A Few New Ideas Versus Nine Million Eggs - Limits - 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 II. Limits


—J. Smith Homans and J. Smith Homans, Jr., editors,
Cyclopedia of Commerce and Commercial Navigation,
New York, 1858

Chapter 7. A Few New Ideas Versus Nine Million Eggs


—Rudyard Kipling, Captains Courageous, 1896

The banks are treacherous. Depths as great as eighty fathoms are found there, but also areas of fifteen or twenty fathoms and less. Occasionally, in stormy weather, rocks break the surface. Ice floes split off of Greenland and the Arctic and drift south. In 1995, a large one, ironically shaped very much like a great fish with a towering dorsal fin, drifted to the mouth of St. John’s harbor. Even against the high cliffs of that well-sheltered port, it was huge—out of scale with anything around it. At sea, it is difficult to perceive the scale of these drifting ice mountains until they are suddenly off the bow, blocking everything else from sight.

Then there is the cold. For all these centuries, men have gone out in the North Atlantic when the arctic wind froze the spray to the rigging, turning lines into one-foot-thick columns of ice, making the ships unstable from the weight of the ice on the windward side. Ice would have to be chopped off the rigging to prevent capsizing. Even with improved navigation, radar, and radio reports on ice and storm conditions, cod still has to be fished out of water that is from thirty-four to fifty degrees. Fishermen must haul lines out of these waters. Today, there are new synthetic materials to protect the hands, but until recently, fishermen wore nippers—thick rubber gloves with cotton lining. They were awkward. It was hard to mend a net with gloves on, and without them, fingers could freeze without warning in a half hour. If the fingertips start turning black, all the fisherman can do is go below to thaw them out in cold water. Warm water would cause unbearable pain. Fishing is hard on the fingers anyway, and fishermen commonly lose fingers or joints from frostbite, line snags, and machinery. Hands invariably get deep cuts that become infected. If the hands get too beaten up, permanently numb from frostbite, or have too many missing fingers, the fisherman is forced into retirement.

Fishermen like to talk about their esprit de corps, and it is true that there is a warm camaraderie, a sense of being part of an elite brotherhood. Fishermen are like combat veterans who feel understood only by their comrades who have survived the same battles. But fishing is a constant struggle for economic survival. Each man works for shares of the catch. Anyone who can’t keep up, whether because of injury or age, is harassed out of the fishery. There are few fishermen over fifty. And because fishermen are technically self-employed and not salary earners, governments have been slow to recognize claims to social benefits for those who are out of work.


Lost in Fog by James Gayle Tyler, Russel W. Knight collection. (Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts)

One of the worst enemies of cod fishermen, especially in the days before radio, was fog. Since cod grounds are zones where warm and cold currents meet, fog is commonplace. It can be so thick that the bow of an eighty-foot vessel is obscured from midship. A lantern on the bow cannot be detected 100 feet away. Fishermen drift in a formless gray, tooting horns and blowing whistles, hoping other craft hear them and avoid collision. But the greatest danger was for the dorymen.

From the seventeenth century to the 1930s, the common way to fish for cod and other groundfish was to go out to the Banks in a ship and then drop off small dories with two-man crews. The Portuguese, who were infamous on the Grand Banks for the harshness of their working conditions, used one-man dories. Europeans would cross the ocean in large barks built for deck space and large holds; New Englanders and Nova Scotians went out in schooners that could swiftly run back to shore to land fish; but all the dories were the same: twenty-foot deckless skiffs. The dorymen would generally use oars, and occasionally sail power, but they had to provide their own sails. Often they or their wives made them by sewing together flour sacks.

Being competitive with each other, dorymen sometimes secretively took off to grounds they had discovered. Many dorymen drowned or starved to death or died of thirst while lost in the fog, sifting through a blank sea for the mother ship. They tried to fish until their boat was filled with fish. The more fish were caught, the less sea-worthy the dory. Sometimes a dory would become so overloaded that a small amount of water from a wave lapping the side was all it took for the small boat to sink straight down with fish and fishermen.

René Convenant, one of the last Breton dorymen, wrote of his father’s death:

My father disappeared under 60 meters of cold Newfoundland water. Maybe he was the victim of a wave that was a little stronger than the others, against a dory loaded to the gunwales with fish. The fragile launch was filled with ice, and weighted by boots and oilskins, my father and his mate—a 22-year-old boy—sank instantly. A terrifying death without witnesses in the cottony fog that stifles all sound. Like a nightmare from which there is no awakening....

