Agriculture and Environment: Commodities

Overview: Salmon (Salmo salar)

The first evidence connecting humans to salmon was found in southwestern France and northern Spain in caves that were occupied during the Upper Palaeolithic period.

Salmon vertebrae, salmon images carved onto reindeer antlers and other implements, and metre-long paintings on the walls were found in these caves. Salmon fish traps from around 6000 BC have been found in Sweden, and salmon fishnets from around 6250 BC have been found in Danish bogs.

Once abundant across the North Atlantic
Atlantic salmon, once abundant throughout the North Atlantic, were prized food by Gauls, Romans, and Native Americans alike. In Europe salmon fishing was done from small boats such as those made of skin stretched on wooden frames seen by Julius Caesar when he invaded Britain in 55 BC.

Salmon were so common in some areas that they were fed to pigs, and laws were written to limit the number of days a week the labourers could be fed salmon so that they would have more variety in their diets.

A precious asset
The Domesday Book (1085-86), written at the request of William the Conqueror to determine the wealth of the British Isles, inventoried a number of salmon fisheries. In one instance, 1000 fish per year were paid as tribute to the lord of the manor. From the 12th century AD onward, salmon fishing rights were mentioned in property grants by kings and religious houses, royal boroughs, and the landed nobility.

When the exports began....and flourished
For most of the Middle Ages, salmon was caught for local subsistence. However, by the 13th century there were records of salmon exports from Scotland. In 1488 the Scottish government's revenue from taxing salmon exports amounted to £310, a huge sum at that time.

After the Reformation, when religious groups lost their title to rivers, ownership was turned over to friends of the King who worked the fisheries for profit. By 1669 some £200,000 of Scottish salmon were exported annually (Netboy 1974). After the union of Scotland and England in 1707, the trade in salmon increased even more, aided by improved transportation links.

In the 17th century, the Dee and Don rivers in the United Kingdom produced 170 tonnes of salmon annually, with exports going to Germany, Spain, Portugal, Holland, and even as far away as Venice.

The rising costs
The local price for salmon was 2 pence, but in London they sold for 6 shillings and 6 pence, a 36-fold increase. By the early eighteenth century, the annual rental fee for the salmon and eel fishers of the lower River Don alone amounted to £30,000 (Netboy 1974).

Sustainable salmon production
There have long been efforts to maintain salmon production. In the middle Ages, river managers developed wise-use practices to protect salmon runs. Kings in England and Scotland forbade blocking migratory routes and even taking fish in what they believed (usually erroneously) to be the spawning season.

In 1030 King Malcolm II of Scotland established a closed season for salmon from the end of August to Martinmas (November 11). Richard the Lionheart made a statute that all rivers must have a free-flowing gap in the middle of at least the length of a 3-year-old pig (Netboy 1974).

Credits

Extracts from "World Agriculture & Environment" by Jason Clay - buy the book online from Island Press 

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