An Atlantic cod. Rare in North America, the fish are flourishing in Norway. (Lukas Blazek)
Listening to the simple, rumbling grunts of migrating cod, it’s hard to believe the outsized role the fish has played in human history.
These days, at $11 dollars a pound — almost the same price as salmon — Atlantic cod is pricey. But once it was the most plentiful, cheapest fish around, says Mark Kurlansky, author of the 1997 bestseller, Cod – A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.
“It was the most common fish,” Kurlansky says. “So much so in fact that it was often just referred to as ‘fish.’”
The fish’s firm white flesh fueled the colonization of North America: The triangular trade of cod, rum and slaves developed the New World and, later, provided ample protein to the industrialized United States and Europe.
Now, at least in American waters, cod is a victim of its own success. This year’s catch is on track to be one of the worst on record. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has slashed permitted catches for American cod fishermen by 22 percent.
But the same story isn’t playing out everywhere. Across the Atlantic Ocean, Norwegian fishermen are catching more cod than ever, and it’s not because American cod are swimming over to the North Sea.
Norway’s success, experts say, derives from a combination of luck, more vigorous and effective government intervention and a greater emphasis on conservation rather than seeking the highest yields possible for fishermen in the short-term.
Need proof that Norway’s approach works? This year, Norwegian authorities are allowing their fisherman to haul 740,000 metric tons of cod from the sea. In the U.S., the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association’s (NOAA) quota is 6700 metric tons.
The difference between the U.S. and Norway, in other words, is a tale of two cod industries experiencing the best and worst of times.
Fishing boats in icebound Gloucester harbor, Massachusetts. (Christian Delbert)
In Gloucester, Massachusetts — one of the oldest fishing ports in America — cod has left an indelible mark on the city’s culture.
You can see it in the iconic fisherman’s memorial near the Stacy Esplanade. And you can hear it in the voice of Vito Calomo, a third-generation retired fishing captain and advisor on fisheries to U.S. Senator Scott Brown (R-MA).
“They worked not only to make money, but also to have bragging rights,” says Calomo. “To catch the most fish, to catch it the fastest. To be number one. And they were for many years.”
The industry created a lifestyle that’s increasingly rare today in the U.S. “We had a community,” he says. “We had people working together, who went to church together, who bought cars together. I don’t know how to get it across, but it’s being lost.”
Kurlansky, who worked as a commercial fisherman in the 1960s, concurred. “You know, you throw off the lines and shove off,” says Kurlansky, “and you go off to sea and you look back at the land and you say, so long, suckers! There always was this feeling that you were special people, that you were kind of on your own at sea.”
In 1980, at the height of the U.S. cod fishing industry, American fishermen hauled in almost 53,500 metric tons of Atlantic cod, according to NOAA. But by 1995, that number dropped to 13,600 metric tons. The cod were disappearing at a fast clip.
The same was happening in Canada, where fishermen in the Maritime Provinces regularly netted nearly five times as much cod as U.S. fishermen. Cod stocks in Canada plummeted in the late 1980s and 1990s, prompting Ottawa to shut down the country’s cod fisheries in 1992. Twenty years and 20,000 jobs later, commercial cod fishing is still banned in Canadian waters.
While cod fishing is not banned in the U.S., cod stocks are still low and jobs associated with the industry have not returned.
The Bank of Cod
How did North Americans lose this natural resource? Our downfall stemmed from the introduction of trawl fishing, a lack of regulations and the false belief that the supplies were limitless.
“We all did it to ourselves,” says Kurlansky, whom we at Latitude News like to call “The Codfather.”
Mark Kurlansky, author of “Cod.” (Sylvia Plachy)
In trawling, a method of fishing introduced in the 1960s, boats pull giant nets along the ocean floor, scooping up fish at depths that were once inaccessible — as much as 3,000 feet below the surface.
Trawling depleted the immense reservoir of cod which stocked the great schools, according to Daniel Pauly, a professor at the University of British Columbia in Canada. “It is like the bank where, instead of drawing the interest of your capital, you go after the capital,” says Pauly, who studies fisheries ecosystems.
When trawling was introduced, the waters off the eastern U.S. and Canada were unregulated. It was a free-for-all for trawlers, says Pauly. “Other countries could come. Everybody was there, fishing cod.”
In the 1970s, the United Nations’ Law of the Sea treaty established 200-mile exclusive economic zones that gave countries control of the waters off their coasts. Cod was central to the international agreement.
“The reason for having it was to get rid of the foreigners because they were taking all the fish,” says Kurlansky.
But once the zones were put in place, Kurlansky says, governments didn’t restrict fishing. “Americans started catching much more fish, as did Canadians,” he says. “That was the beginning of the problem.”
The over-fishing was taking its toll. Cod stocks in the United Kingdom, Iceland and Norway — ecosystems that are separate from the Gulf of Maine — went into severe decline in the early 2000s. It was a sign of a general decline in the health of the oceans everywhere.
“If cod is in trouble, everything’s in trouble,” says Kurlansky.
But cod isn’t in trouble everywhere. Today, in Norway, it’s not in trouble at all. Want to know why? Read the second part of this story coming soon. And click here to listen to our podcast version of this story.