The Last Two Ideas - 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

Chapter 8. The Last Two Ideas


—Thomas Hood (1799-1845), “The Supper Superstition”

If a cod fisherman of Cabot’s day could have returned to work in the year 1900, he would have been dazzled by the new inventions on shore, but once he went to sea his job would have seemed familiar. When John Cabot’s voyage opened up North American waters to Europeans, the nature of cod fishing changed dramatically. Fishermen then pursued cod in much the same way for the next four centuries. True, navigation improved in the seventeenth century. The chronometer made it possible to fix a longitude in the eighteenth century. The three-masted bark with its dories was developed. New Englanders invented the schooner. Telegraph and then the trans-Atlantic cable made it possible for long-distance fleets to get news of market price trends and storm warnings. But by the beginning of the twentieth century, these inventions had only slightly changed the job of the fisherman and his ability to catch fish. Fishermen were still working the same grounds with only minor variations on the same types of gear, still in sail-powered vessels—Icelanders were still using oars—and it was still a dangerous and arduous job.

Well into the twentieth century, Lunenburg, Nova Scotia’s, Grand Banks fleet stayed with sail power. “The Lunenburg cure,” heavily salted on the schooners and then dried on flakes along the rocky sheltered coastline, was traded in the Caribbean. The town of Lunenburg was built on a hill running down to a sheltered harbor. On one of the upper streets stands a Presbyterian church with a huge gilded cod on its weather vane. Along the waterfront, the wooden-shingled houses are brick red, a color that originally came from mixing clay with cod-liver oil to protect the wood against the salt of the waterfront. It is the look of Nova Scotia—brick red wood, dark green pine, charcoal sea.

The Lunenburg fishery was famous for its schooners and its role in a series of Canadian-U.S. schooner races between 1886 and 1907. Then, in 1920, when the America’s Cup race was canceled because of high seas, a publisher of the Halifax Herald and Mail who thought these sportsmen fainthearted put up a $5,000 prize and a silver cup for a fishermen’s schooner race between Lunenburg and Gloucester. Fishermen, he insisted, knew how to sail schooners in rough weather. The Gloucester Daily Times accepted the challenge. Gorton’s, the Gloucester seafood company, sponsored a schooner that beat Lunenburg’s schooner twice. Then, in 1921, Lunenburg built a bigger schooner, the Bluenose. The competition continued until 1938, and though Gloucestermen won several races, they never took the cup away from the Bluenose, which can now be seen on the Canadian dime, matchbooks, and almost anywhere else eyes might fall in Maritime Canada.

Gloucester fishermen commonly worked off of schooners until World War II. Gorton’s last working schooner, the Thomas S. Gorton, built in 1905, sailed until 1956. In 1963, Lunenburg’s last fishing schooner, the Theresa E. Connor, sailed empty to Newfoundland because she could not find a crew in Nova Scotia to fish the Banks. No one in Newfoundland was willing to work on her either. Everything that had been done to make schooners faster had made them also more dangerous. Unable to get a crew, the Theresa E. Connor returned to Lunenburg, where she is still tied up as part of a maritime museum.

By then, Europeans had been using engine power in their own waters for seventy years. But because of the cost of burning coal to fuel trans-Atlantic crossings, they had been slow to convert their Grand Banks fleets. The French continued to send sailing barks with dorymen to the Grand Banks well into the 1930s, when most northern European fisheries were completely engine-powered. The last Portuguese fishing ship to work the Grand Banks without any engine power, the Anna Maria, went down in a storm in 1958. But it was not until the Theresa E. Connor was forced to tie up without a crew, 100 years after the steam engine was invented, that the age of sail in the cod fisheries finally ended.

In fishing, new technologies usually came first in Europe, where the waters had been fished longer and it was harder to catch fish than in North America. Competition for dwindling catches was the greatest incentive, and the North Sea, shared by eight affluent and fiercely competitive fishing nations, was the leading laboratory for innovation.

