The Incomplete History of Aquaculture: Part II


Written by Chris Foley, University of Miami, MPS
Edited by Sarah Curry, Founder and Executive Director, Sereia Films

This five-part blog series highlights Colin E. Nash’s The History of Aquaculture. 

The blog series title acknowledges that this series is a summary of the book and that the comprehensive history of aquaculture has many storytellers.

Si Wen Ming, the first emperor of the Xia Dynasty in China, who Nash says reportedly lived around 2070 BC, wrote about the existence of ancient practices of gathering seeds and raising fish. Ming also wrote about laws regarding fish spawn harvests. Other examples of ancient Chinese civilizations raising fish and cultivating aquatic plants can be traced back to the Chou Dynasty, from 1112 to 221 BC, where records of keeping fish in captivity are found within classical writings. Chinese citizens who could afford it kept captive fish on their properties for food, ornament, and status. They also gifted the common carp to each other as a token of good fortune.

In 475 BC Fan Li used the term ‘aquahusbandry’ in his writings. His Treatise on Fish Culture said that raising carp was ‘one of five ways to make a good living in China.’ Nash points out that “he described techniques for constructing ponds just over an acre in size, with “nine islets and eight pits,” for selecting adults for breeding, and for breeding, feeding, and maintaining a healthy population”. Nash adds that “some of his ideas are closely comparable to modern methods of carp culture, and they indicate his keen eye for fish behavior and an understanding of rudimentary biology.” Li’s recommended practices and ideas regarding intensive production with regulated harvesting led to successes surrounding simple common carp culture for millennia. An emperor whose family name was Li came to the throne in AD 618 during the Tang Dynasty. His last name Li, was pronounced the same as the common carp, “lee” and he considered any talk of culturing and consuming common carp incredibly insulting, banning it’s cultivation. Thus began the cultivation of four other carp species, such as silver, bighead, mud, and grass all of which could flourish within the same pond. They all had different behaviors, and occupied different niches in the water. This early example of polyculture has existed for a thousand years and China, to this day, continues to produce more freshwater fish in farms than the rest of the world combined.

Nash hints at parallel evolution in all of history’s ancient civilizations. Although China is also credited with the spread of simple farming throughout Asia, India’s early civilizations, situated alongside the Ganges and Indus Rivers, developed elaborate sanitation systems, complete with reservoirs, holding tanks, and piping. Nash states that “they also used the reservoirs to maintain stocks of fish”, and Kautilya, an Indian philosopher who lived around 300 BC, was not unlike Fan Li who preceded him, as he proposed four ways for personal prosperity through the use of wealth and the land. Nash also notes that “the purpose of simple fish husbandry in the Great Cultures could have been mainly the expediency of keeping fish and shellfish alive and fresh for the table, or for some religious function and symbolism. There is no evidence that fish were continuously bred in captivity, and little indication that they were owned and raised in ponds by the common people”.

Ancient Egyptians are actually credited with developing angling for fish, although they were not renowned as fishermen. They focused their efforts to catching abundant resources along the Nile River and its adjacent Delta. Ancient Egyptians also built “vivariae piscinae”, or pools for holding aquatic animals as well as fish. A sculpture on the rock tomb of Akihetep, dating back to at least 2500 BC, depicts fishermen catching tilapia and catfish, among others of the Nile, although it’s unknown whether or not the fish are in a pond or open water. Ancient Assyrians of Western Asia were skilled fishermen fond of fish and kept them in lakes created by dams constructed on the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, in order to improve the irrigation of their crops. Ancient Assyrians also built their own “vivariae piscinae”, as well as ponds for both sacred and commercial fish surrounding their temples, that can be traced back to 2500 BC. Roman citizens, who could afford them, owned villas along the coast and constructed complexes capable of holding delicacies while those who owned villas inland collected fish and shellfish and carried them over countless miles so they too could enjoy such luxuries. Although these “vivariae piscinae” were a popular social phenomenon, they remained the prerogative of wealthy patricians as they were privately owned and protected. Romans were particularly partial to oysters and collected them from the coasts and cultivated them artificially.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire in Western Europe in AD 476, the Middle Ages saw centuries of chaos and corruption, leading all the way up to the start of the Renaissance in the fourteenth century. King Charlemagne mentions the common carp in his writings from the year 812. The presence of fish husbandry in Europe reinforces the notion that independent practices developed along parallel lines. As carp cultivation commenced in Europe, stew ponds became common and convenient sources for storing fresh protein that supplemented diets of dried, salted, and pickled foods. Oysters and mussels were also being protected and harvested during this time, and Nash mentions that the shellfish farmers in France originated in the thirteenth century. Nash also mentions that as in earlier times in some cultures, many of these fishponds from the Middle Ages were privately owned by priests and nobles. And while fish were regularly avoided in early religious orders since they symbolized impurity, stew ponds became central to cloistered life after the Pope announced a new calendar consisting of religious fasts and feasts.

(Woodblock Drawing of Medieval London and the River Thames with the Fishponds in the Foreground)

In the prologue to The Canterbury Tales, written between 1387 and 1392, Chaucer describes “a franklin, or landowner who was not ennobled, who “hadde many a breem [bream] and many a luce [pike] in stuwe [stew pond]”. Nash notes that “the feudal system of the Middle Ages, which specifically deprived the peasants of ownership of land, also deprived them of owning stew ponds and even having access to fish. Most rivers and streams belonged to kings and their royal barons…” However, the signing of the Magna Carta started to break down these rules. In contrast, in Eastern Europe, community fish ponds were common during that time.

China switched from their old militaristic ways to new moralistic ones during the Song Dynasty. Chinese leaders had incredible influence, as China led the world in innovation at the time, specifically within the mining industry. China assembled a fleet of vessels that sailed throughout settled lands bordering the China Sea and Indian Ocean for centuries, until the Great Withdrawal of 1433. Grand Eunuch Zheng, a military leader, oversaw seven expeditions over twenty-five-years, with hundreds of ships with built-in holds that could be flooded to carry fish. Chinese treasures were distributed and their skills were taught throughout these expeditions, including, Nash presumes, carp and lessons in fish husbandry. Tribal communities around the world used spears, lines with bones, and a variety of fixed traps to catch fish. Nash says there’s little doubt that many tribal communities “independently discovered that most fish could be held in captivity in traps for several days to keep them fresh, even longer if they were provided with some feed.” 

Early hunter/gatherer societies knew the movements of prey and paid attention to seasonal shifts, etc. This may have led them to trap fish in mangrove forests as they migrated in, and then transferred them to shallow ponds, commonly called tambaks. This is early coastal fish farming and is seen throughout Southeast Asia. Nash states that “he development of coastal farming in the region was probably influenced most, however, by the consolidation of Islam in India around the millennium”. Coastal farming spread from the islands of Southeast Asia to those of Hawaii and Tahiti, between the tenth and thirteenth centuries. Meanwhile, in South America, cultures were also building fish holding areas, as far back as the sixteenth century. “Through simple but effective hydraulic engineering, they were able to turn these tropical lowland areas, frequently notes for their poor soil as well as their heavy seasonal rains, into a combination of permanently raised field for the production of crops, and zigzag weirs and ponds for trapping and holding fish,” Nash mentions. Certain fish characteristic of the area were catfish, perch, and piranhas. Some anthropologists believe these floodplain societies may have existed for several millennia.