The Dangerous Waters of Nature’s Resilience - The Last Hunters - 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)

Part III. The Last Hunters

Chapter 12. The Dangerous Waters of Nature’s Resilience


—English proverb


—front-page headline, Toronto Globe & Mail, October 5, 1996

Newfoundlanders debated over when “the cod was coming back.” Few dared ask if. Or what happens to the ocean if they don’t come back? Or whether commercial fishing was going to continue at all. The position that the cod would return was most candidly argued by Sam Lee: “They’re coming back because they have to.”

Scientists are not as certain. Ralph Mayo of the National Marine Fisheries Service laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, pointed out that there is no known formula to predict how many fish—or, in scientific language, what size biomass—are required to regenerate a population or how many years that might take. Both miracles and disasters occur in nature. In 1922, for unknown natural reasons, the Icelandic cod stock produced so many juveniles that, in spite of British and German trawlers, Iceland had a healthy-size stock for ten years. “There are lots of natural variables. All it takes is a huge winter storm to wash the larvae off the bank and away,” Mayo said. There is only one known calculation: “When you get to zero, it will produce zero.” How much above zero still produces zero is not known.

Fueling optimism is the fact that decimated cod stocks have been restored fairly quickly in other countries. In 1989, the Norwegian government realized its cod stocks were in a serious decline. It severely restricted the fishery, putting many fishermen, fish-plant workers, and boat builders out of business and drastically reducing the size of its fleet. The northern Finnmark region had an unprecedented 23 percent unemployment rate. But because the government instituted these measures while the stock was still commercially viable, while there were still some large spawners left, the cod population stabilized and started increasing after a few years. Peter Gati of the Norwegian Seafood Export Council said of the Canadian situation, “I guess politicians didn’t have the courage to put people out of business.” But in Norway, courage combined with good fortune and a fast-growing cod stock. When the cod stocks in the Barents Sea were measured in the fall of 1992, government planners were as surprised as they had been in 1989. After the two most productive years ever recorded in this stock, the cod population was healthy again.


Agust Olafsson, a deckhand aboard the Ver, poses with a cod for the ship’s chef, Gudbjartotur Asgeirsson, circa 1925. Asgeirsson, who cooked on Icelandic trawlers between 1915 and 1940, often took photographs. (National Museum of Iceland, Reykjavik)

In 1994 the Canadian government estimated that its moratorium would last until the end of the century. Since then, politicians have tried to speed up the process. But in Canada, if everything else went well, about fifteen years would be needed to restore the population. A healthy population requires some large old spawners, and such fish in the northern stock are about fifteen years old. It is hard to imagine the Canadians holding off that long, going a generation without cod fishing. As George Rose, the fishery scientist at St. John’s Memorial University, suggested, political pressure makes it almost impossible to maintain a moratorium until cod stocks have returned to historic levels. Rose, who had been a leading voice calling for the moratorium, said, “I am not optimistic that we will ever let it come back to what it was. If we get 300,000, there will be unbearable pressure to fish it.”

Periodically a “food fishery” is announced. For one weekend, locals are allowed to fish cod for their own consumption. After such weekends, cod suddenly becomes available, sold off the back of pickup trucks. And yet local politicians complain that the food fisheries are too short. The mayor of Lewisporte said that some people worked on weekends and she “wanted everyone to have a chance.”

In the October 1996 Globe & Mail article, Fisheries minister Fred Mifflin said that the Sentinel fishermen were reporting increased number and size. “The fish are fatter, they are healthier, so we know for sure that the decline has ceased.” This does not at all correspond with the findings of Sam Lee and his Petty Harbour colleagues, but they are only six out of 400 Sentinel fishermen in Newfoundland. A closer look at Mifflin’s data reveals that these good results were in southern Newfoundland, where waters are warmer and growth is faster. In fact, the cod there are a completely separate population from the northern stock, which inhabit the waters off the rest of Newfoundland, Labrador, and the Banks. This again illustrates what Ralph Mayo calls “the perception problem.”

Weeks before Mifflin’s statement, Rose said, “We found 15,000 cod in the South Bay, and everyone said the cod are back. Hold on! Ten years ago, the biomass, the population, was 1.2 million.”

