A Story and Book Review
Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World
By Mark Kurlansky
Kurlansky manages to tell this story of how humankind delivered scarcity from abundance so that it reads as a delightfully entertaining tale. In addition to the fascinating historical record about the cod and its importance in so many times and cultures, this books points out with exceptional clarity how all of nature is one system. And we are a critical part of that system.
Frequently better known as sheepherders in the mountains of
Northwest Spain, the Basques have a long and successful tradition as seafaring people and traders. They fished for cod in the areas of
Canada. Unlike the Norse, who dried cod, the Basques had salt and were able to cure their cod catches. Salt cod lasted longer than dried, and it tasted better, therefore it was also a more valued tradegood. By the year 1000 the Basques had an international trade program based on cod.
In the early 1500s,
France were frequently fishing cod in
Newfoundland. Half of the 128 trips from
Europe departed from
La Rochelle on the Southwest Coast of France (just a little north of Basque country). (The Big Splash spent a summer in
La Rochelle one year. It has a beautiful secure port with the entrance flanked by old middle-age towers.) But the French Basque ports of
Bayonne and St.-Jean-de-Luz were also important cod ports.
There are a series of shallow areas off the North American coast that run from the Grand Banks of Newfoundland to Georges Banks of
Massachusetts. This is an area rich in phytoplankton, which feed zooplankton. Krill feeds in turn on the zooplankton. Herring and other mid-level fish eat the krill. Combined with just the right temperatures, these were the richest cod waters anywhere. This was the Basque’s secret.
New England, particularly
Gloucester, became a powerful cod fishing center. The area was perfectly positioned to benefit from their location and cod patterns, and there was strong demand in
Europe and European colonies. Right up to a moratorium in 1992,
Newfoundland sold its cod to
Boston. (There is still a “Blessing of the Fleet” event each year in
Gloucester Mass., which we’ve attended.)
Lighthouse in Gloucester Massachusetts
As early as 1868, the cod stock in several areas had failed off
Labrador. In the 1900s new inventions permitted the taking of cod at levels never dreamed of before. Schooners got much bigger and much faster. Engine powered trawlers dragged the ocean bottom like we sweep the floor. Lawrence Birdseye’s system for freezing food combined with automated filleting machines led to a great commercial success – and led to over- fishing. During World War II these inventions came together in the factory ship. We humans always seem to think that if we can do it, we should do it bigger and more. Schools of fish were found by sonar. Other technologies increased our ability to find and catch fish. The results were predictable.
Late in the book is a chapter called “Requiem for the
Grand Banks”. A quote reads: “Everyone talks of ‘when the cod comes back’. But nature may have different plans.”
This is a delightful book that delivers a great history lesson as well as an environmental one. Will we learn from our history, or keep repeating the same mistakes?