Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World 
by Mark Kurlansky.
Cape, 294 pp., £12.99, March 1998, 0 224 05104 0
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‘A species of fish too well known to require any description,’ reads the entry for cod in the Cyclopedia of Commerce and Commercial Navigation (1858). ‘It is amazingly prolific,’ the article continues. ‘Leewenhoek counted 9,384,000 eggs in a codfish of a middling size – a number that will baffle all the efforts of man to exterminate.’ People have long enjoyed marvelling at the sheer amount, the endlessness of cod. The vast cod-grazing grounds off the American Atlantic coast may well have drawn the very first Europeans to the continent: Mark Kurlansky provides evidence that not only Viking explorers but Basque fishermen were there long before Columbus – they kept secret the source of their mysterious supplies of fish. Reports, never forgotten, came back from America during the 16th century, of so many cod that there was scarcely room enough for the sea to hold them, so many that they could be fished by scooping with baskets. Admittedly, that was no longer true in the 19th century, but, according to Alexandre Dumas in 1873, ‘calculations’ proved that ‘if no accident prevented the hatching of the eggs, and if each cod grew to its full size, it would take only three years for the sea to be full of cod, so that one could walk dry-shod across the Atlantic on their backs.’

Today, cod at the once teeming Grand Banks off Newfoundland is considered an endangered species. Disaster struck very recently, and within a terrifyingly short time. In South Bay, for example, there were over a million cod in 1986; in 1996 it could be excitedly reported that the numbers had increased to fifteen thousand. What fish are left are small. Long gone are the days of man-sized cod, when a cod’s head and shoulders was a meal for a family, when people could dine exclusively on delicacies such as cod cheeks or ‘tongues’ (throat muscles).

In 1992 the Canadian Government was forced at last to begin conserving. (It had previously supported giant fishing trawlers and packers, which made the Atlantic fishery more profitable.) A moratorium was placed on cod-fishing, with disastrous consequences for Newfoundland, where fishing has for so long been almost everything. A whole human society and its culture are in jeopardy. Meanwhile, into the emptied sea waters other species are moving, and biologists fear that among these intruders the few small remaining cod will not be able to feed themselves sufficiently to revive their population. Nature will certainly strive to find something to take the place of the cod. ‘But,’ Kurlansky writes, ‘as the cockroach demonstrates, what works best in nature does not always appeal to us.’

The enormity of human ignorance about cod has finally been admitted: it is simply not known what would be required to reverse this calamity, if, indeed, it can be reversed. What exactly wiped out the cod at that particular moment? Why are the small remaining cod not migrating as they used to? What role has sea temperature played? Are there factors we know nothing about? We can only wait and watch the inscrutable sea, lay off fishing, and see if the cod come back. Waiting is exquisitely difficult if there are no jobs, real need and a mighty longing to take what fish are left. Fifteen years of no fishing on the Grand Banks is what marine biologists recommend – but can people hold off that long?

Cod, once they reach adulthood, have almost no enemies, except for humankind. Kurlansky’s book begins to explain why and how we, as cod predators, have almost wiped out one of the richest resources of fish ever known. This ecological disaster needs to be researched in detail, and the history in depth of what Kurlansky calls ‘The Fish that Changed the World’ has yet to be written. But this book is an excellent start.

‘Cod’ means ‘bag’, as in ‘peas-cod’ (the pod of a pea) or ‘codpiece’. The front cover of this book may show why. Three happy Norwegian fishermen stand in a row, each holding a huge cod under his arm. The mouths of the fierce-faced fish gape wide open; their bodies are cavernous interiors for receiving food sucked in from the ocean bottom.

Cod is eaten fresh, or dried, or salted-and-dried. The fish salts and dries especially well because it has almost no fat. Stockfish (‘fish tied to a stick to be dried’) was fish given ‘shelf-life’ by Northmen such as the Vikings; it is commonly hated by those not used to it. In Auden and MacNeice’s Letters from Iceland, stockfish is described as varying in toughness: ‘The tougher kind tastes like toe-nails, and the softer kind like the skin off the soles of one’s feet.’ But salting as well as drying can, if carefully executed, produce something wonderful; it can change the taste and texture of cod much as salting and processing create ham out of pork. Salt cod, the Iberian bacalao, used to be a staple for the poor; today it is an expensive treat. Mediterranean shoppers pick over pieces of salt cod at the bacalao stalls in the markets, endlessly discussing recipes, soaking times, sauces and – increasingly – prices. Iceland, Denmark, and Norway in particular, have for a century supplied salt cod for the discerning Mediterranean market. Russia is fishing more cod every year, even flooding the market in Norway, where their cod is processed.

The British have never really taken to bacalao. They like their cod fresh and, conventionally, with chips. Cod can now be too expensive for ‘fish and chips’, however and not only haddock, plaice and hake, but skate and dogfish (which the Americans have recently renamed ‘cape shark’) are used. In the 1780s the British became entranced with cod-liver oil, which was valued as a cure for rheumatism and tuberculosis, and as promoting, because of the vitamins it contained, all-round health. During World War Two pregnant and breast-feeding women, children under five and adults over 40 all received free cod-liver oil from the Government. Iceland happily supplied this trade until 1971, when the allowance was withdrawn, largely because people refused to take cod-liver oil any more.

North Americans, on the whole, have never been very keen on fish of any sort, except as a way of making money. Cod from the Grand Banks began to be salted because fishing was, in the beginning, mostly ‘slash and run’ – people, Europeans mostly, went to Newfoundland, fished in the summer, and left. It was not cold enough then to make stockfish: cod had to be salted to be kept for trading purposes, and dried extra-hard, especially for the tropics. North American slave merchants soon became involved. ‘New England society,’ Kurlansky writes, ‘was the great champion of individual liberty and even openly denounced slavery, all the while growing ever more affluent by providing Caribbean planters with barrels of cheap food to keep enslaved people working 16 hours a day.’ The Caribbean islands were designated for sugar, not food. Slaves, however, had to eat to work; more specifically, in tropical heat they needed salt and protein. Cheap salt cod was called ‘West India cure’, and was rarely prepared to standards that might have made it salable to Europeans.

