Sentry on the Headlands (So Close to Ireland) - Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World - Mark Kurlansky

Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World - Mark Kurlansky (1999)

Prologue: Sentry on the Headlands (So Close to Ireland)


—William Butler Yeats, “The Meditation of the Old Fisherman”

These are the fishermen who stand sentry over the cod stocks off the headlands of North America, the fishermen who went to sea but forgot their pencil.

Sam Lee, dressed in black rubber boots and a red flotation jacket made even brighter by its newness, drives his late-model pickup truck through the last murk of night, down to the wharves that stretch out to where the water is deep enough for a shallow fishing skiff. The warehouses, meeting halls, and tackle shops are all built out above the shallow water on stilts. This has freed up the narrow strip of flat land where the steep little mountains stop just before the water’s edge. The level area had once been needed to spread out thousands of splayed and salted cod for drying in the open air.

The salting had stopped almost thirty years before, but Petty Harbour still looks like a crowded little port, its few commercial buildings crunched in along the water, while houses scatter up onto the beginnings of the slopes.

At the wharves, Sam meets up with Leonard Stack and Bernard Chafe carrying flashlights and joking about Sam’s new jacket, shielding their eyes from its shocking brilliance. Grumbling about fishery politics, about last night’s television talk of reopening groundfishing to the public on a limited basis, they climb down into Leonard’s thirty-two-foot, open-decked trap skiff.

Asked if he could really float with that jacket, Sam answers, “I don’t want to find out!” And that is all they say about the black water a few feet away on either side of them as the boat heads out in the first violet light of early-autumn morning. Cod like the water this time of year because they think it is warm. But forty-five degrees Fahrenheit is a cod’s idea of warm, and the gunwales around the edge of a trap skiff are only inches high. This same day, in another community, the bodies of two fishermen who fell overboard are found. This isn’t something fishermen talk about.

They head out to sea. Sam, a small, dark-haired man, with a touch of rose on his clean-shaven cheeks, is stuffed into his scarlet flotation jacket. Leonard is in the little pilothouse, while Bernard, in his flame orange overalls, stands with Sam on the open deck looking contemplatively at a flat sea of dark, polished facets. The light is beginning to warm a clear sky. Once the sun is up, the only clouds are cotton candy fog stuck between the rocky, still-green hills of the September coastline.

They find their fishing grounds by land markings. When a brown rock is aligned over the church steeple, when certain houses first come into view, or when they first sight the white spot on a rock that they call “the Madame” because in their imagination it looks like a skirt and a bonnet, they are ready to drop anchor and begin fishing.

Only today, having forgotten a pencil, they head over to the other boat where the three-man crew is already hauling cod with handlines. After a few jokes about the size of this sorry young catch, someone tosses over a pencil. They are ready to fish.

These men are part of the Sentinel Fishery, now the only legal cod fishery in Newfoundland. In July 1992, the Canadian government closed Newfoundland waters, the Grand Banks, and most of the Gulf of St. Lawrence to groundfishing. Groundfish, of which the most sought after is cod, are those that live in the bottom layer of the ocean’s water. By the time the moratorium was announced, the fishermen of Petty Harbour, seeing the rapid decline of their once prolific catch, had been demanding it for years. They had claimed, and it is now acknowledged, that the offshore trawlers were taking nearly every last cod. In the 1980s, government scientists had ignored the cry of inshore fishermen that the cod were disappearing. This deafness proved costly.

Now two Petty Harbour boats are participating in the Sentinel Fishery, a program meant to get scientists and fishermen working together. A few fishermen in each community are sentries, measuring the progress of the cod stock by catching fish and reporting their findings to government scientists. The men on Leonard’s boat are tagging and releasing as many fish as they can catch. At the same time, the fishermen on the other boat are supposed to catch exactly 100 fish, open them up to see if they are male or female, and remove a tiny bone from the head, the otolith, which helps the cod keep its balance. The rings of the otolith tell the cod’s age.

