Around one billion people around the world rely on marine fish as an important source of protein and even more rely on fish from rivers and lakes. In Cambodia, for example, a whopping 95% of a person’s daily protein might come just from freshwater fish.
The fact that we can’t breathe underwater has forced humans to be incredibly creative in their hunting and we now catch fish in a truly astonishing number of ways, some small and personal, others huge and industrial.
On the islands of Papua New Guinea, for example, men known as “shark callers” lure their prey by singing to them while rattling the shells of coconuts. Further east, in the Solomon Islands, men simply float in the water and drop weighted lines below them. With stealth and accuracy, they are able to catch fish hiding in the reef below.
In Malaysia, the Bajau Laut are more immersive. Their free-divers can swim 20 metres down on a single breath, and stay there for several minutes as they hunt their prey with spear-guns. But even more dangerous is the work of the Paaling divers of the Philippines. They dive to depths of 40 metres, breathing air that is pumped down to them through a garden hose.
But at least they have tropical sunshine to warm them up. The Nenets of northern Russian must lower nets through thick ice when they want to catch fish. And when it comes to disentangling them, the nets are so delicate that the fishermen must take off their gloves and use their bare hands, a bitingly painful experience in such freezing temperatures.
The need to catch fish has even inspired humans to form partnerships with other animals, some tame and some wild. On the Ganges, for instance, tame otters are used to scare fish into waiting nets, while fishermen in China employ the services of cormorants. By tying ropes around the birds’ necks, they make sure that the trained birds can’t swallow their catch before they do.
But perhaps the most equitable – and amazing – of partnerships is found between the fishermen and wild dolphins of Laguna, Brazil. Here, the dolphins shepherd shoals of mullet towards the shallow water where the fishermen await with their nets. When the fish are within striking distance, the dolphins jump out of the water, letting the fishermen know that it is time for them to throw their nets. As the mullet break rank, the dolphins can then pick off the errant fish one by one.
Of course, not all methods of fishing are quite so sustainable. Thanks to industrial fishing techniques, the trade in fish and seafood products is now worth billions of dollars a year and fish are now among the most widely traded commodities in the world. Perhaps because of this it is now estimated that as much as 90% of all the oceans’ large fish may already have disappeared. Not only is this likely to take its toll on our ocean ecosystems, it is also likely to impact badly on our own future food resources. Fishing enthusiasts can fish sustainably by being gentle with fish they release, ensuring that the fish survive, and by fishing only with single-hooks, not treble-hooks, which injure the fish by making many puncture-holes.