Some propose to give nature a hand. When the Norwegian fishery was in crisis, the government there invested heavily in experimental cod farming. Once the wild stocks returned, the Norwegians immediately lost interest in farming because it was more expensive. But fish farmers had been technically successful in transferring wild juveniles to pens and feeding them until they were thick and large. The cod were even trained to come at feeding time. “Juvenile raising is where our wild fishing is headed,” said the Norwegian Seafood Export Council’s Peter Gati. The flesh of the Norwegian farmed cod was extremely white because they were “purged,” starved for several days before going to market, just as lobsters commonly are. Another advantage was that they could be brought to market live. This had also been key to Cabot Martin’s plan in Petty Harbour.

Although farming cod is a new field and salmon farming is firmly established, Martin claims cod would be far easier to farm. Salmon have a delicate scale structure and are prone to infections, whereas cod tolerate handling and are disease resistant. Also, salmon do not like to be crowded into a pen, whereas cod have a herding social structure.

Fish farming—everything from salmon to mussel—is becoming a bigger industry every year. Farming starts out well enough. After the Petty Harbor experiment, Martin set up several pens, fattening the cod with mackerel, herring, and capelin. This probably produced excellent fish, but at the time of the moratorium he had gone out of business with a debt of one million Canadian dollars. Commercially successful fish farms reduce operating costs by feeding pellets of pressed fish meal rather than wild bait fish. In the case of salmon, they are also fed artificial coloring to give them the pink tint they acquire in the wild from eating crustaceans. Gastronomically, a wild salmon and a farmed salmon have as much in common as a side of wild boar has with pork chops.

Not only gastronomes but also scientists have deep concerns about fish farming. Pen-reared cod have a phenomenal growth rate. They are much bigger at a given age than wild northern stock. Cod doubles its size in a year anyway, but a hatchery cod can quadruple its size in the same period. Since size determines fecundity, pen raising and releasing would appear to be a way to rebuild stocks. But this is a dangerous business.

The idea of releasing farmed fish into a wild stock frightens scientists because man does not select fish in the same way nature does. If a cod was not disease resistant, did not know how to avoid predators, lacked hunting or food-gathering skills, had a faulty thermometer and so did not produce the antifreeze protein or the ability to detect a change in water temperature that signals the moment to move inshore for spawning, this cod would not survive in the wild. But it would survive in a pen, and if it had other characteristics that were particularly well suited for farm life, the defective fish would flourish and possibly even dominate. If it then reproduced with a wild fish, it would pass its “bad genes” to their offspring.

Christopher Taggart, fisheries oceanographer at Dalhousie University in Halifax, compared farmed fish to purebred dogs and thoroughbred horses: “Most purebred dogs carry genetic defects like bad hips. Thoroughbred horses break a leg if you look at them. It is a byproduct of selecting. Try to produce a dog with thick fluffy fur that is a good swimmer and it ends up to also have bad hips. If the dog bred in the wild, you would produce a wolf population with bad hips.”

The genetic consequence of fish farming are still unknown. The assumption—the hope—for fish that live their entire life cycle in pens is that they never escape into the wild to mingle with the species. But this accident has happened. Worse, some hatcheries produce young for the purpose of releasing and enhancing the wild stock.

New England salmon hatcheries released so many fry into the wild that by 1996, only an estimated 500 Atlantic salmon in New England still had the diverse genetic characteristics of the wild species.

The central issue to the survival of a species is how to maintain its diversity—the wide range of genetic characteristics that gives a species the ability to adapt to the many challenges of life in the world. Scientists have no way of knowing, but can only hope, that the tiny reduced population of surviving northern stock carry the full range of traits once presented in the gene pool of a population of many millions. Taggart argued that to preserve genetic diversity, assuming it is still there, farming “should be kept as natural as possible—an almost wild hatchery. We know that spawning places are not chosen by chance. Choose places conducive to good survivorship of juveniles and conducive to keeping the group together.” That is how a wild cod chooses her spawning ground.

Overfishing is a growing global problem. About 60 percent of the fish types tracked by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) are categorized as fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted. The U.S. Atlantic coast has witnessed a dramatic decline in the bluefin tuna population, though Gloucester fishermen refute this on the grounds that they still have good catches. Mid-Atlantic swordfish stocks are diminishing. Conch and redfish are vanishing from the Caribbean. Red snapper, which is a by-catch of shrimp, is in danger of commercial extinction in the Gulf of Mexico. Peru is losing its anchovy population. Pollock is vanishing from Russia’s Sea of Okhotsk. With 90 percent of the world’s fishing grounds now closed off by 200-mile exclusion zones, fishermen have been searching greater depths for new species. Little is known about the ecology of these depths, but since they often have very cold water, reproduction is probably very slow. Orange roughy was introduced to the world markets after implementation of the 200-mile zone and immediately gained such popularity that five tons an hour were being hauled up from the depths near New Zealand. In 1995, the catch nearly vanished.

