Nature's Bounty, The Atlantic Cod

The Atlantic CodIn the late 15th century, the amazing abundance of the codfish in the waters off Newfoundland and the northeastern coast of North America was so pronounced that an early explorer, John Cabot, proclaimed that one need only lower a basket into the ocean to catch them. This seemingly exaggerated claim proved to be essentially true and for the next five centuries, the fishing of the lowly Atlantic cod would create vast fortunes and thus fund empires, wars and a new nation.


The Vikings

The VikingsThough they are remembered foremost for their justified reputation as marauders and pillagers, the Vikings were also expert fishermen. At the time (ca. 800 A.D.), they were the undisputed masters of the English Channel and the North Atlantic. This mastery of the sea not only allowed them to pillage at will but also allowed the Vikings to travel to and fish the Grand Banks of the coast of Newfoundland.

The catching and drying of the Atlantic cod provided an important source of protein for both the Vikings and their northern European neighbors. As the fish became more important to the European economies, their governments began to develop their own fishing fleets which led to a rise in European military power and their eventual naval dominance over the Vikings.


The Gold Rush of 1500s, but with Fish

As mentioned, the existence of the Atlantic cod was first documented by a navigator, John Cabot , in the employ of Venice. Another mariner, Gaspar Corte Real, who served Portugal would also bring knowledge of the cod fisheries to is sovereign. The Kingdom of Portugal would be the first nation to significantly utilize the cod fisheries to expand their wealth and influence. Vast fortunes were made by individuals as well as by the Portuguese Crown. In fact, Portugal became the preeminent European power based on the money that cod fishing produced.

The importance of these fisheries was underscored when Portugal and Spain agreed to the Treaty of Tortesillas. In point of fact, Portugal essentially dictated the terms of the treaty. The treaty left the known fisheries in Portuguese hands but ceded all of the unknown territories of the New World to Spain. Portugal and its empire would enjoy predominance for another 30 years but the Kingdom of Spain would soon eclipse that of Portugal and Portugal would never again reclaim its former glory.


Still Life with Cod500 Years of Plenty

Though Spain would enjoy an economic and military hegemony for the next two centuries, the British navy and its fishing fleet would ignore the treaty and continue to diligently fish for Atlantic cod. The fish were seemingly inexhaustible and when dried made perfect rations for an army on the move. The lowly cod made it both financially feasible and operationally practicable for the British to project their military might around the world and they would eventually overshadow the Spanish Empire.

In addition, the cod was not overlooked by Britain’s rivals. The French developed their own cod fleets that were instrumental in fueling Napoleon’s global aspirations. Similarly, the American colonies would reap substantial wealth from these fisheries; so much so that they would eventually become emboldened by their independent financial wealth to secede from the British Empire. To paraphrase Sir Winston Churchill, never have so many owed so much to so such a lowly fish.


Overfishing & Collapse

The CodfishFor the next four centuries, cod would remain an important staple of the American and European populations but only those who lived near the sea. This fact change in 1900 when Clarence Birdseye developed a method of flash-freezing fish. This method of preservation was significantly superior to the then current method of slow-freezing and allowed fish of excellent quality to be shipped to the interior of the United States and the European continent. For this reason, the market and thus demand for cod fish was significantly expanded.

This rapid expansion in the market for cod fish led to an unprecedented increase in all types of fishing vessels. This expansion culminated in the creation of the so called “factory” ships. These factory ships along with a multitude of smaller fishing vessels produced ever increasing amounts of cod. In 1970 and the following year, almost 800 million tons of codfish were brought to dock by these fishing fleets. By 1980, this number had dropped to 150 million tons. In 1992, the number was essentially zero and the Canadian government finally mandated a cessation of all codfishing off the coast of Newfoundland. Despite this moratorium, the cod fish population has yet to recover.

The overfishing and subsequent collapse of the Atlantic cod fisheries in the early 1990s is nothing short of a klaxon call that the natural resources of the Earth are not inexhaustible. The human race must accept the immutable fact that Mother Nature may give but she can also take away.


The Rest of the Story - Cod Stocks Today

The Only Home We HaveCredit: Marcmg2000Mother Nature is as durable as she is harsh. A new eco-balance set in when the cod population was denuded. This rebalance is a double edged sword, however. Another fish, the haddock which had once been prey for the Atlantic cod saw its numbers swell as the population of its main predator was drastically reduced.

In a twist of fate, the larger population of haddock now preyed upon the smaller, immature individuals of the cod population and further depressed their numbers. Then, the abundance of haddock led to a depletion of their food sources and the haddock, themselves, died off. This fact allowed for a respite in the predation of the cod population and the Atlantic cod population has begun a comeback. In 2011, it had regained almost one third of its former size and the ecosystem seemed to be rebalancing itself as the haddock had returned to their normal levels.

While this recovery is positive and bodes well for other collapsed fisheries, it should be noted that the fisheries are delicately balanced systems that cannot be abused. Though Mother Nature is a finely tuned system, it is also a robust one. Regardless of what happens to human kind, it will eventually right herself if left alone but mankind may not get a second chance.