Cod has enabled countries to be discovered and economies to flourish. But what was once one of the world's most abundant food sources is now on the brink of extinction. Carolyn O'Grady reports
Cod may have changed the world, but it has always been a humble fish:
"The codfish lays ten thousand eggs, The homely hen lays one.
The codfish never cackles.
To tell you when she's done.
And so we scorn the codfish, While the humble hen we prize, Which only goes to show you That it pays to advertise."
An anonymous American rhyme from Bartlett's Familiar Quotations
Think of cod in the UK, and you probably think of fish and chips, a British for around 45 per cent of fish consumed in Britain, with cod winning the accolade of Britain's favourite fish. There are more than 8,600 fish and chip shops in the UK and 280 million fish and chips meals were eaten last year.
Perhaps it's because of its cheapness and consequent ubiquity that cod is usually considered a humble dish in this country. However, that may change.
Cod, once one of the most abundant food sources on earth, is being fished to extinction. It may soon be given the same kind of kudos on menus as lobster and sea bass.
A humble dish it may be, but cod's place in history has been far from modest. Mark Kurlansky subtitled his acclaimed book, Cod, "A biography of the fish that changed the world" in acknowledgment of the role it has played in enabling exploration and discovery, in trade between European countries and their colonies, and in the development of the United States.
Fishing, and notably cod fishing, was a core activity that reinforced shipping, shipbuilding and trade throughout Western Europe, South America and the West Indies, as well as North America, argues Canadian historian Harold Adam Innis in The Cod Fisheries: The History of an International Economy.
Throughout history one fact about cod stands out - there has been copious amounts of it. In the late 15th-century, explorer John Cabot (the anglicised name of Genovese explorer Giovanni Caboto) is reported to have said on his return from Newfoundland that the sea was "so swarming with the fish (that they) can be taken not only with a net but in baskets let down with a stone so that it sinks in the water".
Certainly the cod, and Atlantic cod in particular, seems designed to procreate and survive in profusion. They scoop up and devour almost anything, including other cod, with their ever-open bucket-like mouths. If allowed to grow, a female cod can produce more than 11 million eggs - though only about one egg in every million succeeds in reaching maturity.
After the first year, cod have virtually no predators except man. But, unfortunately for the fish, it has a number of characteristics that make it very attractive to this voracious hunter. Among these is the fact that it is easily caught. It is also a very good source of nutrition and, crucially, it lasts longer and tastes better when salted andor dried than most other fish.
EXPLORATION AND TRADE
Mark Kurlansky suggests that it was this latter characteristic that enabled the Vikings to make their long return journeys in the 10th and 11th centuries to Iceland, Greenland and America, and facilitated others'
exploratory ambitions, as well as feeding their armies. The Norseman hung their catch "in the frosty winter air until it lost four-fifths of its weight and became a durable wood-like plank. They could break off pieces and chew them, eating it like hardtack."
The Basques (from what is now a part of northern Spain and southern France) followed; and as they had access to salt - and cod that was salted before it was dried lasted longer - they were able to create an international trade with cod fished off Newfoundland and Labrador. It was in the 16th century that major European powers got in on the act, competing strenuously for cod. In 1583, following a visit to Newfoundland, British captain Richard Hayes talked of "Cod, which alone draweth many nations thither, and is become the most famous fishing of the world".
Hundreds of Portuguese, French, Spanish and to a lesser extent English vessels were all fishing on the Newfoundland banks, and cod had become the staple of the medieval European diet. Competition over cod led to the growth of more than 100 European ports and triggered a shipbuilding boom.
Early in the 16th century, England's position in the Newfoundland fishery was of minor importance - they were fighting the Hanseatic League (an alliance of trading cities) over rights to Icelandic cod - but later and through the 17th century the British gradually became a major player; Plymouth in particular, being at the nearest point to the fisheries, thrived.
NEW ENGLAND FISHERIES
However, it was with the migration from England to New England - beginning in 1620 with the arrival of the Mayflower - that the humble cod played one of its most important roles. The Mayflower pilgrims had applied for a land grant to "North Virginia", which would enable them to exploit the fisheries. Fishing had been fiercely promoted by English colonist John Smith in his book, A Description of New England (1625), which he wrote on his return from North America. Although the pilgrims initially had no fishing expertise, they gradually took advantage of their position close to vast cod banks. In his book, The Wealth of Nations (published in 1776, during the American War of Independence), economist and philosopher Adam Smith looked back on their success with fishing and whaling, saying: "The New England fishery in particular was, before the late disturbances, one of the most important, perhaps, in the world. Fish is one of the principal articles with which the North Americans trade to Spain, Portugal, and the Mediterranean."
