The Atlantic Cod

Cod has been an important economic commodity in an international market since the Viking period (around 800 AD). Norwegians used dried cod during their travels, and soon a dried cod market developed in southern Europe. This market has lasted for more than 1000 years, passing through periods of Black Death, wars and other crises and still is an important Norwegian fish trade. The Portuguese since the 15th century have been fishing cod in the North Atlantic, and clipfish is widely eaten and appreciated in Portugal. The Basques also played an important role in the cod trade and are claimed to have found the Canadian fishing banks before Columbus‘ discovery of America. The North American east coast developed in part due to the vast amount of cod, and many cities in the New England area spawned near cod fishing grounds.

Between the 1530s and 1626 Basque whalers frequented the waters of Newfoundland  and the north shore of the Gulf of St. Lawrence from the Strait of Belle Isle to the mouth of the Saguenay River. They constructed stone ovens ashore for fires to melt whale fat. However, as whales became scarce, the cod fishery off the Grand Banks of Newfoundland became hotly contested by the British and French, in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The British used small boats close to shore, from which they caught the cod with hook and line. They practiced the “dry fishery” technique, which involved shore-based settlements for the drying of cod on flakes or racks placed in the open air for their subsequent transport back to Europe. The French on the other hand practiced the “green fishery”, which involved processing the catch with salt aboard ship. At the same time a fleet of schooners fishing for cod, halibut, haddock, and mackerel became prominent off the Atlantic coast. The use of the long line and purse seine net increased the size of the catch.

Cod Fishing Grounds

Apart from its long history, this particular trade also differs from most other fishing trades by the location of the fishing grounds, far from large populations and without any domestic market. The large cod fisheries along the coast of North Norway (and in particular close to the Lofoten islands) have been developed almost uniquely for export, depending on sea transport of stockfish over large distances. Since the introduction of salt, dried salt cod (‘klippfisk’ in Norwegian) has also been exported. The trade operations and the sea transport were by the end of the 14th century taken over by the Hanseatic League, Bergen being the most important port of trade.

William Pitt the Elder, criticizing the Treaty of Paris in Parliament, claimed that cod was “British gold”; and that it was folly to restore Newfoundland fishing rights to the French. In the 17th and 18th centuries in the New World, especially in Massachusetts and Newfoundland, cod became a major commodity, forming trade networks and cross-cultural exchanges. In 1733, Britain tried to gain control over trade between New England and the British Caribbean by imposing the Molasses Act, which they believed should have eliminated the trade by making it unprofitable. After Britain began to tax the American settlers, the cod trade grew instead of being eliminated, because the “French were eager to work with the New Englanders in a lucrative contraband arrangement” (p. 95). The American settlers traded cod with the French Caribbean for molasses to make rum at this time, and the increase in trade benefited the American market because of the contraband agreement. In addition to increasing trade, the New England settlers were organized into a “codfish aristocracy”. The American settlers rose up against British “tariff on an import, instigated by merchants, including John Hancock and John Rowe, in which the scions of the codfish aristocracy” disguised themselves, boarded their own ships, and disposed of their own goods into the harbor in protest to the tariff, more commonly known as the Boston Tea Party. In the 20th century, Iceland re-emerged as a fishing power and entered the Cod Wars to gain control over the north Atlantic seas. In the late 20th and early 21st centuries, cod fishing off the coasts of Europe and America severely depleted cod stocks there, which has since become a major political issue, as the necessity of restricting catches to allow fish populations to recover has run up against opposition from the fishing industry and politicians reluctant to approve any measures that will result in job losses. The 2006 Northwest Atlantic cod quota is set at 23,000 tons, representing half the available stocks, while it is set to 473,000 tons for the Northeast Atlantic cod.

Discovering the New World

Fleets – Scandinavian shipbuilding technology failed to advance beyond that of the Viking days. The traditional Viking ships performed quite well in the relatively tranquil summer seas of the medieval warm period, but the stormier climates rendered these vessels particularly dangerous to the point of obsolescence. Viking technology spread earlier throughout Europe, and craftsmen along the Atlantic seaboard of western Europe began to develop ships capable of withstanding heavy seas and the gales that struck commonly even during mid-summer. Rarely did a medieval mariner without a death wish dare to venture beyond easy sight of port during the long winter season. 