The collapse of the Soviet Union destabilized many fishing agreements. Russia has become a major cod fisher, and cod has become almost the equivalent of cash in the Russian Barents Sea fishery. The reason the Canadians have been buying Russian cod processed in Norway is that Russia has been flooding the Norwegian market.

With the Atlantic long overworked by Europeans, the action has been switching to the Pacific, where not only are there large Japanese, Russian, American, and Korean fleets, but the Chinese, who do not have a history of international cooperation, have been notably enlarging their fishing capacity.

Replacing the Atlantic with Pacific fisheries is an old idea. Pacific cod was one of the reasons the United States bought Alaska from the Russians in 1867. But since the major markets were far away along the Atlantic, the Pacific cod did not have the same success as the Atlantic cod. Nevertheless, in 1890, a half million Pacific cod were landed. An 1897 book by an American scholar, James Davie Butler, suggested that with the alternative of a Pacific cod fishery, the only remaining bone of contention between the United States and Canada, cod fisheries, would be less important, and the way would now be cleared for “eventual union with Canada.”

But the Pacific cod is a different fish, its flesh less prized. It does not migrate, and it does not appear to live more than twelve years. More important, the catch has never measured up to that of its Atlantic cousin. Instead, walleye pollock has become the prize of the northern Pacific, “the cod of our times,” as a Gorton’s employee put it, and that fish is becoming so overfished that not only its stocks but its predators, sea lions and several species of seabirds, have dramatically declined since the mid-1970s.

Marine ecology is complex and tightly interwoven. When large factory ships in the North Sea overfish sand eels and other small fish that are ground into fish meal for heating fuel in Denmark, not only cod but seabirds go hungry. In 1986, seal herds ranged south in the North Sea and ate the coastal fish off of Norway because they were famished from the overfishing of capelin. Fishermen were calling for a seal hunt to save the North Sea fisheries from the seal. In 1995, both Norway and Canada rescinded their ban on seal hunting because the populations were growing and they eat cod.

In the late 1950s, Canada’s seal hunt had become a target of environmentalists when high prices for seal pelts and a huge herd had drawn packs of ruthless, unskilled amateur hunters with helicopters to the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts. In 1964, the anger of animal lovers throughout the world was stirred by a film made by Artek, a Montreal film company, that depicted a seal being skinned alive. The international protest did not abate when it was revealed that the skinner had been paid by the film company and that two of the other “hunters” turned out to be part of the film crew. In 1983, after intensive pressure from environmental groups culminated with a European Community boycott of seal products, Canada finally banned seal hunting, a traditional activity in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Not surprisingly, the 1995 reopening of the seal hunt met with national and international condemnation from environmentalist and animal-rights groups. The seal defenders claimed that there was no scientific basis for the seal hunt. Some even denied that seals eat cod. Before protecting the seal became a cause célèbre, everyone in Newfoundland knew that seals ate cod. The familiar label of the leading Newfoundland soft-drink company, G. H. Gaden, is a seal on an ice floe with the words keep cool. But in the less politically correct nineteenth century, a cod was in the seal’s mouth.

According to the Canadian government, the seal-hunting ban caused the harp seal population to double to 4.8 million, and if the ban had not been rescinded, it would be expected to be at 6 million by 2000. Seals eat enormous quantities of fish and are particularly disliked by fishermen because they are wasteful. Like the average North American consumer, gray, harbor, and harp seals do not like to deal with fish bones. They tear into the soft belly of the cod and leave most of the rest. “Seals don’t have to eat a lot of cod to have a big impact,” said George Rose. “It doesn’t mean we have to declare war on the seal. But we have to control the seal population.” One Canadian journalist, recalling Brigitte Bardot’s 1977 campaign in which she posed on an ice floe with a stuffed baby seal, suggested that the French actress pose hugging a codfish.

Given the interdependence of species, the fundamental question is whether other species—not just the seals but the phytoplankton, the zooplankton, the capelin, the seabirds, and the whales—will wait fifteen years for cod to return. Nature may have even less patience than politicians. “Whatever will work is going to work. It will not necessarily come out the same way,” said Rose. If the species that were eaten by cod become plentiful because the cod are not there to prey on them, other species may move in, and if the intruders are successful, there might not be enough food to support a large cod population again. Some biologists worry that rays, skates, and dogfish, which are small sharks, may already be moving in.

