Bracing for the Spanish Armada - 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 13. Bracing for the Spanish Armada


—Charles Dickens, Oliver Twist, 1837-1838

In a Britain that has seen many of its most treasured traditions under siege, an issue debated with increasing frequency is the survival of true fish-and-chips. “We can foresee a time when we won’t get any chunky pieces,” said Maureen Whitehead, who with her husband owns the popular Polsloe Bridge fish-and-chips shop in Exeter, in the green hill country of east Devon. Like all people who know fresh cod, she understood the importance of thickness. “If they don’t let the small grow, that will be it,” she added.

To most, though not all, of the British working class, fish means cod. In Yorkshire, though, it means haddock, and Harry Ramsden’s, a fish-and-chips chain founded in Guiseley, Leeds, in 1928, built a reputation for more than sixty years with fried haddock. But in the 1990s, when Ramsden’s expanded into the south of England, it was forced to switch to cod. Nothing else is acceptable in the south of England, except in London.

In Dickens’s description of a thieves’ den in back-street London, he includes the basic components of a working-class commercial district. The London fried fish trade began with the industrial revolution in the 1830s. Jewish merchants in the East End and Soho fried fish and distributed it from warehouses decades before “chipped” potatoes were added. The fish was, and still is, whatever was getting a good price at Billingsgate market—cod, haddock, plaice, hake, or even skate or dogfish. In recent years, dogfish has increasingly turned up in chip shops, but only in London will shop owners admit to’this. In most of England, the disappearance of cod, and large cods at that, is a threat to a way of life.

Newlyn is a dark, brick, tumble-down-to-the-docks Cornish fishing port, a few miles from Land’s End on the most seaward tip of England. There David Jewell, another fish-and-chip shop owner, said that he cannot always offer the real fish. Fish-and-chips, the common man’s dish, must sell for a reasonably low price, and the high price of cod sometimes forces him to settle for pollock or whiting. Also, this most British of foods is often not British anymore. Fishy Moore’s, one of the oldest chip shops in England, founded in Coventry in 1891, has given up on English cod. Coventry, in the Midlands, is as far inland as any place in England can be. Yet, for eighty years, the Moore family would go by train every morning to Skegness, on the other side of England, and buy freshly landed North Sea cod. In 1968, the family sold the shop. The current owner, Shaun Britton, who learned the business from his father, said, “It is almost impossible to get good British cod. What we see on docks has been on a boat for three days.” Fishy Moore’s buys frozen cod from Iceland, Norway, or occasionally the Faroe Islands.

If there is anything as basic and universal to the British working class as fried fish, it is xenophobia. So the proposition that foreigners may be depriving British workers of their cod is politically potent. To the British fishermen, and to many British people, that is exactly what the European Community, which is now the European Union, has done. This argument, of course, denies the long British history of overfishing and the fact that the dread Spanish supertrawlers, which are now so universally denounced, were a British invention. And the rights of fishermen to have free access to the sea, a principle the British fought for with such high-minded rhetoric in Icelandic waters, was somehow forgotten each time Brussels suggested a European partner should have rights in British waters.

According to the British government, 70 percent of the species in British waters are being overfished. In the North Sea, the catch dropped from 287,000 metric tons in 1981 to 86,000 in 1991. Like Canada’s northern stock, British cod are now reaching maturity at a much younger age than the normal three to five years, and large cod are increasingly rare.

In the 1990s, with North Sea fisheries in crisis, the action shifted to the Irish box. Soon the International Council for Exploration of the Seas (ICES), which for years had been warning about the dwindling stocks in the North Sea, began reporting a similar situation in the Irish Sea.

Within the European Union, fishing issues are settled by a much disliked bureaucracy of the Common Fishing Policy. In each country, each boat has a set quota on each species in each area of ocean each month. It is widely agreed that this system has failed to stop the decline of cod and other commercially valuable species. Politics and nationalism often play far greater roles than conservation in the decision-making process. For many years, scientists and European ministers agreed that hake was so menaced that the quotas had to be reduced by 40 percent. But at each annual meeting of European fishing ministers, the Spanish, for whom hake is a basic food, lobby to maintain the catch, and the reduction is never agreed on.

In a December 1994 meeting for European ministers, the Common Fishing Policy agreed to let forty Spanish fishing boats work the Irish box. After. forty years of overfishing by their own trawlers, the fishermen of Cornwall and Devon had someone else to blame for their dwindling cod stocks. Even before the forty boats arrived, the word Spanish seemed to sit unkindly on everyone’s lips in southwestern England. Maureen Whitehead at her Exeter fish-and-chips shop now knew whom to blame if her fish pieces seemed a bit thin. “There’ll be no more chunky pieces if the Spanish take everything,” she warned.

