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From The Perfect Protein: The Fish Lover's Guide to Saving the Oceans and Feeding the World, by Andy Sharpless and Suzannah Evans. Rodale Books. Copyright © 2013, by Oceana.
TRAWLING REVOLUTIONIZED FISHING. For millennia, humans had been catching fish by net, trap, spear, and hook. The first bottom trawls were 20-foot nets weighted by stones and lead in the closed "cod" end. The front end of the net was held open by a wooden or steel beam. Pulled by a sailboat going with the wind and tide, the trawl raked the seafloor and scared flatfishes like flounder, halibut, and sole into the net.
The first mention of a bottom trawl in historic literature, dug up by Callum Roberts for his definitive history of fishing impacts on the oceans, The Unnatural History of the Sea, was prescient: It was a complaint. In 1376, English fishers wrote to King Edward III to request his intervention in the use of the "wondyrechaun," a weighted net dragged along the seafloor to snatch up anything in its path.
And that the great and long iron of the wondryechaun runs so heavily and hardly over the ground when fishing that it destroys the flowers of the land below water there, and also the spat of oysters, mussels and other fish upon which the great fish are accustomed to be fed and nourished. By which instrument in many places, the fishermen take such quantity of small fish that they do not know what to do with them; and that they feed and fat their pigs with them, to the great damage of the commons of the realm and the destruction of the fisheries, and they pray for a remedy.
The bottom trawl was so unpopular among hook-and-line fishers in Europe that they succeeded in staving off the new and damaging technology for centuries. Its use was banned in several countries and even made a capital offense in France in the 16th century. But as Roberts theorizes in his book, there may have been another reason why the trawl didn't catch on: It caught such volumes of fish--sometimes making the net so heavy it could not be hauled up onto the boat--that the fishers couldn't sell the catch before it spoiled. It wasn't until the advent of railroads and the widespread exportation of ice from Northern Europe that the enormous bounties realized by trawling could actually be utilized. By the 1860s, just 30 years after the world's first steam passenger service started, more than 100,000 pounds of fish were transported by rail in England each year. With a new market of seafood consumers beyond the coasts now reachable, the number of British trawlers increased sixfold in 2 short decades, to more than 800 in the early 1860s.
By the numbers alone, the era when fishermen resisted the advent of the trawl was over. But many still complained that, by ripping up the seafloor and crushing the oyster beds and rocky expanses that were the homes and sources of sustenance for fish, the trawls were killing the goose that laid the golden egg. They clamored so loudly that a royal commission was set up by the British government in 1863 to investigate the complaints. But the commissioners rejected the fishermen's concerns outright, instead claiming--contrary to the facts--that the trawls actually fostered life by furrowing the seabed like a plow turning dirt in a field of wheat.
One of the members of the royal commission was Thomas Henry Huxley. A biologist sporting voluminous sideburns, Huxley had earned prominence as one of the earliest and most vocal supporters of Darwin's views on evolution. But during two royal commission investigations into trawling (the second one undertaken in 1883), Huxley embraced the role of skeptic. He sneered at the fishermen's complaints about dropping catches and dismissed their on-the-water accounts.