Post-war fishing and science fiction

I’ve been thinking a lot about the industrialization of fishing. For scientists during the 1960s, the problems with fish weren’t conserving them, it was finding efficient ways to catch and process them. In a great deal of scientific writing during the 1960s, the sea is seen as being like an agricultural field, with fish that can be harvested like crops of wheat.

Some scientists thought that technology would soon offer the ability to plant, fertilize and harvest the ocean, as if was land. Bays and estuaries would be enclosed to create fish farms, where fish would be raised like cattle. High-value fish like salmon would be redistributed from the northern to the southern hemisphere.  Fishing would follow the same pattern as farming on land, moving from active hunting to herding to agriculture. Fishing was still in the active hunting stage but would move towards an agricultural model.

In 1967, the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations sponsored the Second Fish Gear Congress. Norman Wilimovsky of the University of British Columbia, and Lee Alverson (who we have met in previous posts) wrote a speculative, tongue-in-cheek paper about the future of fishing.  They predicted that a network of unmanned buoys would soon cover the seas, able to determine movements of schools of fish. The location of the fish would be transmitted via a satellite to a shore-based data collection center, then relayed to the fishing fleet. The fleet would either move directly to the fish or the fish would be guided to the boats. Planes would drop chemical pellets into the sea to guide the fish by odor, or remote-controlled underwater vehicles which would produce electrical fields or sonic waves which would guide the fish to the boats.[1] (And this great illustration is from the Digital Art Gallery Online, digital-art-gallery.com/picture/7490

Wilimovsky and Alverson might almost have been parroting the work of scientist and novelist Arthur C. Clarke. In his 1957 novel, The Deep Range, the character Don Burley, is a deep-sea game warden.

He was holding at bay the specter of famine which had confronted all earlier ages, but which would never threaten the world again while the great plankton farms harvested their millions of tons of protein, and the whale herds obeyed their new masters. Man had come back to the sea, his ancient home, after aeons of exile, and until the oceans freeze, he would never be hungry again.[2]

Arthur Clarke was writing science fiction, but Wilimovsky and Alverson were writing about technologies that scientists were currently experimenting with, ways to attract fish to the boats, to turn them from wild fish into domesticated organisms. It was a view of the world that saw fish as infinitely plastic, raw material that people could shape however they wanted, as the legal historian Arthur C. McEvoy pointed out.[3]

Scientists in the 1960s had enormous faith in the power of science and technology. The American National Research Council’s Committee on Oceanography decided in 1966 that malnutrition was the most serious health threat in the world. But the scientists were optimistic. They predicted that in the future, there would be large nuclear reactors situated off the coast that would use their waste heat to generate upwelling, increasing the fish catch.[4]

The underwater nuclear power plants haven’t materialized, and neither have the chemical pellets or the electrical fields that would guide fish to fishing boats. The technology went the other way, with boats increasingly able to find, see, and catch fish in the ocean, regardless of how deep they lived and how remote they were from land. We didn’t need science fiction to accomplish the goals of catching fish; the development of current fishery technology did it just fine.


[1]Dayton Lee Alverson and Normal J. Wilimovsky. Modern Fishing Gear of the World 2, “Prospective developments in the harvesting of marine fishes,” (London: Fishing News (Books) Ltd., 1967). 583-590, 583.

[2] Arthur C. Clarke, The Deep Range, (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and Ltd, 1957), 11-12.

[3] Arthur McEvoy, “An Interactive Theory of Nature and Culture,” in The Ends of the Earth: Perspectives on Modern Environmental History,  Donald Worster, editor, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 211-229.

[4] National Academy of Sciences, Oceanography 1966: Achievements and Opportunities. (Washington, D.C. National Academy of Sciences, 1967), 91.

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About finleyc

I'm a writer and a historian of science. I'm interested in the intersection of science and policy in the oceans, and especially around fishing.
This entry was posted in boat building, Dayton Lee Alverson, Environmental History, Fisheries policy, History of Science, History of Technology, Maritime History, Ocean fishing, Pacific Fishing History Project, Rachel Carson Center and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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