Last week we featured a post on Atlantic cod, the species that has defined and driven the fishing history and culture of this region for centuries. This week, we’d like to offer some historic perspective on this key local species.
Sailing to North America before 1000 AD, vikings survived off cod that was pulled from the rough seas and dried on board in the winter air. As early as the 1400s, English explorer John Cabot reported home that “The Sea there was swarming with fish which can be taken…in baskets let down with a stone…” (Kurlansky, 1997) The commercial harvest of this iconic fish dates back as far as the 150os, when the Basques from Spain traveled to distant waters in search of new bounty. When Spanish explorer Cartier discovered the St. Lawrence River, Basque fishermen quickly realized the enormous potential in harvesting cod from the northwest Atlantic. Using salt, they were able to preserve the fish’s integrity and flavor for the long journey home. The importance of salting cannot be understated in the history of this region- many of the immigrants that came and settled here followed the salt trade that was driven by the need to keep more and more cod fresh and flavorful on the long trip back to Europe. From the 1600s to the 1800s, European fishing fleets reported catching numerous cod “as big as men” as the sea continued to overflow with this hearty species. For approximately a 250 year span in Europe, 60% of the fish consumed there was Atlantic cod.
The harvest of Atlantic cod also shaped much of early American History, playing an important role in the development of the early economy here. The pilgrims and other early settlers were able to catch these fish using simple traps and hook & line rigs, allowing them to build food and trading sources for their difficult way of life in the new world. It’s likely that cod was even served as part of the first Thanksgiving dinner. As advancements in ship building and fishing gear progressed through the years, colonialists became more skilled at increasing their cod harvests and the fish came to serve as a staple in local economies up and down the eastern seaboard of the United States. One of the ports that benefited most heavily from the cod fishery was our local port of Gloucester- located in strategic distance between the rich fishing grounds of both Stellwagen and Georges Banks. For centuries, the docks in Gloucester were lined with fishing boats and covered with drying salted cod.
A golden codfish hangs in our state house, and our distinctive Cape has been named for this key species. For centuries, the main ingredient in fish and chips, fish chowders, fish sticks and fish cakes has been cod. Centuries of livelihoods on both side of the Atlantic have been built around cod, and the economies and diets of Western Europeans and Americans has been irrevocably shaped by this famous fish. Most of the historic facts on this key species have been taken from Mark Kurlansky’s 1997 publication Cod: A biography of the fish that changed the world. If you would like to learn more about the intricate history of this influential fish, you can purchase a copy of Kurlansky’s book by clicking here.