Tomorrow, or the next good day with a calm sea, the two boats will switch jobs. There is no point in braving bad weather. The fishermen earn only a modest rent on their boats for this work but are glad to have it, because it gives them something to do besides collecting their unemployment compensation, renowned in Maritime Canada as “the package.” They also like doing it because there is constant pressure to reopen fishing. This week the debate is on an idea to let everyone fish a few cod “just for food.” The Sentinel fishermen are proving with their scant, undersized, and underaged catch that there are still not enough cod to allow any fishing at all.

“This is it. We are out on the headlands,” Sam frequently reminds people. Petty Harbour fishermen are proud of the fact that they live in the most easterly fishing community in North America—the first of three things for which Petty Harbour is famous. Their little village, along with St. John’s in the next cove and the rocky point between them, is the site closest to the part of the North Atlantic fabled throughout this millennium as the cod grounds.

Being on the eastern headlands also means that it is the North American town closest to Ireland, and this is the second thing for which the town is famous. Although the name Petty Harbour comes from the French petit, the people here are Irish. Fifth-generation Newfoundlanders speak with the musical brogue of southern Ireland. While this accent is heard up and down the Newfoundland coast, Petty Harbour is a microcosm of Ireland—Ireland upside down. The village, with its population of almost 1,000, was built on the mouth of a small river. On the north side live the Catholics. On the south are the Protestants. The little bridge was a border, and the people on either side never mixed. Sam, Leonard, and Bernard are all Catholic. But, growing up in the late 1950s and early 1960s, they were the first generation of children to cross the bridge when playing. Sam married a Protestant. So did Bernard, who, now forty-one, is five years younger than Sam. The town’s sole social conflict faded—only to be replaced by new ones as the cod disappeared.

According to Sam, it is more than the cod that are gone. He looks toward the horizon and says, “Not a whale, nothing.” For years, he has not seen herring or capelin, which the humpback whale chase. The squid, too, seems to have vanished. Petty Harbour fishermen used to spend an hour jigging the harbor for squid to use as bait. This morning, they are using squid they bought frozen.

In summer, before their disappearance, the cod would come so close to shore that fishermen could catch them in traps, ingenious devices invented in Labrador in the nineteeth century. A wall of twine net was anchored to the shore, and cod swimming from either side followed the wall and found themselves in a large, twine, underwater room, which they could easily leave. But most didn’t. The unbaited traps were left out in July and August and hauled up twice a day. Thousands of cod used to swim into these traps along the rocky coast in the summer. At the time of the moratorium, the 125 fishermen of Petty Harbour were setting seventy-five traps along the deep inlet that marked Petty Harbour waters.

Then, in September, when the cod started moving farther offshore, the handlining season would begin. Handline fishing dates back to the iron age. A hook is baited, and a four-ounce lead weight drops it to the bottom on heavy line. In Petty Harbour’s grounds, the men fish at a depth between fifteen and thirty fathoms. The fisherman loops the line around his hand and when he feels a tug, he yanks hard to set the hook in the fish’s mouth. He must yank the line and start pulling it in with one continuous motion, because any slack will enable the fish to wriggle free. But few escape these fishermen.

Once the hook is well set, the cod doesn’t fight and it is simply a matter of hauling up the weight. The skill is all in the first moments; the rest is labor. The fishermen rapidly haul in some 180 feet of line by moving their two index fingers in broad circular motions. In the old days, they would each have had a line out: two on the side of the boat where the tide runs and one on the opposite side. The open deck and low gunwales might be dangerous in a rough sea, but they make it easy to land fish. The three men would have hauled up fish weighing from eight to thirty pounds or more, one after another, without a break, for the rest of the day until the deck and both three-foot-deep holds had no more room. Each boat would have returned with between 2,000 and 3,000 pounds of cod. Fifty or more boats from Petty Harbour would have all been out there with two- or three-man crews, hauling fish and shouting jokes from boat to boat.

The third thing for which Petty Harbour is famous: The community has banned the mass-fishing techniques of longlining and gillnetting since the late 1940s. Since the moratorium, environmentalists have singled out Petty Harbour for having taken this step decades before anyone else in Newfoundland was talking about conservation. In 1995, the Sierra Club, the conservation group, noted in its magazine: “More than a generation ago, Petty Harbour fishermen outlawed destructive practices like trawling and gillnetting. Petty Harbour allows only conservation-oriented fishing gear—old—fashioned handlines ... and traps.”