“Your father, I knew him well. He was a good dory skipper.” This was the only funeral oration for the missing sailor, which another sailor—Father Louis—uttered many years later when I questioned him on the tragic disappearance of my father.

To seagoing people of the North Atlantic, the hardships and bravado of dorymen were legendary. In 1876, Alfred Johnson, a Danish-born Gloucester doryman, responding to a dare, sailed his sixteen-foot boat from Gloucester to Abercastle, Wales, in fifty-eight days, the first one-man North Atlantic crossing ever recorded. Nova Scotians still recall a nineteenth-century doryman who was lost in the fog for sixteen hours before being found—the Nova Scotian survival record. But the most famous Nova Scotian doryman was Howard Blackburn, who immigrated to Gloucester. On January 23, 1883, Blackburn and his dory mate rowed away from their ship to longline halibut and became lost in a snowstorm. His mate froze to death, but Blackburn shaped his fingers around the oars so that he would still be able to row after he lost feeling in his hands. He rowed 100 miles and reached Newfoundland with the frozen corpse of his mate on the stern. Though the misadventure cost him all his fingers and most of his toes, he went to sea in sloops designed for his disability, set a thirty-nine-day, one-man Gloucester-to-Lisbon record, and even rowed the Florida coast with oars strapped to his wrists.

Not only dories were lost. Whole ships went down. John Cabot’s was the first of many. The number of Gloucester fishermen lost at sea between 1830 and 1900—3,800—was 70 percent greater than all the American casualties in the War of 1812, and this from a town of about 15,000 people. On February 24, 1862, a gale swept Georges Bank, and 120 drowned in one night. In the 1870s, as schooners became shallower and carried more sails, making them even faster and more beautiful, but much more dangerous, Gloucester losses became horrendous. These shallow, loftily rigged “clipper schooners” did not stand up well in gale winds. In 1871, twenty schooners and 140 men were lost. In 1873, thirty-two vessels and 174 men were lost, 128 of them in a single gale. An easterly gale on the banks in 1879 sunk twenty-nine vessels with a loss of 249 men.

The ports that sent fleets to the Grand Banks held religious ceremonies before the beginning of what was called “the campaign.” In St.-Malo, in late February, fifteen days before the Terre-Neuvas sailed, the cardinal of Rennes came to the port to say mass before the fleet. A wreath was tossed to sea to remember the fishermen who had been lost in previous campaigns.

As fishing modernized, fishermen were no longer lost in dories but were twisted in electric winches used to rapidly haul cable, slammed by trawl doors flying across the deck, crushed by rollers. On the modern trawler, being crushed in machinery is the leading cause of death but is closely followed by the more traditional fisherman’s death, drowning. Ships sink at sea; men fall or are swept overboard. If a fisherman gets his foot ensnared in a rope that is rapidly paying out, he will be dragged over and drowned almost before anyone realizes he is overboard.

Fishermen do not like talking about these risks among themselves, just as Sam Lee and his Petty Harbour companions did not want to talk about the risks of falling off their open deck. But even the luckiest of fishermen have one or two stories of near-mishaps. Fishermen have the highest fatal accident rate of any type of worker in North Atlantic countries. According to a 1985 Canadian government report, 212 out of every 100,000 Canadian fishermen die on the job, compared to 118 forestry workers, 74 miners, and 32 construction workers. In 1995, 5 American workers per 100,000 died in work-related accidents, but among fishermen, more than 100 per 100,000 died. Similarly, a 1983 British study shows the death rate among British fishermen to be twenty times higher than in manufacturing.

One of the reasons for such high accident rates is that fishermen have always operated on very little sleep. If the catch is plentiful, the fishermen might go a day or two with no sleep. In the old salt fishery, once the dorymen came back on board, their catch had to be cleaned. The head was chopped off, the belly opened, the liver set aside—sometimes along with the roe, sounds, throats, and other items. Next, the cod had to be carefully split and the spine removed. (A bad split destroyed the value of the fish.) Then it had to be carefully salted. If the fishermen were lucky, they could have a few hours of sleep.

