According to the United Nations FAO statistics, the total number of commercial fishermen and fish farmers is estimated to be 38 million. Fisheries and aquaculture provide direct and indirect employment to over 500 million people in developing countries. In 2005, the worldwide per capita consumption of fish captured from wild fisheries was 14.4 kilograms, with an additional 7.4 kilograms harvested from fish farms. In addition to providing food, modern fishing is also a recreational pastime.
Fishing is an ancient practice that dates back to at least the beginning of the Upper Paleolithic period about 40,000 years ago. Isotopic analysis of the skeletal remains of Tianyuan man, a 40,000-year-old modern human from eastern Asia, has shown that he regularly consumed freshwater fish. Archaeology features such as shell middens, discarded fish bones, and cave paintings show that sea foods were important for survival and consumed in significant quantities.
During this period, most people lived a hunter-gatherer lifestyle and were, of necessity, constantly on the move. However, where there are early examples of permanent settlements (though not necessarily permanently occupied) such as those at Lepenski Vir, they are almost always associated with fishing as a major source of food.
The British dogger was an early type of sailing trawler from the 17th century, but the modern fishing trawler was developed in the 19th century, at the English fishing port of Brixham. By the early 19th century, the fishermen at Brixham needed to expand their fishing area further than ever before due to the ongoing depletion of stocks that was occurring in the overfished waters of South Devon. The Brixham trawler that evolved there was of a sleek build and had a tall gaff rig, which gave the vessel sufficient speed to make long distance trips out to the fishing grounds in the ocean. They were also sufficiently robust to be able to tow large trawls in deep water. The great trawling fleet that built up at Brixham, earned the village the title of 'Mother of Deep-Sea Fisheries'.
This revolutionary design made large scale trawling in the ocean possible for the first time, resulting in a massive migration of fishermen from the ports in the South of England, to villages further north, such as Scarborough, Hull, Grimsby, Harwich and Yarmouth, that were points of access to the large fishing grounds in the Atlantic Ocean.
The small village of Grimsby grew to become the largest fishing port in the world by the mid 19th century. An Act of Parliament was first obtained in 1796, which authorised the construction of new quays and dredging of the Haven to make it deeper. It was only in the 1846, with the tremendous expansion in the fishing industry, that the Grimsby Dock Company was formed. The foundation stone for the Royal Dock was laid by Albert the Prince consort in 1849. The dock covered 25 acres (10 ha) and was formally opened by Queen Victoria in 1854 as the first modern fishing port.
The elegant Brixham trawler spread across the world, influencing fishing fleets everywhere. By the end of the 19th century, there were over 3,000 fishing trawlers in commission in Britain, with almost 1,000 at Grimsby. These trawlers were sold to fishermen around Europe, including from the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Twelve trawlers went on to form the nucleus of the German fishing fleet.
The earliest steam powered fishing boats first appeared in the 1870s and used the trawl system of fishing as well as lines and drift nets. These were large boats, usually 8090 feet (2427 m) in length with a beam of around 20 feet (6.1 m). They weighed 40-50 tons and travelled at 911 knots (1720 km/h; 1013 mph). The earliest purpose built fishing vessels were designed and made by David Allan in Leith, Scotland in March 1875, when he converted a drifter to steam power. In 1877, he built the first screw propelled steam trawler in the world.
Steam trawlers were introduced at Grimsby and Hull in the 1880s. In 1890 it was estimated that there were 20,000 men on the North Sea. The steam drifter was not used in the herring fishery until 1897. The last sailing fishing trawler was built in 1925 in Grimsby. Trawler designs adapted as the way they were powered changed from sail to coal-fired steam by World War I to diesel and turbines by the end of World War II.
In 1931, the first powered drum was created by Laurie Jarelainen. The drum was a circular device that was set to the side of the boat and would draw in the nets. Since World War II, radio navigation aids and fish finders have been widely used. The first trawlers fished over the side, rather than over the stern. The first purpose built stern trawler was Fairtry built in 1953 at Aberdeen, Scotland. The ship was much larger than any other trawlers then in operation and inaugurated the era of the 'super trawler'. As the ship pulled its nets over the stern, it could lift out a much greater haul of up to 60 tons. The ship served as a basis for the expansion of 'super trawlers' around the world in the following decades.