But, in truth, the ban was implemented because with 125 fishermen working the opening of the same cove, there simply would not have been enough space for such practices. “Nowadays, everyone tries to say that it was for conservation,” says Sam. “There was no such thing as conservation. For God’s sake, there were enough fish to walk on. It was because there wasn’t enough room.”

Newfoundland’s inshore fishermen fish only the waters of their own cove. If a Petty Harbour boat wanted to work beyond the last point of rock in Petty Harbour’s inlet, he would ask the St. John’s fishermen in the neighboring cove for permission. That was back in the days of civility, before the moratorium, when there were supposed to be enough fish for everyone, and religion was the only bone to fight over.

Since the moratorium was declared, civility has been scarcer than cod. Six Petty Harbour boats even went gillnetting in plain view, and it took two years of legal action and political pressure to stop them.

Commercially, Sam, Bernard, and Leonard do not fish together. Sam used to work with his brother. Bernard’s partner of twenty years never got a groundfishing license when they were easy to get. He hadn’t needed one. Now, if groundfishing ever opens up again, there will be a strict fish-per-license quota and no new licenses will be available. Bernard will have to share his quota with his partner, and it probably will not be a big enough catch for two. “And I’m supposed to tell the man I’ve been fishing with all these years, ‘Sorry, I have to team up with someone with a groundfishing license.’ They want to make people leave fishing. But what else is there?”

“It used to be a nice place to live,” says Sam, “but it’s not anymore.”

“It’s unbelievable,” says Bernard, “the way a few years ago everybody just did what they did, and they didn’t worry about anyone else. Now no one wants to see anyone make a dollar that they’re not making. Everybody is watching everybody else. I don’t think you can fart in the community without someone complaining.”

But on this perfect Newfoundland September morning with a warming sun and a flat sea, these men of the Sentinel Fishery are in a good mood, doing the only thing they have ever wanted to do, going out on the water with their childhood friends to haul up fish.

The catch is a disaster.

Newfoundland and Labrador cod, the so-called northern stock, are pretty fish with amber leopard spots on an olive green back, a white belly, and the long white, streamlining stripe between the belly and the spotted back. They are far prettier than the Icelandic stock, with its yellow on brown. The fishermen measure each cod as it is hauled in and find that the length ranges from forty-five to fifty-five centimeters (twenty inches or so), which means they are two- or three-year-old codlings born since the moratorium—not even old enough to reproduce. When Leonard finally hauls up a cod of seventy-five centimeters, probably seven years old, a typical catch ten years ago, they all joke, “Oh, my God, get the gaff! Give him a hand!”

In their lilting brogues, they joke about the fact that they are not real fishermen anymore. The little boat hits a slight swell sideways, and as it rolls Sam whines, “Ohhh, I think I’m going to be seasick.” The others laugh.

They are good at hauling up fish. But this is something different. Instead of throwing the cod on the deck and quickly baiting and recasting for the next, they have to gently remove the hook and try not to hurt the animal. Then they lay it out on a board and measure it in centimeters. A tool with a trigger mechanism is used to insert an inch-long needle in the meaty part next to the forward dorsal fin and snap into place a plastic thread with a numbered tag on the end. This they are not very good at.

Sam unhooks a fish, and it jerks out of his hands and crashes to the deck. “Oh, sorry,” he says to the cod in the same tender little voice he uses at home with his aging beagle. The tagging gun is not working well, so Sam takes it apart and rebuilds it. Taking things apart and fixing them is part of a fisherman’s skills. But the gun still doesn’t work well. Sometimes they have to stick a fish three or four times to get a tag in. This is proof of what a tough survivor the cod is. A salmon would never survive this handling. But when they finally drop the codfish in the sea slowly, head first, to revive it, it instantly swims for its home on the bottom. To a cod, ocean floors mean safety. That is why they were rendered commercially extinct by bottom draggers.

Trying to insert the tag in one cod, the men stick and poke it so many times that it dies. That makes no one sad, because they are hungry. Bernard kneels over a portable Sterno stove at the stern. He uses his thick fishing knife to dice fatback and salt beef and peel and slice potatoes. He soaks pieces of hardtack and sautés it all in the pork fat with some sliced onion. Then he fillets the cod in four knife strokes per side, skins the fillets with two more, and before throwing the carcass over, opens it up, sees it is a female, and removes the roe. Holding it by a gill over the gunwale, he makes two quick cuts and rips out the throat piece, “the cod tongue,” before dropping the body in the sea.