In addition, an unwanted relative has already shown up: the arctic cod (Boreogadus saida). This may not be bad for the marine ecology, but it is very bad news for fishermen. Arctic cod are about eight inches long and until now have been deemed of little commercial value. Because they are a much smaller fish, the adults do not compete with the Atlantic cod for food, but the young do. Even worse, arctic cod eat Atlantic cod eggs and larvae.

The arctic cod is one of several more northerly species that seem to have expanded their range south into Newfoundland and Labrador waters at about the time the cod vanished. The other two, snow crab and shrimp, have been very profitable. Traditionally in Newfoundland, crabbing has been of a lower social order and fishermen have resisted it, but the Asian market for snow crab is extremely lucrative and several Newfoundlanders became wealthy in the mid-1990s from it. The landed value of snow crab in 1995 was the highest in dollars of any catch in the history of Newfoundland fisheries.

Scientists are not certain why any of these three species moved south. It may have been because cod, which eat shrimp and crab, were no longer there, but that would not explain the presence of the arctic cod. It may also have been that the water was colder in those years.

But Rose, who goes to sea to study the northern stock, said, “Fishermen are seeing many strange things that are a sign things are not right.” The cod have been reaching sexual maturity younger and smaller. Undersized four-year-olds are spawning. This is not surprising. When a species is in danger of extinction, it often starts reaching sexual maturity earlier. Nature remains focused on survival. But Rose also said that cod were seen spawning in water temperatures of minus one degree Celsius. Cod are supposed to move to warmer water for spawning. Fishermen keep reporting aberrations, such as fish in an area where they have never been seen before, or at different depths, or a different temperature, or at a different time of year.

Perhaps even more disturbing, Rose’s studies have concluded that the northern stock has stopped migrating. The stock had normally followed a 500-mile seasonal migration, but Rose believes that after 1992, the survivors came inshore and stayed. He does not know the reason for this but speculates that the bigger, older fish were the leaders and are no longer there to lead. It is also possible that cod migrate because they need food and space for spawning. With the population so reduced, this is no longer necessary.

Whatever steps are taken, one of the greatest obstacles to restoring cod stocks off of Newfoundland is an almost pathological collective denial of what has happened. Newfoundlanders seem prepared to believe anything other than that they have killed off nature’s bounty. One Canadian journalist published an article pointing out that the cod disappeared from Newfoundland at about the same time that stocks started rebuilding in Norway. Clearly the northern stock had packed up and migrated to Norway.

Man wants to see nature and evolution as separate from human activities. There is the natural world, and there is man. But man also belongs to the natural world. If he is a ferocious predator, that too is a part of evolution. If cod and haddock and other species cannot survive because man kills them, something more adaptable will take their place. Nature, the ultimate pragmatist, doggedly searches for something that works. But as the cockroach demonstrates, what works best in nature does not always appeal to us.



—Alain Senderens

A star since he opened his first Paris restaurant when he was only twenty-nine, Alain Senderens is a culinary genius with a knack for marketing and a curious and contemplative intellect. Few people have thought as much about food as Senderens.

In 1972, as the much-talked-about young chef of his new Paris restaurant, L’Archestrate, one of his many iconoclastic ideas was to serve fresh cod, cabillaud. It had never before been offered in a top-rated Paris restaurant. Like salt cod, most great Paris chefs have their roots in southern regions—Senderens is from the southwest. Salt cod, morue, had slowly made its way up from peasant food in the south to become an honored French tradition. But not fresh cod.

He created a fresh cod recipe and offered it on the menu as Cabillaud Rôti, Roasted Cod. No one bought it. So he removed the word cabillaud and substituted morue fraiche,“ fresh salt cod. It was a hit. This was the recipe.


4 220-gram pieces of cod with the skin
Eggplant caviar
750 grams diced green pepper
1.5 kilos diced red pepper
1.5 kilos chopped mushrooms
500 grams crushed tomatoes
20 chopped shallots
10 chopped garlic cloves
20 chopped anchovy fillets
10 eggplants roasted for 4 hours at 60 degrees [Celsius;
140 degrees Fahrenheit]
3 zucchinis cut into julienne strips

1. Mix olive oil, shallots, garlic, and anchovies, add red and green pepper and tomato. Cook until the liquid evaporates. Then add the roasted and crushed eggplant and mushrooms. Cook a few minutes and set aside.

2. Fry the zucchini juliennes.

3. Pan fry the cod skin down and finish cooking in the oven.

4. Arrange it on the plate.

—Alain Senderens, chef, Paris