The first push to modernize fishing came from the French. In 1815, the new French government decided to subsidize the rebuilding of their fisheries, which had been devastated first by the French Revolution and then by the Napoleonic wars. Revitalizing the economy was only part of the motivation. As John Adams had once pointed out, it was far cheaper to subsidize long-distance cod fleets, which produced excellent sailors, than to maintain a well-trained standing navy. The British grudgingly began doing the same thing, but not until they had spent years complaining about the French subsidy.

The French outfitted their Terre-Neuve fleets with longlines, otherwise known as trawl lines, setlines, or bultows. Until then, the principal technique for cod fishing throughout the North Atlantic had been handlining, exactly the method Sam Lee and the other Newfoundland inshore fishermen still use. Sometimes a spreader was put on the end so that two baited hooks came off it instead of one.

Records show the British used longlines off of Iceland in 1482, and they may have been used earlier. But before the nineteenth-century French, the system had never become popular because it required an enormous quantity of bait. In Canadian waters, the French found ample herring and capelin. Though modest by contem-porary standards, these early-nineteenth-century French longlines were longer than they had ever been before. They could be as short as a half mile, or they might extend for four or five miles. About every three feet, a two-foot lanyard with a hook on the end was tied. The dory ran the line out. Caulked barrels served as buoys, which were placed at periodic distances so the line could be found. (Today the buoys are bright plastic balls with a flag on a two-foot mast over the top to make them visible from a distance.) The doryman would row along the line, hauling up, taking fish, rebaiting, and releasing.


Handlining. The Georges Bank cod fishery, plate 32 from The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the U.S. by George Brown Goode, 1887. (Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts)

In 1861, it was written in the Journals of the Assembly in Nova Scotia, “Setline fishing, there can be little doubt, was induced by the enormous bounty of ten francs paid by the French government for every quintal [sixty-five fish] of fish caught by their fishermen.... The writer has been informed, incredible as it may appear, that some of these lines have as many as ten thousand hooks fastened to them.” Such an operation required only a few dozen men and five dories.

As the nineteenth-century debate over longlining grew, nationalism, more than conservation, seems to have been the issue. Unfair competition from the French subsidy system angered British North America, later Canada, more than the possibility of overfishing from the technique it financed.

Distrust of new fishing techniques is endemic to fishing. Longlining had always been controversial in Iceland, as was netting when it was first used for cod in Icelandic waters in 1780. But fishermen objected to netting because they feared it would block off the fish and they would move to some other waters. The principal Scandinavian objection to longlining was that it was unfair, undemocratic. Longlining required capital to buy large quantities of bait, and those who could not afford the bait did not have the opportunity. In North America, the principal nineteenth-century argument against longlining was the same one brought up in Petty Harbour when it banned the practice in the late 1940s. As Kipling described in his novel, there were too many fishermen out on the Banks working the same grounds. If they all started using longlines, there would not be enough space and they would be constantly fouling each other’s lines.


Trawl-line dory fishing (longlining), figure 4 from Fisheries and Fishing Vessels of the Canadian Atlantic by N. J. Thompson and J. A. Marsters. (Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts)

There was the rare, purely conservationist measure such as Newfoundland’s 1858 law regulating the mesh size in the herring fishery. But it was difficult to think of overfishing when the catches were getting bigger every year. Catches were improving not because the stocks were plentiful but because fishing was getting more efficient. Nevertheless, as long as better fishing techniques yielded bigger catches, it did not seem that the stocks were being depleted.

The indomitable force of nature was a fashionable nineteenth-century belief. The age was marked by tremendous optimism about science. The lesson gleaned from Charles Darwin, especially as interpreted by the tremendously influential British scientific philosopher Thomas Henry Huxley, was that nature was a marvelous and determined force that held the inevitable solutions to all of life’s problems. Huxley was appointed to three British fishing commissions. He played a major role in an 1862 commission, which was to examine a complaint of driftnet herring fishermen, who said that longliners were responsible for their diminishing catches. The fishermen had asked for legislation restricting longlining. But Huxley’s commission declared such complaints to be unscientific and prejudicial to more “productive modes of industry.” The commission also established the tradition in government of ignoring the observations of fishermen. It reported that “fishermen, as a class, are exceedingly unobservant of anything about fish which is not absolutely forced upon them by their daily avocations.”

