, and ships’ en­gines. The fish on which she feeds are half the size they used to be and laced with PCBs and other tox­ins, mean­ing that her eggs are not as fer­tile as in times past. The very bot­tom of the deep she tra­verses has been heav­ily dam­aged by trawl­ing. Only crevices be­tween a few glacial boul­ders, so im­mense as to be im­mov­able by the trawl nets, pro­vide the oa­sis of anemone and co­ral she needs to lay her eggs. These are fer­til­ized by the much smaller males around her. But the world the new gen­er­a­tion is born into is al­tered. Vo­ra­cious dog­fish now abound, and the “rum­bling nets, clink­ing chain, and bang­ing doors drive them from their last strongholds.” The cod by now are gone, Molyneaux be­lieves, never to re­turn.

By the 1990s the dire state of the oceans had be­come a cause for many en­vi­ron­men­tal groups, and gov­ern­ments were ex­per­i­ment­ing with yet more ways to reg­u­late the fish­eries. In­di­vid­ual trans­fer­able quo­tas be­came the lat­est so­lu­tion. But the big in­dus­trial ves­sels re­ceived most of the quo­tas, and fish­er­folk like Bernard Raynes just saw more hard­ship—and more pa­per­work. It is dif­fi­cult to con­tem­plate a su­perbly com­pe­tent fish­er­man and his wife strug­gling with page af­ter page of in­com­pre­hen­si­ble bu­reau­cratic jar­gon. Even the names of the fish in the doc­u­ments dif­fer from those the fish­er­men know. And a breach of the all-but-in­com­pre­hen­si­ble rules brings a heavy fine.

In March 2017 it was re­ported that, twenty-five years af­ter be­ing dec­i­mated by over­fish­ing, the cod stocks off New­found­land were re­cov­er­ing. They were es­ti­mated to have in­creased ten­fold since the early 1990s, though they re­mained far be­low the size that could sup­port a healthy fish­ery. Fur­ther south, how­ever, where Bernard Raynes fished, the cod are show­ing lit­tle sign of re­cov­ery. And no­body knows why. Fa­gan’s and Molyneaux’s books about fish­ing are very dif­fer­ent. But they are unan­i­mous in their ad­mi­ra­tion of fish­er­men. “Sub­sis­tence fish­ers ex­ist on the edge of his­tory...but their bril­liant adap­ta­tions helped spread the hu­man species through­out the world,” says Fa­gan, while Molyneaux brings us face to face with such men. Of Bernard Raynes, he writes that he

had re­tained his own sys­tem, within but apart from the one aimed at de­stroy­ing him. He built his boat, and the qual­ity of his craft­man­ship spoke for it­self. He fished his way, and sur­vived the per­fect storm of fed­eral fish­eries mis­man­age­ment and en­vi­ron­men­tal de­struc­tion .... The pol­icy mak­ers said he was ob­so­lete. Far from it. He is a hu­man be­ing with a pur­pose.

A fish­er­man and his catch, Si­cily, 2004

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