Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World

Mark Kurlansky

Created on Monday, May 20, 2013.
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The history of a fish, its strategic and civil importance, and its decline.


The remains of a Viking camp have been found in Newfoundland. It is perhaps in that gentler land that the Vikings were greeted by inhabitants they found so violent and hostile that they deemed settlement impossible, a striking assessment to come from a people who had been regularly banished for the habit of murdering people.


But the league grew increasingly abusive of its power and ruthless in defense of trade monopolies. In 1381, mobs rose up in England and hunted down Hanseatics, killing anyone who could not say bread and cheese with an English accent.


The cod, on the other hand, is prized for the whiteness of its flesh, the whitest of the white-fleshed fish, belonging to the order Gadiformes. The flesh is so purely white that the large flakes almost glow on the plate. Whiteness is the nature of the sluggish muscle tissue of fish that are suspended in the near-weightless environment at the bottom of the ocean. The cod will try to swim in front of an oncoming trawler net, but after about ten minutes it falls to the back of the net, exhausted. White muscles are not for strength but for quick action — the speed with which a cod, slowly cruising, will suddenly pounce on its prey.


Cod meat has virtually no fat (.3 percent) and is more than 18 percent protein, which is unusually high even for fish. And when cod is dried, the more than 80 percent of its flesh that is water having evaporated, it becomes concentrated protein — almost 80 percent protein. There is almost no waste to a cod. The head is more flavorful than the body, especially the throat, called a tongue, and the small disks of flesh on either side, called cheeks. The air bladder, or sound, a long tube against the backbone that can fill or release gas to adjust swimming depth, is rendered to make isinglass, which is used industrially as a clarifying agent and in some glues. But sounds are also fried by codfishing peoples, or cooked in chowders or stews. The roe is eaten, fresh or smoked. Newfoundland fishermen also prize the female gonads, a two-pronged organ they call the britches, because its shape resembles a pair of pants. Britches are fried like sounds. Icelanders used to eat the milt, the sperm, in whey. The Japanese still eat cod milt. Stomachs, tripe, and livers are all eaten, and the liver oil is highly valued for its vitamins. Icelanders stuff cod stomachs with cod liver and boil them until tender and eat them like sausages. This dish is also made in the Scottish Highlands, where its dubious popularity is not helped by the local names: Liver-Muggie or Crappin-Muggie. Cod tripe is eaten in the Mediterranean. The skin is either eaten or cured as leather. Icelanders used to roast it and serve it with butter to children. What is left from the cod, the remaining organs and bones, makes an excellent fertilizer, although until the twentieth century, Icelanders softened the bones in sour milk and ate them too.


British and Icelandic fishermen only reluctantly catch haddock after their cod quotas are filled, because cod always brings a better price. Yet Icelanders prefer eating haddock and rarely eat cod except dried. Asked why this is so, Reykjavk chef lfar Eysteinsson said, “We don’t eat money.”


Cod manufacture a protein that functions like antifreeze and enables the fish to survive freezing temperatures. If hauled up by a fisherman from freezing water, which rarely happens since they are then underneath ice, the protein will stop functioning and the fish will instantly crystallize.


Wich is an Anglo-Saxon word meaning a place that has salt, and all the English towns whose names end in wich were at one time salt producers.


The new area was called North Virginia. In 1607, an attempt to establish a settlement there, near what is today Brunswick, Maine, resulted in the first New England — built seagoing vessel, constructed by the colonists in order to flee for England after enduring one winter. North Virginia was over-cold, they explained, and uninhabitable.


In Puerto Rico there was a piropia, a catcall to attractive women, that went Tanto came, y yo comiendo bacalao (so much meat, and I’m just eating salt cod). Today meat is cheaper than salt cod, but the expression, like piropias themselves, persists.


Sometimes a stock was prepared from the bones and the rice cooked in that, a dish known in Puerto Rico as Mira Bacalao (Look for the Salt Cod).


Many dorymen drowned or starved to death or died of thirst while lost in the fog, sifting through a blank sea for the mother ship. They tried to fish until their boat was filled with fish. The more fish were caught, the less seaworthy the dory. Sometimes a dory would become so overloaded that a small amount of water from a wave lapping the side was all it took for the small boat to sink straight down with fish and fishermen. Ren Convenant, one of the last Breton dorymen, wrote of his fathers death: My father disappeared under 60 meters of cold Newfoundland water. Maybe he was the victim of a wave that was a little stronger than the others, against a dory loaded to the gunwales with fish. The fragile launch was filled with ice, and weighted by boots and oilskins, my father and his mate — a 22-year-old boy — sank instantly. A terrifying death without witnesses in the cottony fog that stifles all sound. Like a nightmare from which there is no awakening…. “Your father, I knew him well. He was a good dory skipper.” This was the only funeral oration for the missing sailor, which another sailor — Father Louis — uttered many years later when I questioned him on the tragic disappearance of my father.