Far out in balmy, green Cornwall, with its lush vegetation warmed by the Gulf Stream, there was a growing obsession about the Spanish. European relationships are often mired in history, and the Spanish have never had a good name here. The Cornish recall without forgiveness that long before the two brutal World Wars against the Germans, and centuries of battles against the French, the narrow sloping streets of Newlyn had been sacked by marauding Spaniards who arrived in galleons. And now they were coming back.

The Spanish, with the largest fleet and little to offer in fishing grounds, are a favorite target in Atlantic fishing. It is seldom mentioned that they also have the largest market because of an unusually high per capita consumption. For centuries, Atlantic fishermen from the New England pilgrims to the newly independent Icelanders have been sustained by Spanish markets.

Few cod are landed anymore by the Spanish or even the Basque fishermen who began it all. The giant bacalao companies—which owned their own trawler fleets, landed salt cod from the banks, and dried and sold it—have all closed. Trueba y Pardo used to be a major company in Bilbao. In San Sebastián’s port of Pasajes, there was PYSBE—Pesquerías y Secadores de Bacalao de Espana (Salt Cod Fishermen and Driers of Spain), founded in 1926. Both closed in the 1960s. In addition to fishermen and dockworkers, PYSBE had employed 500 workers in cleaning and drying alone. Trueba y Pardo had about 200 cleaners. These workers were almost all women, earning very low wages and no benefits, spending their days simply removing the dark gray membrane that had been the organ cavity lining. It was thought to be unattractive, and these workers cost the companies very little. Each woman could process 1,000 kilos (2,200 pounds) of fish in a day. Then the cod would be air-dried in the mountains. With modern salaries and benefits, companies could not afford such huge payrolls.

When the 200-mile limit was imposed, the Basques lost access to most cod grounds. By the time Spain entered the European Community in the 1980s, European waters had little cod. By 1990, only a few very old trawlers were rigged for cod fishing from Basque ports.

The banking and financial services that were established in Bilbao and San Sebastián because they had been trade centers, continued to flourish. In this commercial environment Basques made a transition from landing and processing cod to becoming importers.

A few miles up the Nerbioi River from Bilbao, in the town of Arrigorriaga, Adolfo Eguino’s office overlooked the steep green Basque mountains. His windows were closed off by wrought-iron grilles fashioned in the shape of splayed salt cod. He was the director of Baisfa, one of the largest Basque bacalao companies. A small, tough-looking man in his fifties, he had a gruff manner that charmed more than it offended. Eguino grew up in Portugalete, an old seafaring town whose name means “port of Galleons.” Some of the men who raided Newlyn may have been from there. As a boy, he didn’t like school and at the age of fourteen dropped out to start his own business. He specialized in selling bacalao to small food stores, like the ones in the chain owned by his father. In this way he came to know the people at PYSBE and Trueba y Pardo, and from those companies he found six partners to start Baisfa. They now imported all of their salt cod from Iceland—1,500 tons a year. In 1994, the Icelanders stopped delivering to them by ship, instead sending the salt cod to Rotterdam, where it was put on a truck and driven down. This meant that rather than receiving a huge shipment every few months, one container arrived every week. “The secret of good salt cod is to not let it spend much time on the boats,” said Eguino.

And yet, somehow, the people of Cornwall and much of England were convinced that the Spanish would take all their cod. Realistically, the Spanish were more interested in taking all their hake, but since cod was what the Englishmen cared about, it seemed to follow that cod was what the Spaniards would take.

Newlyn does not look like the Cornish towns on either side: Penzance and Mousehole. Those are resort towns where British vacationers practice that peculiarly British pastime of strolling the beaches and walkways, bundled in sweaters and mufflers. But Newlyn is a fishing town—or, increasingly, an out-of-work fishing town. By the 1990s, the long piers at the bottom of town where the trawlers tied up usually had one or two vessels being “decommissioned,” cut up and sold for scrap. In an attempt to reduce the size of the British fleet, the government was paying fishermen to destroy their boats. But there was almost no work to be had in Cornwall except fishing. Mike Townsend, chief executive of the Cornish Fish Producers Organization, summed up the position of Cornish fishermen: “There is nothing else here. If they don’t catch fish they will have no work, but if they keep catching enough to earn a living the fish will disappear.”

William Hooper, fifty-five, the burly skipper of the 135-foot Daisy Christiane, said, “If they decommission this boat, I wouldn’t have enough to buy a sweet.” Hooper had been fishing out of Cornish ports for forty years. “The stocks are not what they were ten years ago,” he said. “They are diminishing slowly all the time. All you can do to compensate is a bigger boat with a bigger net, more expenses, and you still can’t catch what you did ten years ago.”

Hooper first went to sea in 1955, when, he said, “the fish were knee-deep because of so little fishing during the war.” He can no longer earn a living on a forty-foot boat like the one he had then. Now, as a share fisherman, he worked on a company-owned trawler, and, like all of his crew, he fished hard to earn a percentage of the sale of the catch. No individual fishermen could afford the cost of fuel and maintenance on a ship large enough to haul two five-ton nets, the size needed to catch enough fish to be profitable.

