A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World

Mark Kurlansky

Cod -- A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World.

Quick – what fish caused three wars between Britain and Iceland in the 1960s and 1970s? If you said “cod”, go to the head of the class – you obviously know your history! (Of course, if you just looked at the scanned photo of the book cover here, you'd know the answer, too, but that would be too easy.)

Cod – A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World, was written by Mark Kurlansky, the same writer who penned Salt, reviewed in an earlier edition of the Newswire. Mr. Kurlansky's approach to the codfish is at once intriguing and whimsical, even as it is cautionary.

“The banks are treacherous. Depths as great as eighty fathoms are found there (Ed. Note: a fathom equals six feet), 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.”

Cod is a tour of history, both economic and social, with fish recipes included for the cooks among us. It is also a tragic tale of environmental failure, of depleted fishing stocks where once the cod's numbers were legendary. In this deceptively whimsical biography of a fish, the author brings a thousand years of human civilization into captivating focus. Be sure to read all about it.

Copyright © 2005, S. Halversen.
All Rights Reserved.