Weoley Castle near Birmingham isn’t very noteworthy. No memorable lords dwelled there, no legendary battles surged against its walls, no knights rode out from its gates, across its moat, to defend the place—it has laid in ruins since at least the seventeenth century. But Weoley Castle’s toppled ramparts, empty moats, and relatively pedestrian history offers a glimpse of medieval fish farming. In 1902, the castle was the subject of an historical survey published by the Birmingham Archaeological Society; according to the survey’s author, the castle’s most striking feature was its several moats:
There is a peculiar feature on the east side of the castle. The moat there was double, a narrow causeway separating the moat into two equal parts. As the east was the side of the castle least liable to attack, the object of the double moat is not apparent at first sight, but my own idea is that when moats were no longer of their former importance from a military point of view, they gained in importance from a culinary aspect, and that this division was to create a stew pond for my Lord the Pike and his Excellence the Carp, both persons of high distinction in medieval times.
“Lord the Pike” and “his Excellence the Carp” are, of course, fish.
Medieval Europe was covered in castle moats and other manmade fish ponds—known as stew ponds—stocked with carp, pike, bream, perch, and other freshwater fish that were raised for the eventual journey to a nearby kitchen. Chaucer, the most famous of medieval documentarians, writes in his prologue to The Canterbury Tales that the Franklin (a non-noble landowner) had “many a breem and many a luce in stewe”—translated as “many bream and many pike in his fishpond.”
Today, with more farm-raised fish showing up on ice at grocery stores, and more discussion of whether farm-raised fish offer a sustainable alternative to their wild-caught brethren, many people might think fish farming is a relatively recent human endeavor. But humans—from the ancient Chinese and Romans, through medieval Europeans—have been farming fish for thousands of years.
Fish farming is, however, growing at a fast clip. Aquaculture, the farming of aquatic organisms, is the fastest growing form of food production in the world, increasing at three times the rate of world meat production, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. In the early 1950s, fish and shellfish farming yielded less than 1 million metric tons per year. In 2008, it had increased to 52.5 million metric tons, worth $98.4 billion, according to the FAO. In 2009, aquaculture for the first time provided 50% of all the seafood consumed on the planet, according to a study published in the Natural Proceedings of Science. It’s a major transition for the use of our oceans, from hunting and gathering our seafood—commercial fishermen are the last great hunter-gatherers on the planet—to farming it.
It’s impossible to tell exactly when humans first started farming fish. While archaeological evidence shows fish and shellfish were parts of the diets of early man, it has a harder time proving whether that seafood was wild-caught or farm-raised. Colin Nash, author of The History of Aquaculture, writes that “a Neanderthal man stepping into a twenty-first century kitchen at dinner time would easily recognize the aroma of grilled fish, broiled mussels and oysters, or smoked eel, as an inviting meal was prepared.”
The earliest historical record of fish farming comes from China in the form of a treatise on how to raise carp in ponds written by Fan Li in 475 BC. (Carp, though no longer as popular as a food fish, played a big role in the early history of aquaculture because of its hardiness and versatility. The rustic fish does still play a big role in modern day aquariums—goldfish and koi are smaller, ornamental varieties of the carp family.)
One of our best primary sources on Roman agriculture, Columella, who lived during the first century in what is today Spain, dedicates half a dozen pages of his tome, De Re Rustica, to farming what he refers to at various times as “aquatile cattle” or “scaly flocks.”
Columella suggests in his chapter titled “Of Fish-ponds, and of Feeding of Fishes,” that a major driver of Roman aquaculture was so the upper classes—“that ancient, rustic progeny of Romulus and Numa,” the first and second kings of Rome, respectively—could maintain a high standard of living when they left the city to spend time at their country villas. They “thought it a great matter, that, if rural life were compared with a city life, it did not labour under the want of, or come short in, any part of riches or wealth whatsoever. Wherefore, they not only stored the fish-ponds, which they themselves had built with great numbers of fishes, but also filled the lakes, which nature had formed, with spawn, or young fishes, brought from the sea.” (The Romans also were said to have the curious ability to train fish “to live in wine,” according to an article titled “Fish Culture” from a 1862 issue of Harper’s. Perhaps this published falsity proves just how mysterious aquaculture remained even in the late nineteenth century.)
Columella highlights the major difference between the aquaculture practiced in ancient and medieval times and that of modern fish farming: the collection of young fish from the wild to stock holding ponds versus the artificial fertilization of eggs and breeding of fish in hatcheries.
While today’s fish feed is a highly formulated mix of ingredients—from fishmeal and fish oil in the case of carnivorous species, to cereals and vegetable proteins—early suggestions for what fish farmers should feed their “scaly flocks” were not so scientific. Columella mentions feeding fish everything from “green fruit of the apple-kind” and “new cheese or curds out of the milk-pail” to “rotten sardines” and “all the garbage of salted fish, which are swept out of fishmongers [sic] shops.” The Englishman Roger North writes in his treatise, “A Discourse of Fish and Fish-Ponds,” published in 1713, that “Chippings of Bread” and “Tap-droppings of good strong Beer or Ale” are perfect food for carp. North also suggests another, rather morbid, feeding option: “One Way of feeding Fish,” he writes, “is laying a dead Carrion upon Stakes in the Middle of the Water, and it will breed Maggots, which falling into the Water, feed the Fish very considerably.” He does thoughtfully point out that this method is “not fit to be us’d in Waters that you ever look upon.”
The birth of modern aquaculture can be traced to Ludwig Jacobi, a wealthy Hanoverian landowner from what is today Germany, who wrote in 1763 about his artificial fertilization and hatching of trout and salmon. That was followed by a collection of books on the subject from across Europe throughout the nineteenth century. Meanwhile, an amateur naturalist in Ohio named Theodatus Garlick also figured out how to artificially fertilize trout eggs and breed the fish in 1853. The spread of modern aquaculture at this point was driven at least in part by the rise of amateur naturalists who began to notice a problem we still face today: fewer wild fish due to over fishing.
By the late nineteenth century it was “an ascertained fact that we can cultivate our salmon in the same sense as we can grow our own mutton or breed our own turkeys,” according to a June 1863 issue of The Reader.
Today, the aquaculture industry provides an increasing amount of protein-rich food for dinner tables around the world. Since the time of Fan Li and his early experiments with farm-raised carp, China has grown into the largest producer of farmed fish in the world, while the United States has lagged. In 2008, Chinese fish and shellfish farmers produced 32.7 million metric tons of seafood. The United States produced only 500,000 metric tons the same year. In this country, we import 81% of the seafood we consume, nearly seven million tons a year, resulting in a seafood trade deficit in 2008 of $9.4 billion, the country’s third largest behind oil and automobiles.
Perhaps we should take the suggestion of Roger North, who suggested that all the ills of everyday life, or at least the everyday life of landed gentry, will be solved by farming fish:
We were not made perfect, but must live in perpetual Disease; the only Point is, which Way to lessen it; and that must be by Employment, which diverts the Sense of our innate Misery. What can be a greater Torture, than to live chain’d to a Bed, tho’ the best in the World, and have no Company nor Business? Therefore court Business, if you would pass for an Epicurean, and let it be such as brings Comfort to Nature, and not Pain and Torment in the Consequences; that is to say, lawful, profitable, obliging, and temperate. So you avoid offending the Publick, increase your Store, win your Friends and Family, and preserve your Health; all which, I take it, are accomplish’d, in great Measure, by the Mastery of Fish.August 11, 2011