Canada’s sardine fleet set off this year with high hopes. But this past month, the fleet came back to port having caught not a single sardine. The Canadian sardine industry, which generates about $32 million a year, has apparently been destroyed by over fishing.
Once again, we humans seem to have turned a renewable resource into extinction.
I suppose I’m a bit to blame as well, because I enjoy—or should I say enjoyed—a sardine sandwich every once in a while, not really thinking about where the succulent little guys came from or how they got into our local grocery store.
It sort of puts me in mind of what happened to the seemingly limitless herds of American Bison. Teams of market hunters, mowing down dozens of the huge shaggy animals with their Sharps “Big 50” rolling block rifles were follwed by the skinners who deftly removed the thick hides, which were shipped east to make robes and coats.
In the 1500s, scientists believe there were between 30 and 60 million bison in what would one day become the United States. By 1820, the Eastern Bison had been eradicated by a combination of Native American subsistence hunters and European market hunters. Then they started working on the herds west of the Mississippi.
The same combination of forces that eradicated the eastern herd came to bear on the gigantic herds of western bison, with the Hudson Bay Company leading the early charge. In 1844, the HBC handled 75,000 buffalo hides. But that was a drop in the bucket of what was to come.
In the late 1860s, the U.S. Government encouraged the extension of a rail line across the nation to link the east and west coasts. The construction companies hired hunters to harvest bison to feed their construction crews. Young William Cody was one of those hunters. He later became famous as Buffalo Bill, and was well-known for his “Wild West” shows that tried to preserve the old culture of early life on the western plains.
Then some entrepreneurs in Germany invented a process to tan buffalo hides, making them soft and supple. That made buffalo robes much more desirable and in 1870, about 2 million bison in the southern herd were killed by hunting and skinning teams. From then on, the slaughter accelerated as first the southern herd was exterminated and then the northern herd was attacked. The southern herd had been eliminated by 1874. Then the slaughter of the northern herd began, with millions of hides taken and shipped east. In 1883, the hunt ended early due to lack of buffalo. It was thought the herd had moved north of the U.S. Canada border. But in 1884 when the hunters headed out onto the plains, just like this year’s sardine fleet, they didn’t find a single buffalo. Other than about 300 animals remaining in protected areas, the tens of millions of the animals that once roamed the plains were gone.
I’ve always believed we can learn a lot from history—”lessons learned” the military folks call it. But I’ve also come to understand that while some of us do learn from history, far too many of us never learn a thing. While George Santayana suggested that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” I think these days the Internet Corollary is more to the point: “Those who know history are condemned to watch others repeat it.”