Fishing in the Modern Age

In modern times, fishing is a fundamental issue for coastal populations. How did we fish? What were the fishery resources that were withdrawn from the sea? More than wanting to establish a synthetic panorama of fishing activity in the modern era, it is also a question of looking at the techniques used.

From picking to small fishing

The first step is to analyze the gathering activity, which prevailed in coastal societies in modern times. Picking "seafood" was frequent among coastal populations. This term was used by Europeans to qualify and define these fishery resources, immediately available on the shore. It was, for example, a gathering of algae, seaweed, that the sea rejected, or that we were going to cut on the coast, whether in the Atlantic, on the coasts of the Channel, or in the Mediterranean. . But other natural products were also collected, such as pebbles, sand, or pieces of rocks fallen after storms and seas. Nevertheless, in modern times, and especially from the 18th century, the authorities were trying to curb these practices, so that the coastline does not erode too quickly. For example, the beach of Pampelonne, near Saint-Tropez, has long been a reservoir of sand used for construction on the entire coast of the Côte d´Azur; today, it is a very popular place for tourists, and therefore preserved. “Seafood” was also highly sought after by small-scale fishermen, who walked along the coasts to collect various products. These are shellfish, oysters, mussels, cockles, etc. This collection was organized mainly in areas that experienced tides, and in particular in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean, the English Channel, or the North Sea. When the tide clears the area called the "foreshore", the collectors then come to the area, and indulge in their practices. For example, it can also be the gathering of natural sponges, fished in Sardinia, Sicily, Tunisia and Greek waters. Another fishing, sometimes practiced by the same very lucrative, existed at this time: coral fishing. Coral was in great demand in the Mediterranean, but also beyond: it was used in particular in small quantities in pharmacopoeia, and it was also used for goldsmiths and jewelry. Coral - especially red - was offered in modern times to famous visitors: when Marie de Medici came to Marseille to marry the king Henri, the locals who welcomed him offered him a coral branch as a welcome, for example.

Of all the fishery riches that we have just presented, the most important is salt. It is fundamental, both for the metabolism and for the preservation of food. Sea salt is obtained according to similar devices in the Atlantic or the Mediterranean: small dikes are erected and “traps” are created, where the water is trapped, and where it ends up evaporating, revealing the presence of salt. These devices existed in France, and in particular in Hyères, in the peninsula of Giens, as well as in Guérande or Bourgneuf. But they were also present throughout Europe, notably in Venice and Setubal. The salt marshes were mainly exploited, until the end of the Middle Ages, by monastic establishments and lords. Then, from the 14th century, the state took the place of the lords and ecclesiastical institutions, and organized the exploitation of the salt marshes for its own benefit. The state in France tried to control this production: in the 14th century, during the Hundred Years War, we introduced a tax burden on salt, known to almost all, the "salt tax".

Shore fishing, in all of the cases just mentioned, is ubiquitous. This is fishing on foot, where you go, at low tide, with your bare hands or with a dip net, to pick up what the sea has left, and in particular shellfish, crustaceans, or small fish. It can also be small-scale coastal fishing, practiced close to the coast, with fishing vessels. We leave the fishing port in the morning, and come back in the evening, usually before dark. This coastal fishing was, however, carried out later in the Ponant regions than in the Mediterranean. Until the 15th century, in the Ponant region (Gascony, Normandy, Brittany, Flanders), people did not want to go too far, for fear of reaching the "kingdom of the dead". This is the context of the "repulsion" of the sea, described by the historian Alain Corbin in his work The sea. Terror and fascination.

Offshore fishing and deep-sea fishing

Offshore fishing is done away from the shore for several days. In the Mediterranean, this is, for example, bluefin tuna fishing, carried out using nets. In northwestern Europe, it is mostly a herring fishery, which the Dutch have made a specialty of in modern times, even becoming, according to the historian Alain Cabantous, a true “herring civilization”. Nevertheless, in the 17th century, prices fell, making herring a symbolic fish for popular consumption. It will also see its shelf life improved: you can clean it, empty it and "put it in a cap" on the boat, you can smoke it, or place it in jars with a mixture of water and white vinegar. Currently, herring is still widely caught and eaten in this part of Europe; it is symbolically found in certain popular festivals, such as the carnivals in Maritime Flanders, in Dunkirk, Douai, Dieppe, Calais, or Boulogne-sur-Mer. Deep-sea fishing, mainly carried out towards Newfoundland, and set up in France by the people of Saint-Malo, is the most prestigious fishing. It can be the source of immense fortunes, as has been observed among Malouins fishermen. The fortunes made by the Malouins thanks to cod fishing will be largely invested in racing operations. Among these privateers, some will reinvest the money earned "in the cod" to arm racing boats, capture galleons, and thus make a fortune.