As Bernard stirs his pot, Sam records tag numbers and fish lengths with his pencil, while at the bow Leonard silently hauls up one young cod after another with his fast-moving gloved forefingers. “Leonard’s having all the fun,” Bernard says in mock grumpiness.

Bernard dumps the food on a big baking sheet, which they put on a plank across one of the holds, and they stand in the hold where the catch should have been and with plastic forks start eating toward the center. The dish, called Fishermen’s Brewis, is monochromatic, with off-white pork fat and off-white potatoes and occasional darker pieces of salt beef. What stands out is the stark whiteness of the thick flakes of fresh cod. This is the meal they grew up on, and, as often happens when old friends are eating their childhood food, they start reminiscing.

There were no sports for these men to talk about, no high school teams; they aren’t even hockey fans. As children, they went fishing with their fathers every morning just before daybreak. They would come to shore midday and go to school—until the first black cloud passed overhead and they had to run down to the harbor, to the racks, called fish flakes, where the salt cod were drying, and turn them over skin side up so they would be protected if it rained.

Instead of sports, they talk about fishing, about how cold it used to be. It is not that the weather has changed. But back then, there had been no lightweight microfibers to hold in body heat, nothing to help the fingers reeling in line dripping with icy water. All this in a season with little sun, or even daylight, for warmth. The fishing was good into January, but when, in 1957, unemployment compensation was made available for fishermen after December 15, that became the last fishing day until spring. Years later the date was moved to November 15.

But they remember fishing into the winter. “Christ,” says Bernard, “out there handlining in the snow. You’d come in numb. We didn’t have these modern clothes. Just wool. Or if they had them, we didn’t know.”

“No,” said Leonard, “they weren’t there.”

“Christ, it was cold.”

“We didn’t have any choices.”

“Couldn’t even put this much salt beef in.”

The conversation turns to a favorite Newfoundland topic, how unhealthy their diet is. Traditional Newfoundland food is based on pork fat. Everything is cooked in it and then seasoned with scrunchions—rendered, diced fatback.

“Good for the arteries,” Bernard says with a laugh. “You know what my brother says. You put something in front of him, and he always asks, ‘Is it good for you?’ If you say ‘Yes,’ he says, ‘Then I don’t want it.’ ”

They finish eating—Sam and Bernard share the roe, and Leonard eats the tongue—and head back to harbor. Only forty fish have been tagged, and the biggest is just seventy-six centimeters (thirty inches). Ten years ago, this record fish would have been barely the average size. Only three of the forty are large enough to be capable of spawning.

The men in the other boat worked three lines and caught their 100 fish with a total weight of 375 pounds. This means the average is less than four pounds at the time of year when Petty Harbour used to get some of its biggest catches—boats with 300 fish having a total weight of 3,000 pounds.

They set aside the parts for the scientists and divide the rest of the fish into bags containing about ten pounds of fish each. A ten-pound bag should have been one cod, but most bags have two or three. When the two boats come into the harbor, some fifty people, mostly from other towns, are already waiting in a polite line.

This is Canada. These people have jobs or are on public assistance, mostly the latter these days. They are not hungry but simply yearning for a taste of their local dish. The big fish companies, the ones that owned bottom draggers that had cleaned out the last of the cod before the moratorium, now import frozen cod from Iceland, Russia, and Norway. But these people are accustomed to fresh, white, flaky cod “with the nerves still tingling,” as one fisherman’s daughter put it. Sam had once sent a shipment to New Orleans, and the chef had complained that it was too fresh and the meat did not hold together well. Only fishing communities know what real fresh cod, with thick white flakes that come apart, tastes like.

Even limiting the cod to ten pounds a person, there is not enough. A few people are turned away, and one of them asks one of the fishermen, “Where are they taking the rest of the fish?”

The problem with the people in Petty Harbour, out here on the headlands of North America, is that they are at the wrong end of a 1,000-year fishing spree.