Originally most trawlers, ships that drag their fishing gear behind them, were longliners. But once ships had engine power, what New Englanders call a bottom dragger, which drags a net just above the ocean’s floor, became the most common form of trawler. Bottom trawling was not a new idea. For centuries, the British and the Flemish on opposite sides of the Channel had caught shrimp by dragging a net along the sea floor with a wooden beam to create a wide horizontal opening at the bottom. It was pulled from shore at low tide by horses. Sail-powered draggers, known as smacks, began working in the North Sea especially after 1837, when a fishing ground called the Silver Pits, just south of the already well-fished Dogger Bank, was discovered.

These cod grounds turned the twin ports of Hull and Grimsby on the Humber River, traditional fishing towns, into major ports. Here, steam power was first applied to fishing when steam-powered paddleboats started hauling smacks to and from the North Sea banks. Once there were steam-powered vessels, it was only a matter of time until the old beam trawl that was used on smacks got hitched to one of the new ships. First some of the paddleboats were rigged for trawling. Then, in 1881, a shipyard in Hull built a steam-powered trawler named the Zodiac. By the 1890s, not a single sailing trawler was left in Hull, and steam-powered trawlers were becoming commonplace in the North Sea.

The first otter trawl was built in Scotland in 1892. Instead of a beam, which would work only where the ocean floor was flat, the bottom opening of the otter trawl was maintained by a chain, which was made more mobile by metal bobbins, rollers, beneath it. The upper side of the opening was held up by floats. The net was kept wide open horizontally by “doors,” heavy armored planks on either side of the net. The otter trawl is the prototype of all modern bottom draggers. By 1895, it had become the standard fishing rig of the British North Sea fleet, and very quickly the other European nations that competed in the North Sea fishery converted to otter trawls.

While the British were developing steam power to reduce time at sea, Americans were suffering staggering losses, experimenting with ever more top-rigged schooners to increase their speed. From 1880 to 1897, the years during which the British developed the North Sea steam trawler, 1,614 fishermen from Gloucester alone drowned working schooners. Yet little interest was taken in the North Sea innovations. New Englanders and Nova Scotians were stubbornly attached to their majestic, albeit deadly, schooners. Newfoundland and Labrador local fishing was inshore, where small boats trapping and handlining brought in good catches with little capital investment.

The first otter trawl was introduced to New England as an experimental loan by the U.S. Fisheries Commission in 1893 to a group of Cape Cod fishermen. But Georges Bank remained largely under sail for another three decades. Finally, by 1918, steel-hulled beam trawlers were being built in Bath, Maine, and a trawler fleet grew in Boston.

Once motor ships replaced sail and oar, fishing no longer had to be done with “passive gear”—equipment that waited for the fish. Fish could now be pursued. And since a bigger, more powerful engine could always be developed, the scale of the fishing could increase almost limitlessly.

Steam ships with otter trawls were reporting catches more than six times greater than those of sail ships. By the 1890s, fish stocks were already showing signs of depletion in the North Sea, but the primary reaction was not conservation. Instead North Sea fleets traveled farther to richer grounds off of Iceland.

The huge quantity of landings was periodically causing fish prices to crash, creating unprecedented havoc in the marketplace. In the 1920s, protests by fishermen forced the Canadian government to prohibit further expansion of the dragger fleet. The quality of cured fish was declining because once steam power made faster vessels possible, competitors vied to be the quickest to bring catches to market. In 1902, the British consul in Genoa wrote words that have proven to be prophetic: “It would be far better to return to the old system of sailer cargoes.”

But technology never reverses itself. It creates new technology to confront new sets of problems. The greatest problem in commercial fishing has always been how to get the fish to market in good condition. For centuries, affluent people kept live fish in natural or man-made ponds. To keep saltwater species, they used tidal ponds where they built wooden cages. “Wet wells,” watertight ship holds with holes for circulating seawater, were used as early as the sixteenth century in Holland. In the seventeenth century, British shipbuilders started including wet wells because the British did not like saltfish and there was always a greater demand for fresh fish. New Englanders also built “well smacks,” ships with wet wells to transport fish to Boston and New York. But mortality was high in the crowded, sloshing, oxygen-deprived wells. Cod, ling, and other gadiforms caught in deep water could not survive in wells. The fish’s sounds would fill with gas, and the disoriented fish would float to the surface and die. Fishermen tried to puncture the sounds to keep them from rising in the well.

