commercial fishing | Description, History, Equipment, & Types of Fisheries

Commercial fishing, the taking of fish and other seafood and resources from oceans, rivers, and lakes for the purpose of marketing them. In the early 21st century about 250 million people were directly employed by the commercial fishing industry, and an estimated one billion people depended on fish as their primary source of animal protein.

Worker in the Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo.Worker in the Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo. © Peter Gordon/

Fishing is one of the oldest employments of humankind. Ancient heaps of discarded mollusk shells, some from prehistoric times, have been found in coastal areas throughout the world, including those of China, Japan, Peru, Brazil, Portugal, and Denmark. These mounds, known as kitchen middens (from the Danish køkkenmødding), indicate that marine mollusks were among the early foods of humans.

Archaeological evidence shows that humans next learned to catch fish in traps and nets. These ventures were limited at first to the lakes and rivers, but as boats and fishing devices were improved, humans ventured into sheltered coastal areas and river mouths and eventually farther out onto the continental shelves, the relatively shallow ocean plains between the land and the deeper ocean areas. In some shelf areas where seaweed was abundant, this was also incorporated into the diet.

Fishing technology continued to develop throughout history, employing improved and larger ships, more sophisticated fishing equipment, and various food preservation methods. Commercial fishing is now carried on in all types of waters, in all parts of the world, except where impeded by depth or dangerous currents or prohibited by law. Commercial fishing can be done in a simple manner with small vessels, little technical equipment, and little or no mechanization as in small local, traditional, or artisanal fisheries. It can also be done on a large scale with powerful deep-sea vessels and sophisticated mechanical equipment similar to that of other modern industrial enterprises.

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Both algae and animals are taken from the sea. Two types of fish are caught: demersal, living at or near the bottom, although sometimes in mid-water; and pelagic, living in the open sea near the surface. Cod, haddock, hake, pollock, and all forms of flatfish are common demersal fish. Herring and related species and tuna and their relatives are examples of pelagic fish. Both demersal and pelagic fish can sometimes be found far from coastal regions. Other aquatic animals that may be the object of commercial fishery include, most notably, crustaceans (lobsters, spiny lobsters, crabs, prawns, shrimps, crayfish) and mollusks (oysters, scallops, mussels, snails, squid, octopuses). Certain mammals (whales, porpoises), reptiles (serpents, crocodiles), amphibians (frogs), many types of worms, coelenterates (coral, jellyfish), and sponges are also sought in commercial fishing. Most of these animals are legally regarded as fish in many countries.

Lobster fishing off the coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Can.Lobster fishing off the coast of Cape Breton, Nova Scotia, Can.Eric Hayes/© Comstock

Various algae are commercially obtained in both seawater and fresh water. Seaweed is harvested in the water or collected on the seashore. Algae play an important ecological role in many countries, not only as human food but also as fodder for cattle, as fertilizer, and as a raw material for certain industries.

Fisheries are classified in part by type of water: fresh water—lake, river, and pond—and salt water—inshore, mid-water, and deep sea. Another classification is based on the object—as in whaling, salmon fishing, and sponge fishing. Sometimes fisheries are classified according to the method of fishing employed: harpooning, seining, trawling, and lining.

While fisheries are considered renewable resources, overfishing has depleted fish and other seafood in many places and is a major threat to aquatic biodiversity. In addition, the use of less-selective fishing gear, such as gillnets or bottom trawls, results in substantial bycatch (the incidental catch of non-target species); some estimates state that bycatch may amount to as much as 40 percent of the global catch. The sustainable management of fisheries is key to both the health of aquatic ecosystems and the continued productivity of commercial fishing.

bycatchbycatchA bigeye thresher shark (Alopias superciliosus) hooked on a longline as bycatch.NOAA

This article discusses organized fishing for profit, with an emphasis on mechanized industrial methods, gear, and vessels. The history and methods of whaling, which is less fishing than the hunting of an aquatic mammal, are discussed separately in the article whaling. For angling, or recreational fishing, see the article fishing. For information on the use and value of fish and marine products as food, see nutrition, human.

Andres R.F.T. von Brandt
Georg A. Borgstrom
Philip F. Purrington
The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica


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