In my world, most mermaids migrate and have two family groups: A warm-water group and a cold-water group. When the water is cold (winter) the mermaids move down south to warmer waters. There the mermaids meet up, flirt, and do other stuff while the kids explore safe tropical reefs without requiring much supervision. When the water turns warm, they move back up to where it's cold again and there they raise kids. I could talk more about the warm water versus cold water group but it's not important. What is important, probably, is that the mermaids are fully sentient and capable of speaking, singing, memorizing terrain and fish, and have a big oral tradition of storytelling.

The question: I was thinking that if the mermaids have herded the fish for tens of thousands of years then wouldn't the fish become domesticated?

I wonder if my idea is feasible and if fish are a good candidate for domestication by nomadic mermaids. Perhaps I am missing something and some other type of marine creatures can be domesticated instead of fish or with fish. If there are any specific steps that the nomadic mermaids needed to have taken then I'd like to know that as well.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Please see my relevant answer to How does society domesticate the hippo? $\endgroup$ – JBH May 13 at 14:41
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ It's relevant for several reasons. (a) it demonstrates that anything can be domesticated, answering your first question (BTW, you're only supposed to ask one...), (b) It identifies the process for domestication, answering your second question. Please note that I almost chose to VTC as a duplicate - all "how do you domesticate X?" questions are fundamentally the same, only the goals (and therefore the specific behaviors used to classify success) change. $\endgroup$ – JBH May 13 at 15:23
  • 2
    $\begingroup$ @JBH I don't see how hippos are foxes show that anything can be domesticated but I understand your point. I didn't see any questions that answered/asked what I wanted to know but if you would like to link some that would be wonderful. Thank you! $\endgroup$ – Idan May 13 at 16:21
  • 4
    $\begingroup$ @JBH It is not true that anything can be domesticated. Please consult these: wikiwand.com/en/Domestication_of_animals and livescience.com/33870-domesticated-animals-criteria.html . $\endgroup$ – Otkin May 13 at 19:50
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ @JBH Plus consider the fact that these mermaids are migratory. I think it is naive to consider every domestication question equivalent. $\endgroup$ – KeizerHarm May 13 at 20:55

First, fish can become acclimated to humans in a way that resembles the beginning of domestication.

My partner keeps reef aquariums, and the fish in those become conditioned to approach for feeding and scratches with a small carbon fiber rod (this probably resembles the activity of cleaner shrimp, at least to a fish brain). I believe it's likely that any animal smart enough to hunt for food (which includes most reef fish and nearly all cold water ones) is smart enough to accept this level of conditioning, and after generations of selective breeding (the ones that become conditioned get to breed more successfully, because they and their fry get fed more) they will become domesticated.

The bad news here is that there are few if any cold-blooded species that transition from warm to cold water in nature. Tropical fish, those that live in water around 20-24 C, will quickly sicken and die if the water temperature gets too low, while cold water fish (salmon, pollock, etc.) cannot survive in water that's too warm. Tuna might transition -- I don't know their ranging habits well -- but they'd be an exception (they are anyway, because they aren't fully cold blooded). Herring (cold water schooling food fish) and sardines (warm water schooling food fish) are similar, but as far as I know, neither migrates from one climate to the other.

So, yes, it's very plausible to domesticate fish over a period of many (fish) generations -- but whether the herds could be moved from cold to warm or warm to cold is highly questionable.

Now, co-domestication might solve part of the problem -- seals in cold water, or sea lions in warmer water, could be domesticated (over even longer time frames), possibly even to the point of maintaining (or at least confining) a fish stock in one climate while the merfolk are in the other. These sea mammals are comparable in intelligence to dogs, are (or were) often seen in circuses, trained like dogs and horses are trained -- but not so intelligent (like dolphins or whales) that questions of enslavement arise.

Alternatively, there might be a need for a small number of merfolk to remain behind in one climate while the bulk of the population is in the other, in order to maintain the herds (or supervise the seals and sea lions). This might become a "coming of age" rite of passage -- staying behind is how you become an adult.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Do you think it would work if the mermaids moved but not the fish? $\endgroup$ – Idan May 13 at 12:55
  • 3
    $\begingroup$ I just addressed this in an edit. Short version: maybe. $\endgroup$ – Zeiss Ikon May 13 at 12:56
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ Thank you! I really like this answer a lot. $\endgroup$ – Idan May 13 at 13:12
  • $\begingroup$ plenty of fish migrate long distances, tuna migrate across the entire length and breadth of the pacific. Tuna are also warm-blooded. $\endgroup$ – John May 14 at 18:18
  • $\begingroup$ It would actually be really cool if the mermaids were migratory partially because the fish were migratory. Perhaps they follow something similar to sardines, a forage feeder that is forced to be migratory because otherwise it will accidentally eat its offspring. $\endgroup$ – user3067860 May 14 at 18:33

Fish domestication is already real. There is evidence that fish farms existed in Ancient Egypt and China (around 1500 BCE). Today, most of the salmon comes from farms. Some other fish species were successfully domesticated, such as carp, catfish, tilapia, and trout. Your mermaids will have no problems domesticating the same species. You can also choose additional species based on these criteria (the same article describes approaches to domestication in aquaculture):

  • fast growth rate,
  • high economic value,
  • resistance to stress,
  • docility,
  • simple life cycle,
  • acceptance of artificial feeds,
  • positive physical characters (body colour, appearance, shape and flavour),
  • maintenance of genetic variability and performance during domestication.