Engines opened up new opportunities. The British experimented with wells of pumped water so that the oxygen content would be maintained. Engines also made railroads possible, which enabled landed fish to get to inland markets quickly. British ports became railroad centers.

With few people noticing, the next idea that would change North Atlantic fishing forever was being contemplated by a somewhat eccentric New Yorker, passing the winter in Labrador. Clarence Birdseye, born in Brooklyn in 1886, had dropped out of Amherst’s class of 1910 because of a lack of money and, impatient with low-paying New York office jobs, had moved to Labrador with his wife, Eleanor, and their infant son to work as a fur trapper. He found that if he froze greens, they would last through the winter without losing their flavor. He filled his baby’s washbasin with salted water, put cabbage in it, and exposed it to Labrador’s arctic wind. The Birdseyes were the first people in Labrador to eat “fresh” vegetables all winter. This was the beginning of years of home kitchen experiments. Though the couple worked together, their son recalled Eleanor’s regular irritation at finding food experiments throughout the house. He particularly remembered the fight over live pickerel in the bathtub.

Birdseye gave up trapping and moved to Washington, D.C., where he worked for the U.S. Fisheries Association. He was concerned about the practice of icing fish. In the 1820s, it had been discovered that packing fish in ice prolonged freshness. Ice, Birdseye explained, melts and becomes water, which encourages the growth of bacteria. After several more years of filling the household’s sinks and tubs with experiments, Birdseye unveiled a new technology. It required three pieces of equipment: an electric fan, a pile of ice, and a bucket of brine. Birdseye was reproducing a Labrador winter.


Postcard, 1910, schooner (Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts)

In 1925, he moved to Gloucester to work with fish and founded General Seafoods Company. Starting with groundfish, he also experimented with other seafood, then went on to meat, then fruits and vegetables.

It was a goose that made his fortune. The daughter of the founder of a food processing company, the Postum Company, was yachting off Massachusetts and tied up in Gloucester. She was served a goose, which she found to be a marvelously delectable bird, and after making inquiries, discovered that it had been frozen by the local eccentric, Clarence Birdseye. She met Birdseye and learned more about the little company, which her father then bought, paying Birdseye twenty-two million dollars. Postum renamed his company General Foods, a name derived from Birdseye’s General Seafoods. Birdseye believed his ideas would produce a corporate giant in the food industry comparable to General Motors or General Electric in their industries.

Birdseye improved his frozen food technology with his 1946 quick-drying process and went on to many other fields. He founded an electrical company and improved the incandescent lightbulb. In Peru, he developed a process to convert the crushed remains of sugarcane mills into paper. In his sixty-nine-year lifetime, he was awarded 250 patents.

Birdseye’s introduction of freezing came at a critical moment in the cod fisheries. Americans, like the British, were increasingly demanding fresh fish, instead of cured, and the market for salt cod in the United States was steadily declining. In 1910, cured cod represented only 1 percent of fish landings in New England. But even with improved transportation, it was difficult to serve inland markets fresh fish, and so the cod market was dwindling. At the same time, the capacity of fishing fleets was greatly increasing. In 1928, the first diesel-powered trawlers were proving even more efficient than the steam-powered ones.

Because salt cod was still the major industry of Gloucester, the town was in an economic crisis. In 1923, Mayor William MacInnis met with Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover to discuss declining markets, and Hoover arranged a New York conference to consider ways to promote salt cod consumption in the United States. But with General Foods committed to the Birdseye freezing process, salt cod was fast vanishing from Gloucester. The same year as Hoover’s New York conference, Gloucester’s most established seafood company, Gorton’s, had a crisis that led to the abandoning of the saltfish trade. The Italian government had purchased more than one million dollars’ worth of salt cod from Gorton’s. But while the order was crossing the Atlantic, Benito Mussolini came to power. When the Gorton’s ship arrived, its cargo was confiscated and never paid for.

