The Mighty Cod

Cod was and is so important to Newfoundland that it has been memorialized in this St. John's sidewalk.

Cod was and is so important to Newfoundland that it has been memorialized in this St. John's sidewalk.

Cod is considered by many to be the world’s most important saltwater fish. It was certainly the first fish to become widely popular, consumed in large quantities since the Upper Paleolithic period. Nice flavor, white flesh, and flaky texture aside, cod historically has been valued because it has the wonderful quality of being easy to preserve. Simply by salting, and even by drying alone, cod could last for years. For millennia, salt cod or dried cod was the only fish available inland, away from the coasts, and it was one of the few foods that could be transported by ship during long voyages without getting moldy. It was at one time a nearly universal food, and was a staple in Scandinavian countries, the countries of the Iberian Peninsula, Africa, and North America.

Cod was the food that fueled the “Age of Vikings.” From the ninth century to the eleventh, Scandinavian seafaring warriors raided and colonized widely in Europe, spreading outward and establishing settlements from Russia to Iceland—and, some theorize, even as far afield as North America. It was cod that both provisioned and financed the Norsemen’s voyages. Their unspoilable cargo, which was sometimes called the “beefsteak of the sea,” made it possible to stay at sea for long periods without concern for food, but also gave the Vikings a medium of trade, for these Norsemen were traders almost as often as they were conquerors. A healthy fish-processing industry in Iceland and Norway during the ninth century made it possible to supply foreign markets as well as domestic ones.

The Viking Age coincided with a substantial segment of the Middle Ages (which ran from about A.D. 500–1500). The long Lenten season and a large number of fast days made a source of fish vital, and Europe’s poor were clamoring for a cheap, reliable source of fish to see them through these times. No fish was cheaper or more reliable than cod, so the use of cod spread, and the Scandinavian countries prospered.

As in most businesses, success breeds competition. The French began marketing salted cod. (The French learned their techniques from the ancient Gauls, who may actually have been curing cod before Scandinavians were, rather than from the Normans, the French-speaking Vikings who had settled along France’s north coasts.) The French cod actually kept better, so it became the continent’s preferred preserved cod, but was still not truly commonplace until the 1400s, when Basque fishermen began supplying large quantities of the fish.

Basque whalers probably discovered the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in around A.D. 1000. Having pursued whales (which were commonly eaten in Europe during the Middle Ages) across the North Atlantic, the Basque fishermen noticed cod in incalculably vast numbers heading for the opening of the St. Lawrence estuary. (Hence, Basque seamen actually saw North America before Leif Eriksson did, and there were a thousand Basque fishing vessels in the Gulf of St. Lawrence when Jacques Cartier “discovered” the area on behalf of France in 1534.) It was from these astonishingly abundant waters that the increased supply of cod was coming into France. However, the discovery of this new fishing ground had a far greater impact than simply increasing the availability of cod in Europe. Rumors of the land the Basque fishermen had seen (and they were long only rumors, because the Basque quite naturally tried to keep their find a secret) triggered the voyages of discovery that finally led to a European presence in the Americas.

When, in 1497, John Cabot (an Italian navigator sailing on behalf of England) confirmed the abundance of cod off the coasts of northern North America, Spain and Portugal cavalierly drew up a treaty that divided the fishing grounds between themselves. England and France vigorously objected, and a cod “war” ensued that actually lasted until 1904.

Newfoundland and New England both have histories that are largely tied up with cod and cod fishing. With land that was not easily farmed, these regions turned to the sea for food and marketable products. By 1640, the fishing and curing industry in Gloucester, Massachusetts was able to send 300,000 dried codfish to market. Cod fishing led to the building of New England’s merchant marine. As competition for fishing rights in North Atlantic waters became more heated, cod fishing became one of the factors that would lead to the American Revolution. “Fisheries or no peace,” demanded John Adams of Massachusetts. New Englanders wanted the right to fish in British waters, and this right was one of the points of the treaty that eventually ended the colonial revolt and made the United States an independent nation.

Though most people know that slaves and sugar were major commodities of world trade in the 1800s, few realize that salt cod was a key element of foreign exchange. In Africa, slaves could be paid for with Spanish coins, rum, or salt cod. On the sugar plantations of the West Indies, slaves were fed salt cod, which was bought from New England in exchange for molasses. However, these were not the only markets for salt cod, as the demand that had been created worldwide was still immense, and many countries’ most famous or most popular dishes featured salt cod. So the New England fishing industry survived the end of slavery.

However, the more than 300-year-old New England fisheries, as well as their counterparts in Canada’s maritime provinces, almost did not survive the appearance of foreign trawlers in their home waters in the last century. Fishermen from these countries (primarily the Soviet Union and communist bloc countries) used fine-meshed nets the size of football fields, which scooped up young and old alike, devastating cod communities. They often worked within 50 miles of the North American coast. Their fishing methods, and the speed with which they processed and froze the fish on their massive factory ships, enabled them to sell cod for less than it cost the American and Canadian fisheries to catch the fish. The result was the decline in cod that we have witnessed since the mid-1900s.

The United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and the nations of the European Union have banded together to try to reverse this trend. The decisions to restrict fishing are hard ones, as they are hurting centuries-old fishing fleets from Boston to Newfoundland and causing extensive unemployment and economic hardship in many costal areas. However, it is understood by most that reduced fishing for a while is better than no cod fishing at all in the future. Only a very few nations have not become involved in this effort, and some continue to contribute to the problem.

For most of recorded history, cod has been almost unimaginably abundant in cold, northern waters. Alexander Dumas wrote that, “if no accident prevented the hatching of the eggs and if each egg reached maturity, it would take only three years to fill the sea so that you could walk across the Atlantic dry-shod on the backs of cod.” It takes a cod several years to reach breeding age, but once there, each female can produce from 4.5 to nearly 10 million eggs during breeding season. Because the eggs float, easily accessible to hungry predators, there is no likelihood that all will reach maturity (fortunately, given the numbers). Even once hatched, the long maturation period leaves the young cod at risk for a year or two. Yet the fish’s prolificacy holds out the hope of a comeback, if nations with less-responsible fishing methods can be reined in.

Cod can range in size from 1-1/2 to 100 pounds. While the North Atlantic cod is the species that has had the greatest impact on history, there is a North Pacific species that is also widely fished. Young cod, as well as young haddock, weighing less than 2-1/2 pounds is often called scrod. The cod is a voracious eater that swallows anything that appears in front of its mouth—which is the main reason it has always been so easy to catch with hook and line (though it takes a hook so greedily that hook and line are sometimes lost).

So do not take the cod for granted. It has been one of the major players in the world’s history, and today, with its numbers reduced, it is a rarer treat than ever before.

This story originally appeared in a slightly different form in
Hungry Magazine.
© 1008 Cynthia Clampitt

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