Margaret Visser

  • Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World by Mark Kurlansky
    Cape, 294 pp, £12.99, March 1998, ISBN 0 224 05104 0

‘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?

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