In 1921, filleting machinery was introduced to New England, and nine years later, 128 filleting plants operated in the region, selling off their waste to fish meal factories, which were also proliferating. Once freezing and filleting were put together, “fish fillets” became a leading product. Scrod, a small cod fillet, became increasingly popular. The word was used in the United States at least as early as 1849, though its origin seems to be a Dutch word, schrode,meaning “strip.” Once filleting became industrialized, scrod became a household word.

But scrod was also sometimes haddock. The distinction between one groundfish and another was becoming less and less clear as fish was popularized in inland regions. Throughout the centuries, whenever cod has been popularized away from its native waters, there has been a tendency to call it simply “fish.” Stockfish was originally supposed to mean dried cod but over the centuries came to be any dried gadiform. Cod and other salted gadiforms were all known in the British West Indies as saltfish. Now the same was happening with frozen fish. Consumers who previously had not been seafood eaters—some of them had never seen a saltwater species in its uncut, natural state—were buying “fish” fillets or sticks. The type of fish was seldom specified. They were thought to be cod, though increasingly they were made from haddock, until that was replaced by a boom in redfish. Today, fish sticks are usually Pacific pollock. “Fish,” it seems, is whatever is left.

Fish sticks became an enormous commercial success. Fish fillets were frozen into blocks, which were then run through a saw and sliced into slabs, which were then cut into sticks. A Gorton’s advertisement of the 1950s called fish sticks “the latest, greatest achievement of the seafood industry of today.” It went on to say, “Thanks to fish sticks, the average American homemaker no longer considers serving fish a drudgery. Instead, she regards it as a pleasure, just as her family have come to consider fish one of their favorite foods. Easy to prepare, thrifty to serve and delicious to eat, fish sticks, it can be truthfully said, have greatly increased the demand for fish, while revolutionizing the fishing industry.”

Freezing also changed the relationship of seafood companies to fishing ports. Frozen fish could be bought anywhere—wherever the fish was cheapest and most plentiful. With expanding markets, local fleets could not keep up with the needs of the companies. Gorton’s and others abandoned their own trawler fleets and eventually their own ports. Between 1960 and 1970, the total U.S. production of fish sticks tripled, but Gloucester production only doubled. While business was increasing, Gloucester’s market share was declining.

The most important development was that during World War II the three innovations—high-powered ships, dragging nets, and freezing fish—had come together in the huge factory ship. One of the original appeals of the steam-powered otter trawl had been that, without masts and rigging, ample deck space had been cleared for fish processing. Engine-driven ships could also have larger hulls with more storage space. Originally, the net was dragged and landed from a swinging boom on the side, a side trawler. The stern trawler, invented in the Pacific, was more stable on rough seas and could haul bigger trawls. It also provided a large, open deck space on the stern where the fish were landed. During World War II, this added space started to be used for freezing fish. By the 1950s, a time now thought of as the golden age of long-distance net trawling, cod catches were larger every year in the North Sea, off of Iceland, Norway, all of the banks, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and along the New England coast. Most of the world’s commercial catches were increasing.

Were there any limits to how much could be caught, or was nature inexhaustible, as had been believed in the nineteenth century? Fishermen were beginning to worry. In 1949, the International Commission for the Northwest Atlantic Fisheries was formed to look for ways of controlling excessive practices.

But technology continued to focus on the goal of catching more fish. Factory ships grew to 450 feet or larger, with 4,000-ton capacity or more, powered by twin diesel engines of more than 6,000 horsepower, pulling trawls with openings large enough to swallow jumbo jets. The trawler hauled its huge net every four hours, twenty-four hours a day. Pair fishing, a technique often practiced by the Spanish fleet out of Vigo, suspended a huge trawl between two factory ships. One operated the trawl, and the other processed the fish. After the net was hauled up, the vessels switched roles and continued, so that the fishing never stopped.