Fishermen have the highest fatal accident rate of any type of worker in North Atlantic countries. According to a 1985 Canadian government report, 212 out of every 100,000 Canadian fishermen die on the job, compared to 118 forestry workers, 74 miners, and 32 construction workers. In 1995, 5 American workers per 100,000 died in work-related accidents, but among fishermen, more than 100 per 100,000 died. Similarly, a 1983 British study shows the death rate among British fishermen to be twenty times higher than in manufacturing.


A gill net is a net anchored slightly above the ocean floor. It looks somewhat like a badminton net. Groundfish become caught in it and, trying to force their way through headfirst, end up being strangled at the gills. The nets are marked by buoys, and the fisherman has only to haul them up every day and remove the fish. But sometimes the nets detach from their moorings. As they drift around the ocean, they continue to catch fish until they become so weighted down that they sink to the ocean floor, where various creatures feast on the catch. When enough has been eaten, the net begins to float again, and the process continues, helped by the fact that, in the twentieth century, the gill net became almost invisible when hemp twine was replaced first by nylon and then by monofilament. Since monofilament is fairly indestructible, it is estimated that a modern ghost net may continue to fish on its own for as long as five years.


The greatest problem in commercial fishing has always been how to get the fish to market in good condition. For centuries, affluent people kept live fish in natural or man-made ponds. To keep saltwater species, they used tidal ponds where they built wooden cages. Wet wells, watertight ship holds with holes for circulating seawater, were used as early as the sixteenth century in Holland. In the seventeenth century, British shipbuilders started including wet wells because the British did not like saltfish and there was always a greater demand for fresh fish. New Englanders also built well smacks, ships with wet wells to transport fish to Boston and New York. But mortality was high in the crowded, sloshing, oxygen-deprived wells. Cod, ling, and other gadiforms caught in deep water could not survive in wells. The fish’s sounds would fill with gas, and the disoriented fish would float to the surface and die. Fishermen tried to puncture the sounds to keep them from rising in the well.


Most Icelanders were farmers, but many of them, especially in the south and west, earned more fishing from February to April than farming the rest of the year. Not a tree grows on the island, except a few ornamental ones planted by landscapers in Reykjavk. So there is no fruit, nor is there grain. The English traded grain for fish in the fifteenth century. But stockfish was always the bread substitute. Pieces are torn off and spread with butter. From 1500 to 1800, every schoolchild in Iceland was given half a stockfish a day.


By the time the war ended, Iceland was a changed country. Not least among the changes, in 1944 it had negotiated full independence from Denmark. Now it was free to negotiate its own relations with the rest of the world. Because of cod, it had moved in one generation from a fifteenth-century colonial society to a modern postwar nation. W. H. Auden, who had spent much time there in the 1930s, returned in 1964 and was astounded by the transformation. He ran into one of his former guides, now a schoolmaster, and asked him what life had been like for Icelanders during the war. “We made money,” replied the schoolmaster.


In 1995, a system was initiated to restrict the total cod catch to a maximum of 25 percent of the estimated stock. That also had loopholes. But with each measure, there was less and less resistance. When Icelanders see cod stocks diminishing, they think about returning to the Middle Ages — earthen huts, metal shacks, the buried shark and burned sheep heads. National politicians, fishermen, trawler owners, and seafood companies became increasingly cooperative with the scientists at the Marine Research Institute. Their greatest opponents were local politicians trying to bring something home for the district.


In 1989, Fisheries minister John Crosbie, son and grandson of influential St. Johns fishing merchants, stood in St. Johns Radisson Hotel and tried to put to rest suspicions that the fisheries would soon have to be closed. In July 1992, he returned to the same hotel to announce just that — a moratorium on fishing the northern cod stock, putting 30,000 fishermen out of work. Sam Lee and other inshore fishermen, who had been calling for the moratorium on trawling for years, waited outside. When Crosbie refused to see them, Lee, normally a pleasant, good-humored man, began angrily pounding on the door.


Ralph Mayo of the National Marine Fisheries Service laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, pointed out that there is no known formula to predict how many fish — or, in scientific language, what size biomass — are required to regenerate a population or how many years that might take. Both miracles and disasters occur in nature. In 1922, for unknown natural reasons, the Icelandic cod stock produced so many juveniles that, in spite of British and German trawlers, Iceland had a healthy-size stock for ten years. “There are lots of natural variables. All it takes is a huge winter storm to wash the larvae off the bank and away,” Mayo said. There is only one known calculation: “When you get to zero, it will produce zero. How much above zero still produces zero is not known.”


Although farming cod is a new field and salmon farming is firmly established, Martin claims cod would be far easier to farm. Salmon have a delicate scale structure and are prone to infections, whereas cod tolerate handling and are disease resistant. Also, salmon do not like to be crowded into a pen, whereas cod have a herding social structure.


