Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World
(1997), a work of non-fiction by reporter and author Mark Kurlansky, traces the history of man’s exploitation of the North Atlantic cod as a resource, in order to shed light on our changing relationship with the natural world at large. A bestseller upon publication, Cod
has been translated into more than fifteen languages. The book is a pioneer in the genre of historical writing that finds new angles on familiar stories by tracing the history of a particular commodity.
In the first of the book’s three parts, “A Fish Tale,” Kurlansky introduces his main line of investigation: how has a fish made to “endure” been brought almost to the brink of extinction? His answer is that the cod, an animal which “swims with its mouth open and swallows whatever will fit” has “among its predators man, an open-mouthed species even greedier than cod.”
With this thesis in mind, Kurlansky proceeds to trace the long history of cod fishing, arguing that the cod fishery has been instrumental in the construction of the trans-Atlantic world. He begins with the Vikings, who air-dried cod to provide themselves with long-lasting victuals on their long sea journeys, including the series of journeys between 985 and 1011 which made them the first Europeans to visit the Americas. Kurlansky draws on his previous work on the Basque people of southern Europe to recount how the Basques established themselves in the whaling trade by salt-curing cod. He tells the little-known story of Britain’s first “cod war,” fought in 1532. Kurlansky produces some surprising statistics: for example, by the year 1550, cod made up 60 percent of all the fish eaten in Europe.
Kurlansky argues that cod has played an underappreciated role in several major historical epochs and events. He demonstrates that negotiations over cod-fishing grounds formed the heart of the settlement reached by the British and French governments after the Seven Years’ War. The upshot was that France “held its slave colonies but lost its fisheries,” and subsequently relied on British (that is, New England) cod to feed the slaves on French plantations in the Caribbean.
This set the ground, Kurlansky argues, for the American Revolution. By the middle of the eighteenth century, New England’s cod fisheries had formed a self-sustaining economy, independent of the British government. As much as the American colonists wanted freedom, Kurlansky suggests, they wanted the right to sell their cod without interference from across the ocean.
Kurlansky goes on to argue that cod helped the American Continental Army win its war against the more experienced and better equipped British. Although during the war there was “not much cod for anyone” due to naval patrols in the North Atlantic, the self-sustaining and sophisticated economy of the colonies, which was able to feed and supply its army, was, Kurlansky finds, ultimately built on the cod trade of former years.
In Part 2, “Limits,” Kurlansky continues his history of cod into the nineteenth century, documenting the transition of the cod fishery from an essentially traditional form of hunting into an increasingly mechanized industrial process. He introduces a key theme here: the persistence into the industrial age of an outdated belief that nature is essentially limitless and changeless, invulnerable to the depredations of man. The assumption of abundance, Kurlansky showed, directly dictated cod-fishing policy. The arch-Darwinian T.H. Huxley was appointed to three successive fishing commissions set up by the British government: he consistently argued that the number of cod and the abundance of their roe would defeat “all the efforts of man to exterminate it.”
Kurlansky observes that, in fact, by the 1890s, cod stocks were already measurably depleted in the North Sea. This escaped notice due to the speed of technological change: by the time cod stocks were in decline off British shores, steam trawlers could take fisherman into the deep ocean to find new supplies. The abundance of cod marveled at by Huxley was, in reality, a technological marvel. As European fishermen traveled further west in search of cod, the ecology of the North Atlantic changed abruptly and indefinitely. New technologies—diesel trawlers, trawling nets, bottom draggers, and sonar—continually extended the fishermen’s range. Meanwhile, at home, Clarence Birdseye’s invention of frozen foods was driving demand for cod.
Eventually, the Newfoundland fisheries on the far side of the ocean collapsed. To the Canadian fisheries, it seemed a sudden and inexplicable disappearance: the fish that had seemed infinitely abundant was suddenly “so rare that it could no longer be considered commercially viable.”
The book’s final part, “The Last Hunters,” argues that ultimately cod has been endangered by human inability to see nature clearly. He compares the fisheries policies of Canada and Norway to demonstrate that properly informed policy can protect cod stocks and the fisheries they support. However, he notes that the enlightened policies of the Norwegians are not the norm. Overall, our relationship to the natural world has changed for the worse, not the better: “There is a big difference between living in a society that hunts whales and living in one that views them. Nature is being reduced to precious demonstrations for entertainment and education, something far less natural than hunting. Are we headed for a world where nothing is left of nature but parks? We know it is harder to kill off fish than mammals. But after 1,000 years of hunting the Atlantic cod, we know that it can be done.”
The book is interspersed with recipes for cod dishes, showing the progress of cod from a staple foodstuff of the poor to a rare delicacy served in expensive restaurants.