So the chains of trade fell into place. Ships brought salt, for example, from Portugal to Newfoundland. The cod were caught, salted, dried and taken as slave fodder to the Caribbean. A ship could then fill its hold with molasses, call in at Boston, off-load and pick up rum to exchange for slaves in West Africa. There were national and historical permutations to the system, but salt cod, molasses and slaves remained kingpins in a highly lucrative trading system for nearly two hundred years. There are still reminders: both West Indians and West Africans have a taste for bacalao; the Caribbean steel drum was created from cod barrels.

North Americans grew rich on salt cod, which they wouldn’t eat, and on sugar, which they did. According to Kurlansky, the American Revolution was not a popular uprising. It was the determination of the New England ‘cod-fish aristocracy’ to make money on their own terms that really founded the USA. Later on, cod contributed to the North-South split; it also created long-lasting tension between the US and Canada.

Icelanders discovered earlier than anybody that, despite human determination to perceive cod as everlasting, cod-stocks were in fact diminishing as the 20th century progressed. This led to the three Cod Wars (1958-61, 1971-72 and 1975-76), in which Britain, with the help of Germany, refused to accept Iceland’s declaration of ownership of the seas 12 miles around its coast. Iceland felt it needed to control its waters in order to conserve the cod; Britain had over-fished the North Sea, and sought fresh pastures. Kurlansky, an American, gives a cool outsider’s account of these polite altercations, in which combat was intense, but where the weapons were wit and emotional control. (Luck must also be credited for the lack of bloodshed when the occasional shot was fired.) Iceland won, and all the world has since embraced the principle of fishing limits, which have now been extended up to two hundred miles from all coastlines.

Iceland is the wisest society when it comes to conservation. Cod gave it the chance to leap in one generation from ‘a 15th-century colonial society’ into the 20th century. In 1995 Iceland proclaimed its determination never to catch more than 25 per cent of the estimated cod stock within its fishing limit. Icelanders know they depend on the cod to maintain their new prosperity. Still, ‘thinking about fishing less’ is ‘very difficult for the mind’, admits Tómas Thorvaldsson, who is in charge of Icelandic fish exports.

The fate of cod was decided just before and during World War Two, when three ingenious inventions interlocked. First, there was the development of high-powered ships with dragnets and huge decks where fish could be prepared on board. Then came the saga of Clarence Birdseye and his method for freezing food. This meant that North Americans began consuming fresh (that is frozen, not salted) cod. Last, filleting machinery was developed. The perfect product, the one that fitted the necessary marketing criteria, was finally achieved: the frozen fish stick. A Fifties advert proudly announced: ‘Thanks to fish sticks, the average American homemaker no longer considers serving fish a drudgery. Instead, she regards it as a pleasure.’ (A fish stick is made of whatever fish is a good proposition for the company; it now rarely contains cod.)

Factory ships have grown to a 4000-ton capacity or more, dragging huge nets and hauling them up every four hours, 24 hours a day. Sonar devices and spotter aircraft hunt down the prey. ‘Rockhoppers’ see to it that rocks present no obstacle to shaving the ocean floor. ‘Tickler chains’ create dust and noise in order to flush out every lurking fish. Such a ship leaves a desert in its track. No matter how large the holes of a net’s mesh, dragging means that once a number of fish have been caught all the holes fill up; the tiniest fish is trapped as surely as the largest. Gill nets, made of almost invisible monofilament are not dragged, but can save the cost of bait by trapping fish by the head and strangling them; a lost and drifting gill net can carry on strangling fish for up to five years.

All the practices of globalised merchandising are exemplified by the strategies of modern cod fishing. Desirable fish are kept; the rest are tossed back overboard, dead. Radio keeps the ship up to date as to what fish are wanted and not wanted. If a fishing ground yields no more, the ships simply leave for somewhere not yet exhausted. Seafood companies, thanks to freezing and to vast capital resources, can buy fish anywhere in the world, wherever the asking price is lowest. The warnings of fishermen that cod-stocks were reducing went unheard, as factory ships continued hauling in their catch. The Second World War provided relief to the codfish population, and huge postwar catches served to intensify the hubris of companies triumphantly and easily getting rich.

T.H. Huxley taught what everybody wanted to hear: that nature, in addition to being generous, was always resilient, even indestructible. This notion is still invoked to calm any doubt about nature’s ability to withstand the attacks of modern science. It is an idea, Kurlansky says, that ‘seems to have more resilience’ than nature itself. But slowly we are having to face reality. We now know, for example, that if at each spawning of three million eggs (cod bearing nine million eggs are a thing of the past) two cod make it to sexual maturity, having weathered the hunger of all the other species that feed on cods’ eggs and fry, then a mother cod has done well. Fish farming can help us undo some of the damage we have done, but farmed fish need to be fed from resources of mackerel, herring and capelin which are expensive and themselves not in endless supply. Kurlansky explains the danger of farmed fish escaping and undermining the genetic capabilities of cod in the wild. There is simply no escape: it is our attitude that needs to change, difficult as it may be for the mind. The great cod catastrophe may teach the required lessons – or it may not. As Kurlansky points out, a huge population of ocean fish is hard to kill off, ‘but we now know that it can be done’. Dare we hope that, as Newfoundlanders put it, the cod ‘come back’? – that, having learned something, we may yet be let off this particular hook?

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