It is also suggested that domestication of marine species is easier than land species. This is good news for the mermaids! They can have better diets :)

I am not sure if herding fish would be possible. You also need to consider that domestication leads to increased predation susceptibility. Therefore, herding may be less desired due to increased risks. It is much easier to fortify and defend a stationary farm.

As for marine mammals, dolphins might be a good candidate for domestication. As user2352714 suggested they can play the same role as dogs for humans.

  • $\begingroup$ Of course, once a society starts to become farms, it'll probably stop being nomadic. $\endgroup$ – nick012000 May 14 at 4:25
  • $\begingroup$ @nick012000 It can be a semi-nomadic lifestyle. Some mermaids may stay behind to guard the farms. They are intelligent, so they can work out some schedule :) $\endgroup$ – Otkin May 14 at 4:27
  • $\begingroup$ @nick012000 The OP is basically describing aquatic transhumance, not really a nomadic lifestyle. We've got plenty of examples on land of how that works out. $\endgroup$ – Graham May 14 at 14:47

Nomadic peoples generally don't domesticate animals, given that they are always on the move and don't have a lot of time to sit down and selectively breed animals to their liking. Nomadic peoples often use domestic animals, like horses and camels, but frequently those species are domesticated by sedentary peoples and then traded to nomads in exchange for goods (e.g., horses are thought to have been domesticated by the sedentary Botai people in Kazakhstan, even if they later became cornerstones of a large number of nomadic cultures from the same parts of the world). The Mongols, Turks, etc. later bred and raised horses for their own purposes, but the initial act of domestication was undertaken by sedentary cultures.

The one possible exception is dogs, but that's because the domestication of dogs didn't proceed like the domestication of all other animals. Dogs are thought to have become domesticated by wild wolves scavenging on human refuse for food and becoming acclimated to human contact, along with humans adopting orphaned wolf pups as companions. Dogs could keep up with a nomadice lifestyle and there was strong motivation on the wolfdog's part to follow humans around (for reference, this kind of "barn cat" lifestyle is how dogs were frequently treated in virtually all parts of the world except in industrialized cultures in the last century and a half). They aren't penned up, people don't have to waste a whole bunch of time wrangling them, and there's no selection for the animals to run away (as would be the case if a semi-domesticated species saw its conspecifics getting slaughtered for food).

So as hunting companions/guard animals, definitely, but they would have to be low-maintainance and share a similar disposition to the mermaids. As pastoralist herders, they could likely breed and use these animals like nomadic herders do today, but the original domesticators would almost certainly have to come from a sedentary culture.

Edit: Cetaceans might be a better choice to domesticate than fish, for the same reason that dolphins and mermaids might be similar in lifestyle and disposition in the same way that wolves and humans were. Pinnipeds and penguins might not be ideal because they would disappear every year to return to their breeding colonies. Not sure if there are any shark species that would make good domesticates, sharks do seem to be smarter than people give them credit for but it's difficult to know if they have behavioral cues that could be manipulated.

  • $\begingroup$ Sharks need constantly flowing water for breething, IIRC. This can be problematic. $\endgroup$ – Otkin May 13 at 20:47
  • $\begingroup$ a notable exception is Sami caribou, depending on how domesticated you consider them. If the nomads are already following the "herds" domestication becomes possible if slower. $\endgroup$ – John May 14 at 18:05
  • $\begingroup$ There are already fish who have "self-domesticated" themselves to other species. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cleaner_fish So maybe some of the cleaner fish can keep up with the mermaid's lifestyle and follow them and would follow a similar path to dogs. (This probably results in something more like dogs and less like schools of food animals, but at least it's a start.) $\endgroup$ – user3067860 May 14 at 18:13

Use Tuna or Mackerel and your fine.

Your mermaids lifestyle is similar to the Sami people of Sapmi. The Sami domesticated migratory caribou. There many migratory fish some of which migrate long distances. bluefin Tuna for instance migrate across the entire pacific. Skipjack tuna migrate north and south with the season. Mackerel migrate north and south with the season as well any could be a good candidate for domestication. If the mermaids are actively warding off predators it could lead to domestication. How well the fish will acclimate to mere-people is the biggest factor and not something we can easily establish so you have leeway to decide.

Mackerel traps could easily give way to protected spawning structures much like how the Sami make calving tents/buildings. this will be a lot easier if your merfolk can con on land to harvest wood but still works fine with stacked stone. Both groups of fish breed quickly,


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.