It is therefore, within the framework of deep-sea fishing, as we suspect, to move away for several weeks from its home port, and to practice its activity in the high seas waters. of Newfoundland was visited and explored at the beginning of the 16th century, when Europeans were looking for a passage to bypass the American continent by the north. In this fishing area, the most popular fish is cod. It was the Norwegians, the fishermen of Bergen, who were the first to go fishing for these fish, which were much larger than the herrings loved by the Dutch. Very quickly, these Scandinavians were imitated by other European cod fishers, notably the English and the French. Newfoundland will therefore find itself at the heart of a political issue, at the heart of international relations between European states: when the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, at the end of the War of the Spanish Succession, France had to abandon a large part of Newfoundland to the English. France kept a few islets, a few bases (Saint-Pierre-et-Miquelon in particular), which allowed it to continue to practice deep-sea fishing.

The cod that is caught and that is consumed by Europeans happens to be packaged in two ways, in two ways. Initially, it is a salted, land-dried cod, called "stockfish" or "baccalau". But it can also be a cod packaged on board the boat: soaked in brine, in a composition heavily loaded with salt, it remains flexible. This is called "green cod", which takes less labor to disgorge, but which, on the other hand, keeps much less time than cod salted and dried on land. All of these techniques used in deep-sea fishing lead us to wonder about the methods used by fishermen to optimize their yields.

Exploitation techniques

The first step is to fish with lines and nets. These are the simplest techniques. The landing net, for example, is considered a type of net. The line between a rod and a hook is also one. The first major technique used is "longline fishing", widely used in the Mediterranean world in modern times: a line is dropped to the bottom of the sea which itself has other smaller lines equipped with hooks. In a way, we multiply the lines so that we can catch more fish. The Catalans, for their part, perfect this technique by providing the lines with floats, which thus become more visible and more manageable. This is the "hanging longline" technique. The Catalans would have introduced this technique in Provence and would have caused conflicts over practically a century. By introducing this way of fishing in Provence, the local fishermen would have risen against the Catalans, the excessive catches exhausting the seabed. A victim of its own success, in a way, longline fishing was gradually condemned… but not abandoned. Fishermen, especially in Provence, also used pots, traps, baskets, with bait inside, in order to more easily catch fish. Another technique, widely used in modern times, involves the use of nets. In Provence, the technique most used was that of "beef fishing": two tartanes, that is to say two small boats, advance at the same speed, each holding a line and pulling a pocket. The use of these nets represents a technique that seems to have been introduced in southern Europe by the Catalans around 1720-1730. They were undoubtedly Catalans fleeing Catalonia, where this fishing was prohibited under penalty of death, because it was considered harmful to the seabed, since the nets scraped the seabed and destroyed the fauna. These nets, also called "essaugues", were very expensive: in modern times it was estimated that the price of the net was almost the same as the price of the boat. Ownership of the net even happened to be divided into shares, "quirats". This is how historians today, in wills or inventories after death, for example, can find traces of these shares of nets left to heirs.

In addition to nets and lines, fishermen in modern times create and operate systems of "fixed fisheries". In fact, we can distinguish three types. The first technique consists of the creation of oyster beds (for oysters) or mussels (for mussels). These are coastal livestock, modeled on what can then be found on earth in agriculture. The second type of "fixed fishery" is the "bordigue": these are "traps", created from reeds, for example, where the fish slip and become trapped. In fact, when the fish enter the pond, systems with reeds are introduced to take the fish into traps, where they are captured. Finally, the third and last type of “fixed fishery” is the trap, extremely famous in the Mediterranean basin, and in particular in Provence. Traps are very expensive, complex fishing devices that have been used since Antiquity in the Mediterranean. In this, they are absolutely nothing new in modern times ... but still widely used. More precisely, it is about a system of fixed nets used to catch the tuna, of a labyrinth of meshes, on the model of bordigues: the trap is "wedged" by a group of fishermen from the beginning of spring. . Traps, like ships, are divided into quirats, parts.

In modern times, fishing is a fundamental issue for coastal populations. It may be, as with shore fishing, securing one's own livelihood through a foraging economy. But it is also, through larger fisheries, to earn money, and to build up significant capital that can then be reinvested in other activities, as is the case for the Malouins with the race. In this regard, in modern times, fishing is a good way for coastal populations to preserve their status, and even to develop and enrich themselves.


- CORBIN Alain, The sea. Terror and fascination, Paris, Seuil, Coll. Points Histoire, 2011.

- CORBIN Alain, The territory of the void. The West and the Desire for the Shore, 1750-1840, Paris, Flammarion, Coll. Champs Flammarion, 1990.

- CABANTOUS Alain, LESPAGNOL André, PÉRON Françoise, The French, land and sea (XIIIᵉ - XXᵉ centuries), Paris, Fayard, 2005.

Video: Largest Fish Factory Vessel. Episode 1. Documentary. Science Channel (December 2021).