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The fishing net has been used since at least 8300 BCE and continues to be used today in a variety of ways, using a variety of materials. Fishing nets have provided a sustainable food source for humans that requires minimal effort and exertion, though they have also greatly damaged our environment.

Development of the Fishing Net

A variety of types of fishing nets have been used since antiquity. The first nets were made from natural materials including grass, flax, tree fibers, and cotton. The oldest net we have found dates to about 8300 BCE; it was made of willow and found with other fishing equipment in the Karelian town of Antrea. The second oldest fishing net dates to the Mesolithic period and was found with sinkers on the bottom of a dried sea.

Native Americans on the Columbia River made nets from grass, nettles, the inner bark of cedar, and spruce root fibers. They used wood for floaters and rocks as weights. The Maori made nets that were thousands of meters long. We know that the Egyptians knew about and likely used fishing nets based on tomb paintings from circa 3000 BCE. Greek literature refers to fishing nets; Ovid talks about them and the use of corks as floaters and lead for weights; the Greek author Oppian wrote the Halieutica, in which he described different methods of fishing using nets from boats, scoop nets, and traps. Fishing nets are also mentioned in Norse mythology and the Bible.

Fishing nets have not changed significantly over time, but the materials used to make them have. Fishing nets are typically made of mesh formed by knotting thin thread. Today, fishing nets are usually made of artificial polyamides such as nylon. However, organic polyamides have been and are still used; these include wool and silk thread. Various materials and objects have also been used as floats or floaters to keep the nets from sinking. Fishermen have used cork for floats; Russia and Finland have used birch bark for floats. In other regions, other types of wood, and even glass are used. Today, most floats are made of plastic foam and are brightly colored. On the other hand, some nets must sink, so weights and anchors are used. Some cultures used ceramic weights and others have used dog conches - a type of sea snail.

Nets are manufactured in different ways depending on the culture creating them. There are mass manufacturing facilities of course, but many cultures still make nets by hand by weaving the threads. There are many types of nets: cast net, gillnet, lift net, purse seine, tangle net, trammel, push net, hand net, and more. Each is used differently and for a different purpose.

While the invention of the fishing net has contributed to the survival of humankind, it has had a severe impact on the environment. Bottom trawling has damaged the seabed; certain nets catch untargeted, non-marketable fish; nets are often lost at sea, entangling a variety of sea life including birds, dolphins, turtles, sharks, and more. While the fishing net has ensured our survival and continues to support many cultures, the impact on the environment - particularly the seas and oceans - has been very damaging and only continues to get worse. Perhaps it's time for some new innovations regarding this ancient fishing tool.

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Examples of Effects of the Fishing Net

  • Enabled humans to sustain themselves both actively and passively (leaving nets and traps in the water and waiting).

  • Largely contributed to the survival of humankind.

  • Provided a reliable, consistent food source for developing civilizations, and continues to be a main source of food for more remote communities.

  • The evolution of the fishing net has led to advancement in our understanding of materials and improved technology in this industry.

  • Pollutes our oceans and seas.

  • Causes damage and death to sea life such as sharks, turtles, birds, fish, etc., that get entangled in the nets and often drown.
Learn more about inventions and discoveries that have changed the world in our Picture Encyclopedia of Innovations!
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