The Hanseatic League promoted trade throughout the Baltic Sea aboard cogs and hulks that mariners propelled with square sails and oars. The pious European population—especially the monasteries, convents, and bishops–demanded enormous quantities of fish, and Dutch, English, other British, Breton and Basque mariners sought suitable fishing grounds. Earlier generations of Europeans frequently fished in Norwegian waters and in the North Sea; however, the cooling climate led to the decline of the former fisheries, and the reduced supply in the latter could not satiate the increasing demand for salted cod, herring, and other fish.

The Hard Life of Dory Fishing

In an era of very brief life expectancies and an imploding medieval demography, the clearly risky maritime culture provided an attractive means of subsistence. Death constantly haunted medieval Europeans, who took risks unconscionable to the modern mind; the overwhelming majority of the population lived in a state of desperate poverty comparable or perhaps even worse than most Third World countries today. Most medieval Europeans toiled long hours to produce or earn much less than the equivalent of $2 per person per day, from which they paid tithes, taxes, and rents. To make fishing a viable economic alternative to other means of subsistence, a significant majority of fleets leaving port had to reach the fisheries and return alive and intact.

The cooling climate and increasing storminess, however, led to a sharp increase in the proportion of traditional Norse-style boats that left port never to return. These casualties at sea led shipbuilders to develop a stronger boat that could ply the Dogger Bank and return full of fish with some reliability. Boat builders, especially prominent in Dutch ports and Basque seaside towns, however, prospered as they provided new vessels to budding mariners or to replace those wrecked or lost at sea. These new ships proved adequately seaworthy for the expectations of the era.

Declining fishing stocks and frequent tax evasion led the Hansa cabal to close the fisheries near Bergen off the Norwegian coast in 1410. English fishermen responded by taking their craft to the closed Icelandic colony and trading and fishing there in 1412. Besides several local fishing boats, very few if any ships had visited Iceland in several decades. English ships, however, began to set sail for Iceland early each spring through the frigid gales and freezing spray to trade and fish just as their Danish predecessors did centuries earlier. Each dogger that successfully returned to Britain in the autumn carried roughly 30 tons of fish. Although the Danish masters of Iceland convinced King Henry V of England to forbid the Icelandic cod trade, English fleets continued to visit the otherwise isolated island. The Hanseatic League copied the shipbuilding technologies of their English rivals and began to reassert Scandinavian sovereignty over Iceland. This struggle led to piracy and pillaging on the high seas and ultimately to the development of modern naval warfare. The settlement probably disappeared during the 15th century. The historical record, however, does reveal a competition between Basque, English, and other fishermen and pirates for the North Atlantic fisheries. Foreigners moved beyond peaceful trade with Iceland, and pirates plundered the utterly defenseless Scandinavian community severely and repeatedly during the late 15th century. Some English fleets began to reach the western North Atlantic Ocean by 1480 and found fish so plentiful that the British port of Bristol prospered immensely from the trade.

Handlining Cod on the Grand Banks

Newfoundland In the 19th century, banks dories were carried aboard larger fishing schooners, and used for handlining cod on the Grand Banks. Cod fishing in Newfoundland was carried out at a subsistence level for centuries, but large-scale fishing began shortly after the European discovery of the North American continent in 1492, with the waters being found to be preternaturally plentiful, and ended after intense overfishing with the collapse of the fisheries in the 1990s. 

Native Canadian fishingThe Beothuk (called Skraelings by the Vikings) were the native people of Newfoundland, and survived on a diet of fish. With British and French coastal settlements, the Beothuk were forced inland, and coupled with the European propensity of murdering them on sight, the lack of their normal food source gradually decreased the Beothuk. By the 19th century, the tribe no longer existed.

15th and 16th centuryAfter his voyage in 1497, John Cabot‘s crew reported that”the sea there is full of fish that can be taken not only with nets but with fishing-baskets,” and around 1600 English fishing captains still reported cod shoals”so thick by the shore that we hardly have been able to row a boat through them.”

Flakes for Drying Fish

In the early sixteenth century, fishermen from England, France, Spain and Portugal discovered the best places to fish for cod in the waters off Newfoundland, and how best to preserve the fish for the journey home. The French, Spanish and Portuguese fishermen tended to fish on the Grand Banks and other banks out to sea, where fish were always available. They salted their fish on board ship and it was not dried until brought to Europe. The English fishermen, however, concentrated on fishing inshore where the fish were only to be found at certain times of the year, during their migrations. These fishermen used small boats and returned to shore every day. They developed a system of light salting, washing and drying onshore which became very popular because the fish could remain edible for years. Many of their coastal sites gradually developed into settlements, notably St. John’s, now the provincial capital. In the late sixteenth century the Spanish and Portuguese fisheries were terminated, mainly as a result of the failure of the Spanish Armada, and thereafter the English and French shared the fishery every summer until 1904 when the French agreed to relinquish it to the Newfoundland residents.