At the 1883 International Fisheries Exhibition in London, which was attended by most of the great fishing nations of the world, Huxley delivered an address explaining why overfishing was an unscientific and erroneous fear: “Any tendency to over-fishing will meet with its natural check in the diminution of the supply, ... this check will always come into operation long before anything like permanent exhaustion has occurred.”

Considering the international impact of Huxley’s work in the three commissions, it is disturbing to note that he once explained his participation in these paid appointments by saying, “A man with half a dozen children always wants all the money he can lay hands on.”

For the next 100 years, Huxley’s influence would be reflected in Canadian government policy. An 1885 report by L. Z. Joncas in the Canadian Ministry of Agriculture stated:

The question here arises: Would not the Canadian fisheries soon be exhausted if they were worked on a much larger scale and would it be wise to sink a larger amount of capital in their improvement?

... As to those fishes which, like cod, mackerel, herring, etc. are the most important of our sea fishes, which form the largest quota of our fish exports and are generally called commercial fishes—with going so far as to pretend that protection would be useless to them—I say it is impossible, not merely to exhaust them, but even noticeably to lessen their number by the means now used for their capture, especially if, protecting them during their spawning season, we are contented to fish them from their feeding grounds. For the last three hundred years fishing has gone on in the Gulf of St. Lawrence and along the coast of our Maritime Provinces, and although enormous quantities of fish have been caught, there are no indications of exhaustion.

Joncas supported this assertion by referring to a British Royal Commission in which Huxley participated: “Not withstanding the enormous and continually increasing quantities of fish caught annually along the coasts of Great Britain, the English fisheries show no sign of exhaustion.”

But Joncas had a political agenda for making these assertions. He believed that the Canadian government, like that of France, should become more involved in financially supporting its fishing industry. In the decades since the French had introduced longlining, the technique had become widely used in Canadian fisheries. Joncas now argued in favor of gillnetting because it did not require the great quantity of bait needed for longlining. He pointed out that gillnetting was being used by Canada’s biggest competitor in the world cod market, Norway.

A gill net is a net anchored slightly above the ocean floor. It looks somewhat like a badminton net. Groundfish become caught in it and, trying to force their way through headfirst, end up being strangled at the gills. The nets are marked by buoys, and the fisherman has only to haul them up every day and remove the fish. But sometimes the nets detach from their moorings. As they drift around the ocean, they continue to catch fish until they become so weighted down that they sink to the ocean floor, where various creatures feast on the catch. When enough has been eaten, the net begins to float again, and the process continues, helped by the fact that, in the twentieth century, the gill net became almost invisible when hemp twine was replaced first by nylon and then by monofilament. Since monofilament is fairly indestructible, it is estimated that a modern “ghost net” may continue to fish on its own for as long as five years.

Joncas complained that the twenty- to thirty-foot schooners used in the Gaspé and the Prince Edward Islands were far too small to be competitive, and he recommended that the government help Canadian fishermen acquire large ships with deck space for onboard fish processing—what would one day be called “a factory ship.”

The solution to Joncas’s quest already existed. In midcentury, the steam engine had been invented, but fisheries were slow to seize on this machine. When they did, it would be the first new idea to dramatically change cod fishing since the discovery of North America. Soon there would be another idea: frozen food. Once these two inventions were put together, the entire nature of commercial fishing would change.




—James Joyce, Ulysses, 1922

Leopold Bloom’s tastes were more old-fashioned than eccentric. Until recently, cod roe was the central feature of an Irish breakfast. Most Irish today do not eat cod roe for breakfast because, though they do not seem to realize it, what is called Irish breakfast is increasingly similar to English breakfast. In the old Irish breakfast, the roe was sliced in half and fried in bacon fat or simply boiled.


It is better to buy roe raw and cook it yourself. Do not choose too large a roe; the smaller ones have a more delicate flavour.

Wrap the roe in a piece of cheesecloth and put it into a warmed salted water. Let it cook very gently—the water should just bubble and no more—for at least 30 minutes. When cooked, take it out and let it get cold. The outer membrane is taken off before using, but leave it on until you use the roe, as it keeps it moist.

—Theodora FitzGibbon, A Taste of Ireland, 1968

Also see pages 247-49.