The idea of releasing farmed fish into a wild stock frightens scientists because man does not select fish in the same way nature does. If a cod was not disease resistant, did not know how to avoid predators, lacked hunting or food-gathering skills, had a faulty thermometer and so did not produce the antifreeze protein or the ability to detect a change in water temperature that signals the moment to move inshore for spawning, this cod would not survive in the wild. But it would survive in a pen, and if it had other characteristics that were particularly well suited for farm life, the defective fish would flourish and possibly even dominate. If it then reproduced with a wild fish, it would pass its bad genes to their offspring. Christopher Taggart, fisheries oceanographer at Dalhousie University in Halifax, compared farmed fish to purebred dogs and thoroughbred horses: Most purebred dogs carry genetic defects like bad hips. Thoroughbred horses break a leg if you look at them. It is a byproduct of selecting. Try to produce a dog with thick fluffy fur that is a good swimmer and it ends up to also have bad hips. If the dog bred in the wild, you would produce a wolf population with bad hips.


The genetic consequence of fish farming are still unknown. The assumption — the hope — for fish that live their entire life cycle in pens is that they never escape into the wild to mingle with the species. But this accident has happened. Worse, some hatcheries produce young for the purpose of releasing and enhancing the wild stock. New England salmon hatcheries released so many fry into the wild that by 1996, only an estimated 500 Atlantic salmon in New England still had the diverse genetic characteristics of the wild species.


Overfishing is a growing global problem. About 60 percent of the fish types tracked by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) are categorized as fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted.


With 90 percent of the worlds fishing grounds now closed off by 200-mile exclusion zones, fishermen have been searching greater depths for new species. Little is known about the ecology of these depths, but since they often have very cold water, reproduction is probably very slow. Orange roughy was introduced to the world markets after implementation of the 200-mile zone and immediately gained such popularity that five tons an hour were being hauled up from the depths near New Zealand. In 1995, the catch nearly vanished.


Perhaps even more disturbing, Rose’s studies have concluded that the northern stock has stopped migrating. The stock had normally followed a 500-mile seasonal migration, but Rose believes that after 1992, the survivors came inshore and stayed. He does not know the reason for this but speculates that the bigger, older fish were the leaders and are no longer there to lead. It is also possible that cod migrate because they need food and space for spawning. With the population so reduced, this is no longer necessary.


Man wants to see nature and evolution as separate from human activities. There is the natural world, and there is man. But man also belongs to the natural world. If he is a ferocious predator, that too is a part of evolution. If cod and haddock and other species cannot survive because man kills them, something more adaptable will take their place. Nature, the ultimate pragmatist, doggedly searches for something that works. But as the cockroach demonstrates, what works best in nature does not always appeal to


If there is anything as basic and universal to the British working class as fried fish, it is xenophobia. So the proposition that foreigners may be depriving British workers of their cod is politically potent. To the British fishermen, and to many British people, that is exactly what the European Community, which is now the European Union, has done. This argument, of course, denies the long British history of overfishing and the fact that the dread Spanish supertrawlers, which are now so universally denounced, were a British invention. And the rights of fishermen to have free access to the sea, a principle the British fought for with such high-minded rhetoric in Icelandic waters, was somehow forgotten each time Brussels suggested a European partner should have rights in British waters.


To the Cornish fishermen, it was a further vindication for their survival struggle against the Spanish. William Hooper said, “The biggest problem we have is the Spanish.” He was asked how it could all be the fault of the Spanish since they were newcomers and the catch had been declining for forty years. Hooper thought a minute and then added, “Yes, the Scots used to overfish.”


Vito Calomo, a Sicilian-born ex-fisherman who now works for the Fisheries Commission in the Gloucester Community Development Department, says, “You buy out a man whose father and grandfather were fishermen, and you are wiping out a hundred years of knowledge. A fisherman is a special person. He is a captain, a navigator, an engineer, a cutter, a gutter, an expert net mender, a market speculator. And he’s a tourist attraction. People want to come to a town where there are men with cigars in their mouth and boots on their feet mending nets. We are going to lose all that.”

At that moment, a pickup truck with a lawn-mowing tractor on the back comes down the coastal road, and Calomo shouts at the driver. “That’s my brother. He was a captain, and now he’s cutting grass. A captain, cutting grass. I saw one washing dishes in a restaurant and one who works as a security guard.”


Fannie Merritt Farmer, an enormously influential cookbook writer, believed in extremely precise instructions and popularized the idea of exact measurements for recipes, an illusion of science that has become standard practice and, for more than 100 years, has left household cooks saying, “What went wrong? I followed the recipe.” She was the most famous director of the Boston Cooking School, founded a generation earlier to teach working-class women how to cook scientifically. Influenced by this school, freedom of choice has slowly been exorcised from recipes, and experimenting is increasingly discouraged.

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