Newfoundland Jack – Schooner

Modern fishing methods and the fishery collapseIn 1951 factory fishing began with new super-trawlers such as the ‘Fairtry’; 280 feet long and 2,600 gross tons.  The cod catch peaked in 1968 at 810,000 tons, approximately three times more than the maximum yearly catch achieved before the super-trawlers. Approximately 8 million tons of cod were caught between 1647 and 1750, a period encompassing 25 to 40 cod generations. The factory trawlers took the same amount in 15 years. The industry collapsed entirely in the early 1990s owing to overfishing and debatably, greed, lack of foresight and poor local administration. By 1993 six cod populations had collapsed, forcing a belated moratorium on fishing. Spawning biomass had decreased by at least 75% in all stocks, by 90% in three of the six stocks, and by 99% in the case of ‘northern’ cod, previously the largest cod fishery in the world. After a 10 year moratorium on fishing the cod had still not returned.  It is likely that the local ecosystem has changed, one example being that greater numbers of capelin, which used to provide food for the cod, now eat the juvenile cod. The waters now appear to be dominated by crab and shrimp rather than fish.

When Cod was King

Collapse of the Northern Cod fishery – In 1992 the Canadian government declared a moratorium on the Northern Cod fishery that, for the past 500 years, had largely shaped the lives and communities of Canada’s eastern coast. The interplay between fishing societies and the resources on which they depend is palpable to even the most unacquainted observer: fisheries transform the ecosystem, which in turn pushes the fishery and society to adapt. In the summer of 1992, when the Northern Cod biomass fell to one percent of its earlier level, it became apparent to Canada’s federal government that this relationship had been pushed to the breaking point and a moratorium was declared, ending the region’s half-millennium run with the Northern Cod. The collapse of the Northern Cod fishery marked a profound change in the ecological, economic and socio-cultural structure of Atlantic Canada. The change was expressed most acutely in Newfoundland, whose continental shelf lay under the region most heavily fished, and whose communities represented the vast majority of those who lost employment as a result of the moratorium. Considering the importance of the cod fishery to the livelihood of Canada’s coastal communities, as well as the Northern Cod’s initial abundance in the region, the fact that the fishery was mismanaged to the extent of collapse – from which to this day it has not recovered – is nothing short of shocking. In an attempt to make sense of a blunder of such epic proportion, academics have highlighted the following three contributing factors in the eventual collapse of the cod fishery:

Dory Fishing along Newfoundland/Cape Breton Coast

A major factor that contributed to the depletion of the cod stocks off the shores of Newfoundland and Atlantic Canada was the introduction and proliferation of equipment and technology that increased the volume of landed fish. For centuries local fishermen used technology that limited the volume of their catch, the area they fished, and allowed them to target specific species and ages of fish. From the 1950s onwards, as was common in all industries at the time, new technology was introduced that allowed fishermen to trawl a larger area, fish to a deeper depth and for a longer time. By the 1960s, powerful trawlers equipped with radar, electronic navigation systems and sonar allowed crews to pursue fish with unparalleled success, and Canadian catches peaked in the late 1970s and early 1980s. These new technologies adversely affected the Northern Cod population in two important ways: by increasing the area and depth that was fished, the cod were being depleted to the point that the surviving fish were incapable of replenishing the stock lost each year; and secondly, the trawlers caught enormous amounts of non-commercial fish, which although economically unimportant, held huge ecological significance: incidental catch undermines the functioning of the ecosystem as a whole, depleting stocks of important predator and prey species. In the case of the Northern Cod, significant amounts of capelin – an important prey species for the cod – were caught as by catch, further undermining the survival of the remaining cod stock.

(With newly introduced technology coupled with unbridled greed it wasn’t long before the cod stocks around Newfoundland and Atlantic Canada were so depleted that the Canadian Government had no choice but to place a ban on the cod fishery putting tens of thousands of people out of work – mostly Newfoundlanders. As the Newfoundlanders like to say, “The arse was out of er bye.” CAPER)

(Courtesy of Canadian Geographic and Internet – CAPER)

One response to this post.

  1. […] of the Northern cod fishery, a cautionary tale of how bad things can […]


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