There was a growing movement among British fishermen to recognize the Common Fishing Policy as a failure and withdraw from it. Mike Townsend was one of the most outspoken leaders of this movement. “Sometime we have to say, ‘Stop. We are not managing the stocks in a sustainable way.’ ” His argument was that the United Kingdom would be a better guardian of its own waters.

A debate raged over the fundamental tool of fishery management, the quotas, which were based on ICES attempts to monitor fishing populations. If groundfish were diminishing, fishermen were to fish less of them and at the same time increase their catch of the smaller fish on which they feed. Through quotas, man was attempting to artificially readjust the balance of the species while fishermen continued to earn a living.

But estimates of stock sizes were based on landings, the fish brought to market, and not on catch, the fish taken onto the boats, which was closer to the number of fish killed. As much as 40 percent of catches were being dumped back into the sea, even though most of these fish were already dead. Fishermen were radioed market prices to their boats at sea, and if the price dropped too low on a species, they would dump those fish overboard. Townsend, and many others, believed that the quotas bore no relationship to the actual state of the fish stocks. He laughed at questions of vanishing cod. “We have been plagued by cod. We don’t know what to do with them.” But fishermen, including Hooper, did not agree. According to Hooper, though there were momentary increases, the stocks have been declining.

In 1995, Canadian fisheries minister Brian Tobin offered a diversion from the frustrating complexity of fishery issues when he arrested a Spanish trawler, the Estai, confiscating the ship, the catch, and the gear. The Estai was held for a week while Canadian fisheries authorities rummaged through the 350 metric tons of fish aboard for evidence that its captain had violated North Atlantic conservation standards. Then, armed with photos of undersized Greenland halibut, also known as turbot, which the Estai had caught in the international part of the Grand Banks, and a salvaged undersized net, which the Spanish had dumped overboard, Tobin went to the UN in New York. There he delivered a defiant speech asserting that Canada intended to continue arresting Spanish trawlers and cutting their nets until some international conservation policy was established for the waters beyond Canada’s 200-mile limit. He went on to say that Canada was taking this stand with humility, recognizing its own guilt for overfishing in the past. He said that Canadians took no pride in doing this, a rhetorical embellishment that the Canadian press seized on. The Toronto Star said, “Tobin was a bit disingenuous there. Canadians are proud—even gleeful—at the sight of one of their politicians finally standing up and doing something about one of the world’s environmental disasters. In grim cost-cutting times, his colorful language and flare for the headlines have made Tobin the best act in town.”

Tobin called the Spanish captains “rogue pirates,” and Newfoundland premier Clyde Wells held up photos of undersized fish while accusing the Spanish fishermen of lying and cheating. The Canadian Coast Guard continued to chase Spanish trawlers off the international section of the Grand Banks, and when one trawler moved back in, Canada stole a page from Iceland’s Coast Guard and cut its net. The Canadians were very happy. The British were very happy. In Newlyn, they flew the red maple leaf flag of Canada. Fishermen from Newfoundland to Rhode Island to Cornwall cheered. In the 1996 election, Tobin was voted Newfoundland premier in a big victory for the Liberals. The Europeans also had their victory. Emma Bonino, fisheries commissioner for the European Union, said Canada’s fisheries minister was the real pirate and denounced Canada for reckless acts endangering the lives of Spanish fishermen on the high seas. The Canadians quietly released the men, ship, and gear, and the Spaniards, who had their own electorate to think of, threatened to sue Canada. Politically, the incident was a win for all sides.

In Petty Harbour, Sam Lee said, “It was good to watch, but it wasn’t real. It was like going to the movies.”

To the Cornish fishermen, it was a further vindication for their survival struggle against the Spanish. William Hooper said, “The biggest problem we have is the Spanish.” He was asked how it could all be the fault of the Spanish since they were newcomers and the catch had been declining for forty years. Hooper thought a minute and then added, “Yes, the Scots used to overfish.”



Divide the salt cod into thin filets, then dredge each in flour and then fry them. In a baking dish put a layer of salt cod, then a layer of sliced potatoes and parmesan cheese. Cover with bechamel sauce and gratin in the oven.

-El Bacalao, the recipes of PYSBE
(Salt Cod Fishermen and Driers of Spain),
San Sebastián, 1936


Choose the best salt cod, boil it, remove the skin and bones, flake it, and put the flakes in a serving dish. Make a good mayonnaise with garlic. Put it over the salt cod, completely covering it, and the width of the dish. On either side place strips of red pepper, roasted or fried, thus resulting in the colors of the Spanish flag. Each pepper strip has to be half the width of the strip of mayonnaise.

—Alejandro Bon,
Leonor, Superior Cook, Barcelona, 1946