But there was a much darker side to this success story. Mark Kurlansky describes how in the mid-17th century New Englanders were engaged in a triangular trade. They would sell the best cod in Spain, pick up wine, fruit and coal which they took to the West Indies or South America along with the cheapest cod to feed the slaves. From the West Indies they would return with sugar, molasses, tobacco, cotton and salt, plus some Mediterranean goods. Cod provided salt and protein for slaves working long and hard in a very hot climate. Later, slaves themselves were also being traded between Africa and the West Indies and "salt cod, slaves and molasses became commercially linked".
After the American War of Independence (1775-1783), Great Britain gave New England fishers unrestricted rights along the Grand Banks off Newfoundland.
American negotiator John Adams (later the country's sixth president) argued presciently that the fishery was "a nursery of seamen and a source of naval power". But, tragically for the slaves working there, the Americans were barred from trade with the British West Indies and thousands died of hunger.
COD WARS AND DECLINING STOCKS
Cod continued to be fiercely fished off Canada, North America and Iceland.
The popularity of cod-liver oil gave the industry another boost. But as early as 1890 an Anglo-Danish convention (Iceland was then a Danish colony) admitted that cod stocks in the North Sea were being depleted. It was that event which graphically illustrates the desperation and intensity of competition for cod.
As stocks fell, a cod war broke out. Iceland's gradual extension of its fishing limit, from the limit of four nautical miles (7km) off its shoreline, established in 1952, to 200 nautical miles (370km) in 1975, led to three separate confrontations. The moves were resisted by other European countries, usually led by Britain.
The "cod war" of 1975-6 was fought in an oddly "gentlemanly" way. Live shells were fired and trawlers sunk, but these events were characterised by remarks such as those made by British foreign secretary James Callaghan:
"Both sides are showing valour, but there is no need for anyone to show virility." Iceland maintained its position with each war and gradually all nations began to declare their own 200 mile zone, which was advantageous for some, but not for those with no fishing grounds of their own.
However, any victory was pyrrhic. Fishing stocks declined and country after country began to declare quotas andor bans on fishing. Was this the end of "the thousand year fishing spree", as Mark Kurlansky calls it? The signs are still not good.
DRASTIC ACTION NEEDED
The WWF has warned in its report "The Barents Sea Cod - The Last of the Large Cod Stocks", published in May this year, that cod stocks could disappear in another 15 years. It makes sombre reading: "The global cod catch has suffered a 70 per cent drop during the past 30 years... The catch in the North Sea is now just 25 per cent of what it was 15 years ago and in the North American cod fishery the catch has declined by 90 per cent since the early 1980s."
In the Barents Sea (part of the Arctic Ocean where the fish stocks are managed by Norway and Russia), which now accounts for around half of the world's annual catch, the number of productive mature fish is declining rapidly. Stocks in the once cod-rich banks of Newfoundland collapsed in the 1980s and haven't recovered in spite of a moratorium on fishing. Perhaps this is an indicator of what is in store for the rest of the world.
How is it that what was once one of the most abundant food sources on earth is now beginning to look like an endangered species? Overfishing is the main contributor, along with the inability of governments and the fishing industry to adopt realistic, long-term strategies to deal with it. Fierce competition between nations over cod stocks, aided by technological innovation, has seen fishing move from the traditional use of lines and traps to gill or drift nets (nets anchored just above the ocean floor in which fish are caught by the gills), and huge, high-powered industrialised fishing vessels. These drag nets behind them, emptying the sea of fish as they go, and can incorporate freezing and filleting facilities on board to provide for the vast market in frozen fish. Sonar technology enables schools of fish to be more easily located, and special machinery stirs up the sea bottom, driving hiding fish into the nets.
However, as the WWF points out, industrial development, such as petroleum exploration, pollution, and shipping activities are also implicated. There is evidence too that climate change and cyclical changes in the circulation of the world's oceans may be leading to a change in the ecosystem that supports cod. Reform or die is the message from scientists to the cod fishing industry, but it often seems as though the industry isn't listening. Imposing quotas, limiting the size of fleets and limiting the mesh size of nets have all failed to stem the depletion, either because fishermen have found loopholes or because the quotas were set too high.
Some countries, including Canada, Sweden and Iceland, have announced partial or total bans on cod-fishing. In the UK, the Prime Minister's Strategy Unit this year published a report, "Net Benefits: a sustainable and profitable future for UK fishing", recommending measures which included scrapping a minimum of 13 per cent of the white-fish fleet and tying up a further 30 per cent if Britain is ever to have a viable fishing industry.
Both the European Union and the UK, said the report, have failed to take into account scientific advice on overfishing of cod, haddock and plaice.
However, the fishing industry is not keen to adopt such drastic measures.
Fishing supports more than 26,000 jobs in the UK, 13,500 of which are in Scotland, 11,200 in England, 1,400 in Northern Ireland and 700 in Wales.
For many in these jobs, alternative work is scarce.
Cod by Mark Kurlansky is published by Vintage (pound;7.99). It is usually found in the food section of bookshops. Apart from an historical account, this book contains numerous recipes, old and new, for cod dishes Websites www.nutrition.org.uk