The rollers along the bottom of the net were replaced by “rockhoppers,” large disks that tend to hop up when they hit a rock and make it possible to drag close to a rough bottom without damaging the net. In addition, “tickler chains” stir up the bottom, creating noise and dust. Cod, and other groundfish, instinctively hide on the bottom when they sense danger, and the ticklers act like hunters beating bushes to drive birds out, sending the frightened cod out of their protective crannies and up into the nets.

The ocean floor left behind is a desert. Any fish swimming in the vast area of these nets is caught. The only control is mesh size. Fish that are smaller than the holes in the net can escape. While mandating minimum mesh sizes has become a favorite tool of regulators, fishermen often point out that once the back wall of the cod end has a good crop of fish in it, few fish of any size can escape, regardless of how big the mesh. Millions of unwanted fish—undesirable species, fish that are undersized or over quota, even fish with a low market price that week—are tossed overboard, usually dead.

For centuries, fishermen have had to study the lay of the ocean’s floor and the skies. Nova Scotia fishermen used to look for what they called “cherry bottom,” a type of red gravel floor favored by cod. They would drop a weighted line with a piece of tallow and bring it up to look at the color of gravel it had picked up. Or fishermen searched the horizon for a fast-forming cloud of seabirds. The air filled with furious screeches as the hungry predators dove for the sea’s white churning surface to pluck baitfish—herring or capelin—from the chaos. The fishermen knew that their quarry were there: hungry openmouthed cod and other groundfish attacking from below, forcing the desperate baitfish to flee their midwater home. It is the food chain in all its violence, showing itself before the ultimate predator, who then knows where to cast his lines or nets.

All of these techniques are vanishing. Schools of fish are now located by sonar or by spotter aircraft, equipment developed during World War II to locate enemy submarines. Once the fish are located, the trawler can move in and clean out the area, taking not only the target catch but everything else in the area, the by-catch. As the 1950s Gorton’s advertisement put it, “Thanks to these methods, fishing is no longer the hit-or-miss proposition it was 50 years ago.”


In 1923, Evelene Spencer of the United States Bureau of Fisheries journeyed from her home in Portland, Oregon, to Gloucester, Massachusetts. She wrote about her visit in the Portland Oregonian. “Today 5000 [Gloucester] men sail the seas from Hatteras to the Arctic Circle.” She was particularly impressed with New England salt cod cooking. “I hope Portland does not forget her coarse food and raw cabbage. But one thing she needs to be educated in is the use of saltfish products.... I had no idea that saltfish could be so delicious until I tasted it in Gloucester.”

Then she offered two New England salt cod classics: Fish Balls and the following recipe for New England Boiled Dinner.


Cover the required amount of salt codfish with cold water and set on the back of the stove; when hot, pour off and cover again with cold. Change the water three or four times, allowing a half hour between. Or they may be soaked in plenty of cold water for two hours. Place in a saucepan with fresh cold water and bring to a boil, then simmer. Boiling saltfish hardens it. Add the required amount of peeled potatoes and simmer until potatoes are cooked. Gloucester says that the fish is never tough if simmered with the potatoes. Prepare beets, carrots and onions, boiling until tender. Cut slices of fat salt pork into small dice, place in a frying pan and fry out slowly until the fat is extracted and the “scraps” crisp.

Place the fish and potatoes in the center of the hot platter. Arrange the whole boiled beets, onions and carrots around the fish and potato. Put the pork fat and “scraps” in a hot gravy boat. When you are served some of each, the true Gloucester fashion is to proceed to cut up the vegetables and fish fine and mix it all together, then take a big ladle of pork fat and “scraps” and pour it over it all. I preferred to keep mine separate, so that I could enjoy the flavor of each.

—Evelene Spencer,
Portland Oregonian, 1923