What is with all the fish?!

Environmental historians like fish.  NiCHE could create an extensive bibliography of fish related books and articles.  What is this obsession amongst environmental historians with fish (and the water they live in)?  Here is what I’ve come up with to explain all the fish related scholarship.  Catching fish and controlling water go hand-in-hand.  Both are politically charged and scientifically informed.  And controlling access to fish and water is a huge part of controlling Native populations.  So in the environmental history quest to understand the non-human world alongside the human world, fish get to be the non-human living thing, water gets to be the non-living thing, and Aboriginals get to be the non-white ‘other’.  Together they create a trifecta of environmental history goodness.  The politics and economics of regulating fisheries and building dams is a gold mine for environmental history and when you throw in the colonialism of excluding Aboriginals from traditional areas is it any wonder the field can’t stop writing about it.
After 5 articles and 3 books about the politics of fish and water,  the prospect of reading yet another article about salmon (or cod) has lost its appeal.  But the fish have got me thinking – which is the point of all this reading.  Most work about fish is also about dams and hydro-electric development.  This combination makes perfect sense in the context of natural resources.  Then there is the strong thread interested in the fishery industry and fish culture, which understands fish as part of an agricultural-type understanding and use of the environment.  And then there are the commonalities to wildlife/fur trade history due to the place of Aboriginal peoples in the narrative and the imperial and colonial exploitation associated with early settlement.

Here is a little 1949 NFB goodness for you, balanced out by 1975 film “Plea for the Wanderer.”  Same topic – very different treatment.


About Lauren Wheeler

A reformed history phd student working as a public historian and looking for connections between museums and environmental history from the often freezing reaches of Canada (aka Edmonton).
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