FIVE HUNDRED YEARS AGO, THE EXPLORER JOHN CABOT REPORTED THAT CODFISH RAN SO THICK YOU COULD CATCH THEM BY HANGING WICKER BASKETS OVER A SHIP’S SIDE. HE HAD DISCOVERED THE MOST FANTASTIC FISHING GROUNDS THE WORLD HAD EVER SEEN.
A century after Cabot, English fishing skippers still reported cod shoals “so thick by the shore that we hardly have been able to row a boat through them.” There were six and seven-foot-long codfish weighing as much as 200 pounds. There were great banks of oysters as large as shoes. At low tide, children were sent to the shore to collect 10, 15-even 20-pound lobsters with hand rakes for use as bait or pig feed. Herring, squid and capelin (a small open-water fish seven inches long) spawning runs were so gigantic they astonished observers for more than four centuries. Today, Newfoundland and Labrador’s fishery is limited and over-regulated, as well inland our streams and rivers lie quiet compared to the glory days.
The settlement of Newfoundland, indeed much of North America, was a byproduct of the pursuit of cod. Properly dried and salted codfish would keep for long periods, an important consideration before refrigeration. It was relatively light and easy to transport. Profitable, transportable and easily marketable, cod would rival South American gold and Caribbean sugar in the New World resource-extraction free-for-all.
The story of the cod’s destruction, however, begins when Newfoundland’s colonial era ends. For the first four centuries after Cabot, Newfoundlanders had little trouble actually finding and catching cod. There were seemingly endless numbers of them. These large, hardy, generic-looking fish are built to last: adaptable, omnivorous and a large female will produce nine million eggs in a single spawning. Atlantic cod survived in their current form for 10 million years, through ice ages and warming spells that changed world sea levels by some 300 feet
Fishermen benefited from the cod’s tendency to congregate in great numbers. When spawning, cod gather in dense clumps of hundreds of millions of fish. Northern and Grand Banks fish spawned on respective portions of the offshore banks, sowing the ocean currents with trillions of eggs. This made it possible for men to catch them in vast numbers with hand lines and, in recent decades, to scoop up entire stocks with enormous nets hauled by trawlers the size of a small ocean liner. For many centuries, though, it was the cod’s next move that put food on the table.
In 1992 a moratorium was announced in Canada that forever changed the landscape of rural Newfoundland & Labrador. Communities were decimated, as the primary source of employment was no more. Alternative and under-utilized species were able to help fishers adapt to losing a stock we fished for centuries. I remember at the age of 12 and 13, cod jigging with my father. I have fond memories of those summer days on the water…memories I will cherish a lifetime.
However, even if left alone, the northern cod may never recover. Industrial technology and human greed may have so decimated these hardy fish that they can no longer hold onto their ecological niche. The crash could be irreversible. What are your thoughts?
Craving Cod….counting down to recreational cod fishery –